BOOKS: The Cappuccino years - This study captures coffee's rich history, but its flavour will appeal to the connoisseur rather than the marketeer, says Will Hobhouse

BOOKS: The Cappuccino years - This study captures coffee's rich history, but its flavour will appeal to the connoisseur rather than the marketeer, says Will Hobhouse - Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast; Texere; pounds 18.99

by WILL HOBHOUSE, chairman, Whittard
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast; Texere; pounds 18.99

This is a serious book, but don't let that put you off. It deserves to be serious, not only because of the rich history of coffee as a crop, a commodity, a drink (and, if we are to believe the coffee tales, a source of inspiration and certainly stamina), but also because of the extraordinary place it has in our lives.

How much did you spend on coffee last month? How many times did you visit your local coffee bar? Once you work it out (and frighten your domestic accountant), it's an amazing figure for many of us. Had we been asked 10 years ago, we would have thought it inconceivable that we could spend so much on coffee.

It has taken Pendergrast more than three years to research this book. He traces the history of coffee back to the legend of the Ethiopian goatherd who found his goats unusually lively one day after they'd grazed on a clump of coffee trees, through the production cycle, commodity speculation, marketing, invention and re-invention - all of which is covered in extraordinary depth. Pendergrast also takes a long look at alternative sustainable methods of cultivating coffee crops, noting the attempts of various plantations to be environmentally friendly as well as profitable. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed the World follows on from the author's previous work on Coca Cola, which similarly traced every aspect of that ubiquitous American beverage.

It's an American view, tracing the changes, brands and developments in the US and giving the details on production largely based on South America (where North Americans generally source their coffee). The working conditions of Latin American coffee berry harvesters are recreated in meticulous detail, giving the reader a real feel for where their daily cup is coming from. But despite the interesting aspects of so many African coffees, the rich history of their growers receives nothing like the same treatment.

There are nuggets of dinner- party wisdom: the coffee break started after world war two, instant coffee was first formulated in 1906, the cowboy loved his coffee macho and black - 'dehorned' - and coffee houses in Mecca were once banned, as they were thought to encourage their patrons to 'indulge in improper pastimes'. Pendergrast also includes a wealth of horticultural information - 12 pounds of coffee cherries produce only two pounds of green coffee beans; the coffee tree's evergreen leaves, as well as the coffee berries, are laced with caffeine. There is also a full account of the growth in the industry through to the speciality business sweeping the world.

The comprehensiveness of the coverage of his subject makes this quite a read: essential for anyone in the industry. A little dry, though, for the casual latte drinker and very much concentrated on industry matters such as production, technical innovation (including the development of instant coffee), commodity trading and roasting.

And this is a pity, because the change in habits sweeping the world courtesy of Starbucks et al would be fascinating as a case study in marketing and business development. It is as profound a change and as much an American invasion as the hamburger from McDonald's.

Much of this story has been lost because the author takes a purist view (unsurprising, given the dedication in the book to Alfred Peet, the father of the purist world of speciality coffee). It remains to be seen whether our cappuccino obsession will last longer than the one in the '60s, but if it does, it is a phenomenon worthy of study, and to have covered the business development aspects would have made Uncommon Grounds a more rounded read and given it wider appeal.

But this is a premier cru look at coffee, and the fact that a coffee bar spends more on milk than on coffee is good reason for the purist to dismiss the marketing.

It's worth adding to your business library, though. After all, it costs less than 10 cappuccinos at your local coffee bar.

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