Book Review – Coffee: From Bean to Barista by Robert Thurston

I had a bit of time over the holidays to catch up on some of the latest coffee related books. I’d actually forgotten I’d pre-ordered this one so it was a nice surprise just before Christmas. I learnt about the work of Robert Thurston through the book ‘Coffee: A Comprehensive guide to the bean’ that he edited along with Jonathan Morris (who also has a new book out which I’m currently reading – Coffee: A Global History). Someone asked me recently if there was anything new to read about coffee, and wasn’t it just the same old thing repackaged? While some of the guides to coffee brewing and coffee shop locations might be somewhat repetitive, this is not the case with this book. Devoted to coffee the book explores the history, cultivation and culture of coffee. It’s divided into five chapters, with three key chapters focusing on producing countries, roasting coffee and making coffee, as well as coffee and health.

Coffee From Bean to BaristaChapter 2 explores the journey coffee takes in producing countries from the farms it is grown on to the ports where it departs. This includes information about the coffee plant, where it grows, issues with growing coffee and coffee certifications. The chapter then moves on to sections discussing women in coffee as well as the different ways coffee is harvested and processed. A particularly interesting section of this chapter explores the coffee prices across the supply chain using the authors’ experiences in his own roastery. Whenever I discuss this issue with students they are always surprised at how little farmers earn, but also given so many parts to the supply chain and number of people involved, that coffee isn’t more expensive. As Professor Thurston points out ‘for the most part, no one is making big profit in the commodity chain, although millions of sales – especially of coffee heavily charged with milk, as in lattes and cappuccinos – can result in billions in net revenue for a company like Starbucks’. (p.56). The chapter ends by highlighting how climate change may affect the coffee industry, as well as considering the future of coffee arguing ‘the best path towards greater social justice in the coffee industry is to get more people to drink more and better coffee’(p.66).

Chapter three explores coffee roasting and coffee consumption and some of its key developments. There’s a nice and simplified version of the coffee tasting wheel that highlights some of the basic flavour notes that can tasted from coffee, which accompanies a discussion of specialty coffee, and what that means. There are some great sections on coffee consumption around the world which explores not only consumption rates, but how coffee drinking habits spread around the globe. The chapter then moves on to document developments in roasting coffee, and an explanation of the roasting process before outlining some different ways to prepare coffee with an important point: ‘There is no need to get a lot of fancy equipment to make good coffee at home’ (p.116).

Chapter four focuses on different aspects of coffee and health. This begins with a little history to views on coffee and health, and how approaches to coffee and coffee houses has shifted over time. There is a detailed section on a key chemical in coffee, caffeine, as well as a section on recent research on coffee and health. The book concludes by returning to a number of key issues facing the coffee industry around climate change and sustainability of the coffee industry, highlighting how it is important for more money to reach the farmers end of the supply chain.

The book is written in a very engaging style, with a feel like the author is talking to the reader, sometimes with details about the author’s experiences, or tips for the reader to help them enjoy their coffee. There’s a helpful glossary at the end too for some of the key terms and acronyms used throughout the book. A welcome addition to my ‘coffee library’.

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