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The Devil's Cup Book Review

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A copy of The Devil's Cup book, sitting on a white table

I’ve always enjoyed the little factoids about the history of coffee that come up every so often. Turkish women were allowed to divorce their husbands if the husbands did not supply them with enough coffee. The first coffeehouse founded in Vienna was the Blue Bottle. I learned the cappuccino derives its name from an order of monks whose robes resemble the colour of coffee with milk, the foundation of a cappuccino. I knew that there was a battle wherein “camel droppings” were left by soldiers and were burned until one person realised that the “droppings” were actually coffee beans.

This book takes all of the whimsical factoids about coffee to the next level. Stewart Lee Allen, author of The Devil’s Cup, does not accept these facts at face value. He travelled the world to learn about the history of coffee. The Devil’s Cup is not your typical historical account of coffee. Yes, I did learn about how coffeehouses ascended in Europe. I learned that the New York Stock Exchange was founded in a coffee house (I only knew that a few London financial institutions were founded in coffee houses). I discovered that throughout history there have been many brews made with the leaves of coffee.

But I learned so much more. This book reads somewhat like the journal of a traveller. Allen decided to learn about points in the history of coffee but he wanted to live them. He travelled on the same route that the Frenchman De Clieu would have travelled on to get to Martinique, which earned De Clieu much respect (although he did die a poor man). I learned that a descendant of De Clieu authored a book on this journey and how it helped pave the way for coffee cultivation in the Americas. How did Allen find this out? He tried to track down a descendant of De Clieu, even as the odds appeared slim.

I found myself laughing throughout this book, a reaction I have not felt in many books. Allen seems fearless and he was not willing to back down to learn about coffee. I was amazed that he travelled to Yemen for a cup of coffee. al-Mokka may be a historical site for coffee but I would never have thought it would be a good place to get a brew. Allen travelled to al-Mokka anyway. He went to markets in Yemen to try and get some coffee beans. He kept going.

I did feel at times that Allen was not going to make it to the next stage in his journey, a feeling that seems rather ridiculous considering he published a book about his travels. When Allen was taken into the custody of a Yemen soldier, I wondered if he would be released. He got caught up in some foreign art smuggling. I wondered if he would be arrested. Toward the end of the book, I continued to be surprised. Allen was detained while travelling America for the worst cup of coffee he could find – the one most characteristic in America, which is often a bitter and weak brew – because he had a vial of pure caffeine, indistinguishable to the human eye from many drugs which are illegal. But Allen seemed to keep going.

One interesting insight Allen explores is how coffee has contributed to the development of Western society. He explores how coffee houses gave birth to such modern institutions as Lloyd’s Coffeehouse. Unlike any other book I’ve read, Allen talks with a sociologist who thinks that coffee has caused the downfall of much progress throughout history; bad coffee, specifically.

Allen ends up in some odd situations. He finds himself in a bar where there were white supremacists outside (in America). He explores the quarters of a slave owner who owned a massive plantation in Brazil. I found this section interesting because it helped me visualise what those plantations looked like. Allen focuses on the details. He talks about the equipment used to beat the slaves and how they were transported to Brazil. Allen even ended up in what appeared to be a land populated by a cult in his pursuit of making a link between African religions and Brazilian religions.

These peculiar situations made The Devil’s Cup hard for me to put down. I learned not just about the history of coffee but also how people in other times lived. There was a time when Europeans drank a lot of alcohol in place of coffee. It is no wonder that Martin Luther was not a big fan of alcohol consumption. Coffee came as an alternative. Coffee did not just sober people up. It replaced morning beers. I knew this before but I’d never made such a connection to this part of history until Allen wrote about it in this book.

I am struck by how much times have changed in the history of coffee. Allen talks of how cafes in Paris are closing. Yemen, as this book makes very clear – scarily clear, I might argue, given the lengths to which Allen went to get to Yemen – is no longer the hub of coffee that it once was. But change is not always a bad thing. At one point, coffee was limited to certain areas in the world; first Ethiopia, then Yemen, then Arab countries, and so on. Now it is ubiquitous. It is amazing to think how many events made coffee what it is today. Coffee has been seen as an aid to relieve constipation. A petition was circulated in Britain by women who believed coffee should not be consumed by their husbands. I find myself uncovering more interesting facts about coffee’s history often.

This book is not a timeline of coffee’s history, rather a look at a few particular parts of the history of coffee. I like this about the book. Allen talks about his struggles answering the questions he has. He spent weeks out on a boat taking the path De Clieu took to Martinique, or at least a similar one. He ended up in a planning department in Brazil to try and locate a plantation he wanted to visit. But if Allen had not gone on his journeys, I’d not have this new perspective on the history of coffee.

There is much still to be discovered; much left in history that may never be uncovered. Allen tried and in the process wrote a wonderful story, both humorous and informative, that reminds me of how coffee has changed so many of our lives, not just economically or psychologically, but in myriad other ways. I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of coffee.

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