Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

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Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

  • ISBN13: 9780465018369
  • Condition: New
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Uncommon Grounds tells the story of coffee from its discovery on a hill in ancient Abyssinia to the advent of Starbucks. In this updated edition of the classic work, Mark Pendergrast reviews the dramatic changes in coffee culture over the past decade, from the disastrous “Coffee Crisis” that caused global prices to plummet to the rise of the Fair Trade movement and the “third-wave” of quality-obsessed coffee connoisseurs. As the scope of coffee culture continues to expand, Uncommon Grounds

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  • "michaeleve" says:
    81 of 83 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Not a “caffe latte” history, March 24, 2002

    If you are looking for something light that offers some tips for tasters or a cultural history on some of the exotic places that coffee is grown, or even an appropriate book for your coffee table, I suggest you look elsewhere. This book is none of that. This book is pretty narrow in focus and limits itself to discussions on the history of coffee growing and the business end of the industry. Topics covered include trading, marketing and distribution, consumption patterns, the emergence of cafe’s and big coffeehouses, and the social, environmental, and political issues in both the producing and consuming nations. As with so many recently published books this one suffers from a pop-culture sounding title which is deliberately eye-catching, but misleading with its grandiose claim. These titles work best with popular science books about arcane subjects that changed the world set in stories about eccentric heroes and villains. I enjoy those books but this is a different book. This serious work is more referrence book than story. Don’t get me wrong though. UNCOMMON GROUNDS: THE HISTORY OF COFFEE AND HOW IT TRANSFORMED OUR WORLD is too well written and has enough anecdotes to provide the “latte” for what could otherwise have been simply a dark and thick text-book.

    One of the issues that Pendergrast focuses on is the stark social contrasts between where coffee is grown and the markets where it is consumed. As we read on it becomes very apparent that for Pendergrast, researching this book was part moral lesson. He pays special attention to issues of economic justice and makes us see some of coffee’s story in this light. He says coffee “laborers earn an average of $3 a day. Most live in abject poverty without plumbing, electricity, medical care, or nutritious foods”. After shipping and processing the product arrives here at market where “cosmopolitan consumers routinely pay half a day’s Third World wages for a good cup of coffee.” Along these same lines Pendergrast talks about a movement in the speciality coffee sector towards the idea of “fair trade” coffee which seeks – in the slogan of one of the companies – to offer “Not Just A Cup, But A Just Cup”. Equal Exchange in the US and Max Havelaar Quality Mark coffee in Europe are the best known groups that say we should consider human rights issues when choosing a brand.

    Equally as interesting is the topic of “bird-friendly coffee”. Basically it involves a long standing debate over the merits of “shade coffee” (grown under a canopy of trees and thus bird-friendly) or “sun coffee” which is grown on open and exposed slopes. As happens with most things, the discussion ends up as a political argument with opponents of the ecological approach labelling it politically correct coffee. Perhaps that’s true, or maybe as others have suggested, it’s a brilliant marketing strategy for selling speciality coffee. Pendergrast doesn’t say what he thinks but his presentation of a few facts gives us a hint. “Of the fifty-four million Americans who consider themselves birders, twenty-four million actually travelled in 1991 to observe their avian friends. In the process, they spent $2.5 billion – and who knows how much of that went for strong predawn coffee?”

    Want to know about coffee prices? Prendergast explains. “One thing I have learned through my coffee research: One consumer’s poison is another’s nectar.” In other words it’s all relative and price is very subjective. “Then there’s the psychological factor. The rarer the bean the more expensive and desirable. Hence, Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain command premium prices, even though most coffee experts consider them bland in comparison to Guatemalan Antigua or Kenya AA.” Of course price is a function of supply and demand and no discussion of coffee could end without referrence to the US. We are the largest market and the home of the biggest coffeehouses (Starbucks of course). The Finns however beat us cups down when it comes to per capita consumption.

    I’ve lived in both Kenya and Jamaica and have had my fair share of their coffee and am a birder myself. The books coverage of those topics was therefore of particular interest to me. Whatever your tastes and interests and whether or not you even drink coffee, there’s much to learn and even more to enjoy in this fascinating look at our favorite brew.

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  • Sebastian Good says:
    54 of 57 people found the following review helpful:
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Coffee makes the world go ’round, November 21, 1999
    Sebastian Good (Houston, TX) –

    It’s not everyday you find a five hundred page book on the history of coffee. But then again, most coffee fans take their jobs quite seriously. Author Mark Pendergast has chronicled ups and downs of this remarkable commodity on an unprecedented scale. He takes us from the discovery of the bean in the hills of Ethiopia all the way to the despicable excesses of Starbucks. The first few chapters of this book take us on a jaunty trip through coffee’s early history, including the ruthless and colorful European traders who were responsible for introducing the Western world to the bizarre beverage. Pendergast, a businessman by education, then settles into a wonderfully readable economic history. The structure of the material centers on the companies and international agreements that make up the international coffee system. But unlike so many commercially-oriented histories, Uncommon Grounds is eminently readable and captivating. The characters in the saga are fascinating: from American industrialists to Latin American peasants to African warlords to European consumers, there are people involved in this story, not just money. If you have a yen for coffee, grab an espresso and read this book. You won’t find weighty theories on how coffee forms the basis of all human history, rather a fun, a caffeine-inspired trip through modernity with java-tinted glasses. — HistoryHouse.com

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