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Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast Review

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Uncommon Grounds book on a white table in front of a shelf of books

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

Speciality coffee got me interested in the coffee industry. I have spent months reading books and blogs about how coffee is produced, from how farmers plant coffea plants at origin to how coffee is roasted at commercial roasting firms. Up until now, the history of coffee has been a thought in the back of my mind. I’ve been more interested in brewing a good cup of coffee and learning what I need to do to achieve that goal. I am continuing to read about how coffee is processed and goes from farm to cup, but I realise that there is a whole other world of coffee to explore: its history.

Heavily recommended in both books and blogs, and by coffee experts, Mark Pendergrast’s Uncommon Grounds is considered one of the best books on the history of coffee. I thought that there would be no better place to learn more about the history of coffee. This book discusses, in detail, the history of coffee, from its early origins in Ethiopia all the way to the modern speciality industry and the effect of caffeine on health.

This book quickly got into how coffee helped build nations. I had no idea until reading this book how dependent Latin American and Central American countries had become on coffee for their economies. It turns out this has been a downfall for many of these nations. When prices decline, farmers who have historically had all of their eggs in the coffee basket have suffered.

To start, this book talked about how countries like Guatemala became known for coffee production. Alongside the historical analyses of these growing nations, Pendergrast made links to how coffee is processed in those countries. This information helped hook my interest in the book. This is only the second book on the history of coffee I’ve read and I was somewhat deterred by its length. But, I kept going and I am glad I did.

Shortly after this section, Pendergrast spoke about the rise of coffee in the United States. This became a theme throughout the book, which makes sense because the U.S. has been at the forefront of many of the developments in the commercial world of coffee. Pendergrast, through what felt to me as a reader like a series of stories, discussed many major events that shaped the U.S. coffee industry in a way that made me feel like I was following a drama.

One of such stories talked about how the Arbuckle’s coffee brand became popular in the United States. The story that really caught my attention was the one that explored Sielcken and the Brazilian valorisation. It turns out that Brazil launched a program where they would hold back beans in harvests that went really well so that they could protect against price volatility. Because something like bad weather or a frost could decimate large portions of their crop – therefore causing significant damage to the nation’s economy, which grew about 80 percent of the world’s coffee – Brazil needed to do something.

This story started off making me feel like Sielcken, who helped support the valorisation program, was something of a hero, helping to protect the Brazillian economy. Then came the United States Government, who decreed that what was going on was tantamount to price fixing. Yet, after a long battle, Sielcken sold off most of the beans he had as part of the program. Brazil continued valorisation programs in the future after continued boom-bust cycles of success and decline.

A significant portion of Uncommon Grounds was devoted to the advertising of coffee. I’ve never thought of coffee as something that needed advertised. It was always in my house growing up. I do not remember seeing many ads for coffee and even those I have seen were trying to promote fancier coffees or new additions to an established player’s brand. I’ve never been sold by anyone on coffee, at least consciously.

In the 1800s and 1900s, coffee was sold to people. Marketers came in with catchy slogans and advanced campaigns. At first, coffee was advertised in newspapers. When radio proliferated, coffee companies sponsored radio programs, such as the Maxwell House Show Boat. Listeners around the country would tune in to these programs. Then came television which brought about even more innovations. Print advertisements were always a big part of coffee. Many advertisements were sexist, portraying certain brands as a way for a woman to protect herself against her husband getting angry at bad coffee.

Throughout history, there have been many competitors in the coffee world. Some of them were coffee substitutes, like Postum, which rose in popularity due to the founder’s adept advertising ability. The founder of Postum arguably revolutionised coffee advertising. Instant and decaffeinated coffee became major playing fields as it was clear Americans – and other consumers around the world – wanted convenience.

Although coffee is mostly presented to me as beans and equipment, I now have a newfound appreciation for the beverage. Uncommon Grounds educated me on how instability in coffee has affected real lives in history; farmers who have abandoned their farms because the price of coffee has not been sufficient. Civil wars have decimated coffee production in some countries. The U.S. government became a massive coffee roaster during the first and second world wars because coffee became one of the most valued parts of a soldier’s ration packet. It is said that the term “cup of Joe” may have derived from G.I. Joe (although the exact etymology of the phrase is unknown).

The United States stayed in an International Coffee Agreement in large part because withdrawing could have lead to major political instability. Many people have contended that coffee is a poison. Most health concerns have been proven unsubstantiated, but they still made an impression on the consumer: in the ’80s and ’90s, decaffeinated coffee became more popular than ever.

Coffee is political. A coffee exchange was founded in New York to trade coffee. Coffee is the livelihoods of farmers. People have devoted their entire careers to coffee. And it is not just men. A woman, Erna Knutsen, kicked off the speciality coffee industry in the United States. Alice Foote MacDougall started a line of Italian-inspired coffeehouses in New York which helped to spread the coffee culture. There is too much for me to share; so much that Pendergrast wrote an entire book to chronicle the history of coffee.

Throughout history, coffee has gone through boom-bust cycles that affect real lives. Agreements like the International Coffee Agreement helped to secure prices but they were not silver bullet solutions. We still face issues over sustainability in coffee today, even as more initiatives like Fair Trade are helping to solve some problems in the industry. Pendergrast has opened my eyes to some of the fights that have gone on in history to get us to where we are today in the world of coffee. In the end, he even left me thinking that paying 10 pounds for a bag of coffee is not enough. It seems like everyone in the coffee supply chain – from coffeehouse owners to farmers – have big costs to front.

All of this history has happened in pursuit of a black brew which I now drink (at least) twice per day. As I drink my coffee, I hope I remember at least some of what I read in Uncommon Grounds, to remind me that coffee, like everything in life, is not as simple as it seems. It’s not just processors and roasters. Coffee is life for many people.

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