Review: Coffee: A Global History

I got a copy of this 2018 book by Jonathan Morris because I wanted to learn more about the topic (in the same vein of Salt, a book I still need to read). I chose it from a list of similar titles because I wanted a “straight” story, and Morris is an historian.

Edit (30 May): See comments for caveats!

Well the book delivered, in some expected and surprising (good or bad) ways:

The first chapter has a clear description of the many steps between plant, bean and cup. Dry but useful for those of us unaware of all the work that goes into a cup.

The next chapters trace the development of coffee growing, trading and drinking, starting in the Islamic world (coffee came to Yemen from Ethiopia and spread from there), expanding as a colonial good (slavery included), an industrial product (Americans drank a majority of the world’s traded coffee from the 18th century), global commodity (Vietnam challenges Brazil) and specialty beverage (hipsters unite!). The book ends with some slightly wonky recipes.

Here are 41 (!) interesting things I learned from this book (quotes in italics):

  1. Coffee was “put on trial” in Mecca, with the prosecution claiming it was a drug that — like alcohol — intoxicated. The defense claimed its effects helped one get closer to Allah. They won, somewhat due to the judges (imams) already being addicted to coffee.
  2. The coffee house’s appeal lay in providing the first legitimate public space for socialization among Muslim men. At night, convention demanded that decent people should eat at home, so the only places open were those with dubious reputations – the wine taverns and establishments selling boza, a mildly alcoholic malt beverage made with fermented cereals.
  3. The advent of the coffee house created possibilities for new forms of social interaction. Previously, entertaining others would have involved inviting them to one’s house, providing a banquet, probably prepared by servants, and entailing the display of possessions (and probably wife), all of which created a distinction between host and guest. Now one could meet peers at a coffee house, and exchange hospitality on a more equal footing through the simple expedient of buying each other cups of coffee.
  4. The coffee houses’ success reflected a shift in the social and political structures of the Ottoman Empire. The centralized, hierarchical administration model gave way to a society in which power was fragmented, elites divided and religious and secular ideologies contested. The coffee house, where one could address anyone directly and engage in open conversation, became a symbol of this new culture.
  5. Part of Ataturk’s programme for Turkey’s modernization during the twentieth century’s first half was converting it into a teadrinking country, substituting a beverage made from locally grown produce for an expensive import.
  6. Europeans often sought to rescue the beverage from its Muslim associations by reimagining its past… The Englishman Sir Henry Blount claimed it was the Spartans’ black broth drunk before battles. By locating coffee among the ancient Greeks, they effectively claimed it for European civilization, and reminded contemporaries of coffee-drinking Christians within the Ottoman borders. There is, though, no evidence that Pope Clemente VIII tasted coffee and baptized it as a Christian beverage in the 1600s, although the story’s widespread circulation suggests those with a stake in the coffee trade wished he had done so.
  7. Regulations protecting the apothecary trade [!!] probably account for the late appearance of the first café allowed to serve coffee in Venice in 1683.
  8. …adding milk to the coffee, with customers using a colour chart to indicate their desired shade. This was the origin of the Kapuziner, a beverage the colour of the Capuchin monks’ tunic. As well as sweetening (or perhaps masking) the taste, milk symbolically transformed the black Muslim brew into a white Christian confection.
  9. The term ‘virtuosi’ described gentlemen possessed of intellectual curiosity about cultural novelties, rarities and the fledgling field of empirical, quasi-scientific enquiry associated with figures such as Francis Bacon. As virtuosi were not courtiers, they were free to learn about new phenomena and discuss them within the so-called ‘penny universities’ – the price coffee houses charged for a dish of coffee.
  10. Coffee’s association with the coffee house may have held back its adoption in the home. The coffee house was essentially a male environment in which talking to strangers was encouraged. The only women present were either serving or ‘servicing’ the customer’s needs. The Women’s Petition against Coffee – a 1674 condemnation of both coffee and coffee houses on the grounds that they kept men away from the home and rendered them impotent – was probably sponsored by brewers keen to recapture lost customers, but it played on this gender division.
  11. Women might take tea together, either at home, or publicly in tea gardens where the open-air settings conferred a visibility, rendering them respectable places for ladies.
  12. The 8,000-plus gin palaces in London outnumbered coffee houses by some eighty to one.
  13. By 1720 there were in the region of 280 cafés in Paris, rising to around 1,000 in 1750 and 1,800 in 1790, serving a population of approximately 650,000
  14. The Low Countries witnessed an even more rapid adoption of coffee among both sexes and throughout the classes. Coffee-making equipment was frequently found among probate inventories of lower-class and middling households in eighteenth-century Amsterdam. As early as 1726 it was claimed coffee ‘has broken through so generally in our land that maids and seamstresses now have to have their coffee in the morning or they cannot put their thread through the eye of their needle’
  15. Regular shipments from Java to Holland began in 1711, enabling Amsterdam to establish the first European coffee exchange. In 1721, 90 per cent of the coffee on the Amsterdam market originated in the Yemen; by 1726, 90 per cent was supplied from Java. Deliveries from the island continued to increase until the middle of the century, but tailed off as new plantations in the Caribbean took over. The Dutch were partly responsible for this. In 1712 they introduced coffee to Suriname, a colonial enclave on the northeastern coastline of mainland Latin America, bordering the Caribbean Sea. Exports began in 1721 and surpassed those from Java by the 1740s. In Suriname, cultivators had no option but to produce coffee – the crop was grown on plantations tended by slave labour.
  16. [After Haiti won its independence,] over a thousand coffee plantations were destroyed… Although new farms were established, the coffee trade was effectively lost because European states and the USA shunned Haiti for fear of legitimizing black rule.
  17. The first drip-brewing apparatus appeared in the early nineteenth century.
  18. The Dutch colonial authorities … required peasant households to set aside a portion of their land or labour to cultivate commercial crops sold exclusively to the state. The autobiographical novel Max Havelaar, penned by a former administrator in 1860, showed how peasants starved while the Dutch indulged their indigent lords. By the 1880s, 60 per cent of Java’s peasant households were forced to grow coffee. Tending to the trees took up 15 per cent of their time, yet generated only 4 per cent of their income, due to the low fixed prices.
  19. Hills Brothers, a San Francisco company, introduced vacuum-packed coffee in 1900.
  20. Coffee cemented its position as America’s national beverage during the early twentieth century as consumption reached 5 kilograms (11 lb) per capita. The United States now imported well over half of the world’s coffee supply, and roasters positioned their brands as inherently American with names such as ‘Buffalo’ and ‘Dining Car Special’. 
  21. By the mid-1870s more than 75 per cent of the coffee consumed in the United States came from Brazil. NB: Coffee got a huge boost during the US Civil War, when it was given to troops to improve morale.
  22. This ‘valorization’ of the coffee price orchestrated by Brazilian authorities [restricting supply to increase prices] was a significant moment in coffee’s history: it was the first time producer countries had dictated trade terms to consumer nations. It caused outrage in the U.S… The São Paulo state started an agency to organize coffee interests, which was subsequently transformed into the national Instituto Brasileiro do Café (IBC).
  23. To increase consumption of coffee — a crop whose production Brazil dominated — the IBC opened Brazilian coffee houses around the world. I visited on in Alexandria in 1997:
  24. El Salvador, vagrancy laws were used to force native populations from their lands and turn them into labourers on plantation-style estates. This generated a class of coffee oligarchs, effectively controlling the country, creating inequalities and conflicts that persisted throughout the twentieth century. In 1932 a revolt of impoverished coffee workers resulted in the Matanza (massacre) of tens of thousands of indigenous Salvadorans by government forces.
  25. Advertisers played on consumers’ lack of confidence about coffee. Coffee was regarded as representing the house-hold to outsiders, so they created anxiety about its quality. Getting it right was presented as vital to domestic harmony – no new bride wants to live in a ‘home without success’.
  26. Munitions workers proved more productive when allowed the new ‘coffee breaks’. These were introduced throughout the military. The practice spread into post-war civilian life, with around 60 per cent of factories adopting it by the mid-1950s. This was partly a consequence of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau’s heavy promotional campaign in favour of workplace coffee breaks. It also advocated ‘coffee breaks on the road’, arguing that coffee kept drivers alert in an increasingly motorized America.
  27. Immediately following the Second World War, U.S. consumption levels per capita reached an all-time peak of over 8.6 kilograms (19 lb) per person for those over ten years old. Latin America was producing 85 per cent of the world’s output and sending 70 per cent of it to the U.S., where coffee was now consumed in virtually every household. The concept of the American ‘cup of Joe’ – a term for ‘ordinary coffee’ that first appeared in the 1930s – was firmly established. This presented as a thin-bodied, weak-flavoured coffee served in a comparatively large volume to accompany meals. Its taste [dz: sic] profile reflected the blandness of the Brazilian beans at its base, the over-extracted coffee that resulted from brewing with a percolator, and the parsimoniousness of American housewives with the quantities of coffee they used.
  28. Kenyan government retained the Coffee Board’s central auction system, whereby exporters purchased lots classified according to cup characteristics, and growers received the average price for their class, thereby rewarding quality. By contrast, in newly independent Tanzania, coffee was sold by the Coffee Board in homogeneous lots, and quickly lost its reputation.
  29. It took Nestlé research scientist Max Morgenthaler over six years to come up with a palatable soluble coffee [Nescafe].
  30. At a trade fair in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1957, a Nescafé representative mixed instant powder and cold water in a cocoa drink shaker, creating a thick foam. Diluted with more water and served over ice, it proved very refreshing. The company began promoting this new use, which was adopted by young Greeks, becoming a symbol of the outdoor lifestyle. Frappé became Greece’s national summer beverage [much to my chagrin].
  31. Applying pressure to the brewing process speeded up the extraction time, enabling a fresh cup of coffee to be prepared ‘expressly’ for each customer. The first commercially produced machine was the La Pavoni Ideale. I have a La Pavoni Europiccola, which I was able to date to 1992. What a machine!
  32. During the 1998-2003 “coffee crisis” [pdf] in which supply far outdistanced demand due to the entry of Vietnam into the market and break down of coffee quotas among producers, many Mexican growers gave up and attempted to illegally enter the U.S., often perishing in the attempt. Political conflicts intensified, with peasants in Chiapas, the centre of Mexican coffee production, supporting the Zapatista guerrilla movement’s rebellion against the government. Even in Vietnam, some farmers were forced to sell possessions to satisfy debt collectors. Poverty levels in the Central Highlands reached 50 per cent, with 30 per cent of the population suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Robusta’s price fell from 83 cents in 1998 to just 28 cents in 2001. 
  33. The paradox that the so-called ‘latte revolution’, characterized by the rapid growth of coffee shops charging premium prices, coincided with the coffee crisis, provoked criticism of consuming ‘poverty in your coffee cup’. Others, though, saw this new phenomenon as an opportunity to recast coffee as a ‘specialty beverage’, facilitating its de-commodification, and the generation of greater revenues throughout the value chain.
  34. Independent roasters saw their numbers fall from around 1,500 in 1945 to 162 in 1972. To survive they evolved an alternative business strategy. Rather than price, they would compete on quality, enabling them to increase profit margins on their beans. Their approach suited a consumer economy in which different social groups had started using their purchases to convey messages about their lifestyles, values and tastes. These might include demonstrating sophistication or wealth; adherence to ‘alternative’, anti-corporate values; or a preference for ‘authentic’ artisan goods. Hipsters had entered the chat.
  35. Schultz trumpeted Starbucks as an exemplar of a ‘third place’ between work and home in which – as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes it – informal contacts between unrelated people create a sense of community. Behavioural studies, however, find little evidence of conversations being initiated between strangers: the attraction of the coffee shop lies in being surrounded by people without having to engage with them. The continuing advances of digital technologies – the laptop computer, the mobile phone, the wireless Internet connection – allow individuals to continue working, or engage in social media conversation, while ‘consuming’ the coffee shop ambience.
  36. Starbucks wanted to brew the same beverages consistently, hence Swiss super-automatic push-button espresso machines replaced the traditional Italian equipment in 1999. Celebrities were paid to be ‘found’ and photographed sipping coffee from branded takeaway cups. Starbucks maintained itself as the hegemonic brand within the coffee shop sector, and was so dominant that it effectively defined what consumers understood the coffee shop concept to mean.
  37. The first wave of mass-market roasters had ‘made bad coffee commonplace’. The original specialty operators ‘started destination shops with small roasting operations . . . serving espresso’, but their format was eclipsed by second wave giants such as Starbucks who ‘want to automate or homogenize specialty coffee’. The third wave would pursue a ‘no rules’ approach to crafting outstanding coffee.
  38. The third wave can best be described as a form of transnational ‘subculture’, with its own mix of philosophies, iconic brands, fanzine-style publications and key influencers. The Internet has made this possible, enabling micro-roasters to find customers around the country – so-called ‘prosumers’ – to discuss the best ways to customize their machinery, and connoisseurs to read the latest coffee reviews online. Watch James and find out 🙂
  39. In 1988 Solidaridad, a Dutch religious organization, established the Max Havelaar label – named after the novel denouncing the colonial coffee trade in Java. It started purchasing from producer cooperatives, initially in Mexico, and marketing the coffee in Germany and the Netherlands… In 1997 Fairtrade International was established to unite the various national schemes.
  40. By 2013 around 40 per cent of coffee’s global production was in accordance with some form of certification standard. Enthusiasts have argued that this represents one of the greatest triumphs of imposing social responsibility on global capitalism. Critics say this is a triumph of public relations, enabling the coffee industry to simultaneously monetize consumers’ ethical concerns while engaging in ‘virtue signalling’.
  41. Proudly independent? JAB, the Luxembourg-based private equity company whose portfolio of coffee brands includes JDE (Jacobs Douwe Egberts), has also invested in specialty, acquiring Peets and the ‘third wave’ chains Intelligentsia and Stumptown, as well as Keurig.

I recommend this book for its strengths in presenting facts and history in a unified, sensical analysis. I recommend The Coffee Trader for readers looking for more drama. FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Review: Coffee: A Global History”

  1. I regularly read your blog as we share some of the same interests if not always the same analytic conclusions, and you recommend some worthwhile sources. I recently was intrigued by your recommendation of the book Coffee: A Global History (Morris, Jonathan, 2019, Reaktion Books, ISBN 9781789140026) and obtained a copy. I had recently finished Multatuli’s Max Havelaar (in English after semi-successful attempts to read it in a Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia edition some years ago when I was trying to learn the latter language) and have recently spent time in Brasil and Costa Rica, so coffee was on my mind. The overview provided by Morris’s book is an interesting one with all kinds of arresting tidbits concerning the biology and history of the crop and the products based on it. That said, I have some doubts about its historical veracity, published as it is in a series I have found to be of dubious merit. After earlier readings of several titles in the series, including an absolutely awful history of rice, I have accumulated a set of “howlers” any reasonably competent fact checker should have caught (before she went to medical school, my wife was a fact checker for publications of the Brookings Institution). My favorite such statement in Coffee: A Global History is “Protestors staged the Boston Tea Party on 16 December 1773, tipping tea chests off ships in Chesapeake Bay harbour.” (p.47, emphasis added). When such a simple error of fact is published, I am left with serious doubts about the historical veracity of the remainder of the book. If you remain interested in the subject of offee, there is, I am finding, a large literature. One useful book is Hoffman World Atlas of Coffee (2nd edition, 2018, ISBN 9780228100942)

    1. Wow. Thanks for posting this comment. It seems that I was a bit too trusting in “I’m an historian” claims to accuracy.

      That said, I’ve followed coffee history for some time, and most of the events made sense.

      But I am totally in agreement with you, that some of these series are a bit too slapdash.

      1. I am Jonathan Morris, I am indeed a professional historian, having been employed as such at various UK universities in that capacity over the course of the last 36 years (check my bio for details). So I am duly ashamed by the apparent relocation of the Boston Tea Party to Chesapeake Bay! I’ll ask the publishers to correct this in any future editions. The only explanation I can think of is that when cutting the manuscript prior to sending to the publishers who are rightly very insistent about the word length, I removed a section about Captain John Smith supposedly bringing coffee to America and the English settlements around the Chesapeake bay precisely because I don’t think it stacks up historically: I go into why in ‘Just Friends. America’s Love Affair with Coffee’ the 4th episode in the A History of Coffee podcast series that dropped in 2023, and can be found on all the usual podcast providers.

        Anyway I am glad that you found 41 interesting things in the book and for your appreciation of my work in general. I am not, of course, responsible for the other books in the series. I agree that the Coffee Trader works better as a page-turning novel and Max Havelaar as a historical drama. My task was to write an accurate, accessible, balanced and historically evidenced account of the history of coffee at the global level, and I am glad you both seem to have enjoyed it on that basis.

        1. Dear Professor Morris: What a pleasure to have an author stop by to respond to my review. Coffee — and many other “historical commodities” — is hard to document. But I do think that your version is quite good. (I was NOT impressed by “Salt”, which is apparently popular, since it was so wooden in style.)

          Carry on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *