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

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 remains more than ever a brilliantly entertaining guide to the currents of one of the world’s favorite beverages.
Since its discovery in an Ethiopian rainforest centuries ago, coffee has brewed up a rich and troubled history, according to Uncommon Grounds, a sweeping book by business writer Mark Pendergrast. Over the years, the beverage has fomented revolution, spurred deforestation, enriched a few while impoverishing the many, and addicted millions with its psychoactive caffeine. Coffee is now the world’s second most valuable legal commodity, behind oil, according to Pendergrast, who is also author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola.

“A good cup of coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, can provide an all-important moment of contemplation, can rekindle a romance,” he writes. “And yet, poetic as its taste may be, coffee’s history is rife with controversy and politics.” For example, coffee bankrolled Idi Amin’s genocidal regime in Uganda and the Sandinistas’ revolution in Nicaragua. Uncommon Grounds provides some fascinating tidbits. Did you know that coffeehouses helped spawn the French and American revolutions? Or that coffee supplanted alcohol as a favorite breakfast drink in Britain in the late 1600s, and later became a patriotic American beverage after the Boston Tea Party? Pendergrast also details the rise and fall of regional coffee brands in the United States, the role of advertising in the industry, the global economic impact of coffee prices, and the recent emergence of specialty-coffee retailers–Starbucks, for example. Finally, he explores the social and environmental ramifications of coffee and highlights recent attempts to encourage a livable wage and environmental protection in coffee-producing nations such as Brazil. Pendergrast also includes an appendix on “how to brew the perfect cup.” This wide-ranging book is a good read for those curious about the history and context behind that morning cup of coffee, as well as for those strictly interested in the business side of the industry. –Dan Ring

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3 Responses to “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World”

  1. <path_to_url> "michaeleve"

    Not a “caffe latte” history 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.

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  2. <path_to_url> Sebastian Good

    Coffee makes the world go ’round 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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  3. <path_to_url> Donald Schoenholt

    The Prism of History Uncommon Grounds is the best history of coffee and the coffee trade to be published in English in over three-quarters of a century.

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