Book Review – Coffee: A Global History by Jonathan Morris

Coffee a global history bookCoffee: A Global History written by Professor Jonathan Morris is part of Reaktion books ‘Edible Series’. As a geographer I have always been interested in how things shape the world, and these books provide a great insight into how particular items of food and drink have developed over time, in different places and how they have influenced, and been influenced by, different cultures – the clue is in the title really – a global history.

There is something about this series of books that for me are particularly appealing. Small-ish hardbacks with glossy pages and well-illustrated throughout, and the book on coffee is no exception to this. The book has six key chapters which explore the different stages of coffee’s history from some of the basics about coffee, to discussions of modern day coffee cultures.

The first main chapter ‘from seed to cup’ examines just that how we get coffee, and the different elements of the journey to making it from the different types, to processing, trading to roasting and even aspects of coffee and health. Chapter 2 is where we start to get more into coffees history beginning with some of the coffee origin myths that around Kaldi, the goatherd who supposedly notices the animals becoming more energetic after eating coffee berries. Moving through time and across the world the chapter, ‘the wine of Islam’ explores how the culture of coffee and coffee houses spread to different places, and how different coffee cultures started to develop, and where at times there was resistance to them. Chapter 3 ‘Colonial good’ moves on to the next stage of coffee history which was entwined with colonial histories, exploring the spread of coffee culture. Having visited the sites of some of the earliest coffee houses in the UK, it’s fascinating to read about how London’s coffee house culture started, and the fluctuations that took place in coffee culture since its introduction there. As with all the chapters in the book, the content moves from one place to another highlighting the global nature of coffee, not only as a commodity, in how plants were moved from one country to another, but how countries relationships have been an important component of influencing how the coffee industry spread, and how different parts of the world rose and fall in prominence over time.

Chapter 4 focuses on coffee as an ‘industrial product’ examining the role of the American civil war in developing coffee consumption habits, the early companies in the coffee’s industrial history, the role of Brazil in the coffee world, as well as other countries in the Americas. The chapter also considers how the household became a place for coffee consumption, and some of the early marketing efforts to encourage people to buy it. Chapter five explores coffee as a ‘global commodity’, the rise of coffee growing in Africa, as well as different coffee styles and forms in different countries across the globe. The chapter ends exploring the coffee crisis, the volatility in the price of coffee, and the impact in different areas. Chapter 6 then moves towards the modern era, ‘the specialty beverage’ examining how the growth of specialty coffee has taken place, and the growth of some of the more familiar coffee cultures we are familiar with today, from Starbucks to the third wave specialty coffee shop. There are also explorations of more modern focuses in the coffee industry around ethical coffee and coffee pods. Towards the end of the chapter Prof. Morris considers if how the specialty revolution is important for the future of coffee alongside other key important factors, most notably climate change.

Towards the end of the book there is also a short recipe section which is a nice concise introduction to some of the different ways you might want to try and make coffee, the brew ratio suggestion table is an easy way to see how the brew methods can differ. A short glossary is helpful to understand the modern day coffee shop menu, and there is even a recipe for coffee cake as well as other coffee-based recipes.

This is an excellent book for people who know a little, or a lot about coffee. The book takes you on a global journey of how coffee and coffee culture has developed, highlighting people, places and events that have shaped the industry into what it is today. I’ve learnt a lot from this book, and it’s help me place things I knew a little about into a more coherent timeline of events, and more details about things I had perhaps seen mentioned briefly elsewhere, as well as lots of new information too. The sections in this book are short, but detailed and engaging, and as I mentioned earlier in the review, well illustrated, bringing some of the topics in the book to life.

Reading this book has not only enriched my knowledge about coffee, but reminded me that these books are a great way to learn about different cultures, histories and places through different foods and drinks  – I will have to return to some of the Edible Series in my wish list.

If you think you might be interested in this book, then it’s also worth listening to the Coffee Podcast episode where Prof Morris discusses some common coffee myths around the origin of coffee and some particular drinks.

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