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Coffee: A Dark History

I like coffee, so Coffee: A Dark History by Anthony Wild was a pretty sure bet as a gift.  I'm also a bit of a foodie from the perspective of "how did we get here?"  This book gave me lots of information to impress the people at my local coffee roaster as well as make sad about the "dark history" of the coffee trade that survives to this day.

The primary aim of the book is to dive into the history and mythology of coffee and tell a good story along the way.  As a result, the small island of St. Helena figures in a number of ways.  St. Helena was a way point for the European trading empires, changing hands from the Dutch to the English and some others.  St. Helena is also where Napoleon spent the rest of his life after Waterloo. 

St. Helena was also a way point for slave ships and then a port for the naval ships that halted the slave trade.  Slavery played a big part in the mass cultivation of coffee in the Americas, as was fairly labor intensive and the spread of coffee followed the discovery and colonization of the Americas.  While it would be an interesting historical fact, this "dark history" still affects coffee today.  Coffee is still very labor intensive and global competition has pushed coffee prices to significant lows (though prices seem to be coming back slightly since publication of the book in 2002).

Some fun facts

  • Arabica is the bean-of-choice for connoisseurs, but Robusta has a much larger share of the market. 
  • Robusta has twice as much caffeine as Arabica.
  • Espresso is a "wonderful system for making good coffee, but not a good system for making wonderful coffee."
  • Coffee beans are unique in the transformation they undergo when exposed to heat.
  • Tea is generally consumed in the countries that produce it. 
  • Coffee is exported to other countries.  The USA tops the list of importers, though Scandinavian countries drink the most per capita.
  • Most researchers agree that coffee came out of Africa / Ethiopia and into Arabia in the 15th Century.
  • Recent archeology has found coffee beans in a fire pit that appear to date to the 12th Century.
  • Caffeine is a stimulant and a poison (Death by Caffeine).

The author, Anthony Wild, is also a coffee guy: the jacket claims he is "widely credited with having introduced specialty coffees into the U.K."  And in the epilogue he recounts how he managed to get the original deal to sell St. Helena coffee, one of the most expensive coffees on the planet. 

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