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Coffee: A Global History Review

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Coffee: A Global History Review book on a white table

Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.

Coffee, as I have often forgotten in the past, is much more than just the speciality industry. Throughout history, coffee has been a drink to fuel the mind. Coffee replaced beer as a morning drink in London (even though some people complained that men got drunk, used coffee to sober up, and then got drunk again, repeating the cycle). Coffee gave people an excuse to meet together in public and talk; a communal place where anyone, regardless of social status could go.

As I have been reminded by reading Coffee: A Global History, the coffee house has faced many battles throughout history. Sultan Murad IV sent spies to coffee houses to find people who expressed negative opinions about the leader. He later ordered coffee houses to close. There was a fire caused by tobacco and many people in coffee houses smoked so he banned coffee houses.

Coffee: A Global History starts with an introduction to the bean which started it all. The author, Johnathan Morris, articulates well the agricultural theory behind the coffee bean: where it grows best, how it grows. Later, he talks about farming and the rest of the journey from seed to cup. I learned there are two big financial markets on which coffee futures are traded.

In the second chapter, Morris begins his historical analysis of coffee. He talks about the rise of coffee due to its association with Islam. Indeed, although there were attempts to have coffee categorised as a drink that should be disallowed for its effects on the human, the Islamic culture played a big part in the rise of coffee. People from all over the Islamic world came to coffee houses.

Although many books touch on the link between coffee and Islam, Coffee: A Modern History provides a more detailed account on this topic than most. The book may be short but details are abound. In the next chapter, Morris chronicles the rise of coffee consumption. It became a commodity in which money was to be made and so vast infrastructure was built to support the transportation of coffee.

Coffee: A Global History feels like a timeline of coffee. This book is not a definitive source on coffee history, nor does it claim to be. It acts as a guide to the major events that have shaped coffee throughout history. Morris discusses coffee and the First World War, the rise of the Arbuckle’s coffee, and other major modern events that made coffee such an important part of our culture.

This book strikes a good balance between all of the periods of coffee history, from the Ethiopian legends of how coffee came to be discovered all the way to the speciality industry. I appreciated Morris’ analysis of how coffee is consumed in modern nations. This book singled out individual countries such as Japan to discuss their growing coffee cultures which gave me insights into how coffee spread around the world that I previously did not have.

Toward the end of this book, Morris talks about the speciality coffee industry. This part of history, albeit recent and still unfolding, is a good way to conclude the book, I found. Starbucks undoutably played a role in the rise of speciality coffee. Consumers have spoken up and have been willing to pay a premium on their coffees. Certifications like Fair Trade have emerged and speciality roasters have developed direct trade programs to support farmers and promote traceability.

This book is a good read if you want to learn about the history of coffee, even if you already know a thing or two. I read Uncommon Grounds, a much longer book on the history of coffee, before this one, and I found that I still learned a lot about the history of coffee. The focus on the history of coffee houses rather than coffee itself is something I have not read a lot about in the books I have read so far.

I was again reminded of how coffee was linked to slavery. Italians seeking a new life travelled to Brazil through programs in which they essentially became slaves. Until slavery was outlawed, plantation owners were able to acquire slaves to do the heavy lifting. I am reminded that nothing in coffee is certain. Leaf rust has decimated crops. A frost in Brazil shook the price of coffee. Coffee houses have been banned or almost banned many times in history. But somehow coffee got through it all.

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