Uncommon Grounds

The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World


By Mark Pendergrast

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The definitive history of the world’s most popular drug

Uncommon Grounds tells the story of coffee from its discovery on a hill in ancient Abyssinia to the advent of Starbucks. 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.


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This detailed engraving was one of the first accurate portrayals of the exotic coffee plant, published in 1716 in Voyage de l’Arabie Heureuse


Puddle Water or Panacea?

O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all care, thou are the object of desire to the scholar. This is the beverage of the friends of God.

—“In Praise of Coffee,” Arabic poem (1511)

[Why do our men] trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty bitter stinking, nauseous Puddle water?

—Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674)

It is only a berry, encasing a double-sided seed. It first grew on a shrub—or small tree, depending on your perspective or height—under the Ethiopian rain forest canopy, high on the mountainsides. The evergreen leaves form glossy ovals and, like the seeds, are laced with caffeine.

Yet coffee is big business, one of the world’s most valuable agricultural commodities, providing the largest jolt of the world’s most widely taken psychoactive drug. From its original African home, coffee propagation has spread in a girdle around the globe, taking over whole plains and mountainsides between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In the form of a hot infusion of its ground, roasted seeds, coffee is consumed for its bittersweet bouquet, its mind-racing jump start, and social bonding. At various times it has been prescribed as an aphrodisiac, enema, nerve tonic, and life extender.

Coffee provides a livelihood (of sorts) for some 100 million human beings. It is an incredibly labor-intensive crop. Calloused palms plant the seeds, nurse the seedlings under a shade canopy, transplant them to mountainside ranks, prune and fertilize, spray for pests, irrigate, harvest, and lug two hundred–pound bags of coffee cherries. Laborers regulate the complicated process of removing the precious bean from its covering of pulp and mucilage. Then the beans must be spread to dry for several days (or heated in drums), the parchment and silver skin removed, and the resulting green beans bagged for shipment, roasting, grinding, and brewing around the world.

The vast majority of those who perform these repetitive tasks work in beautiful places, yet these laborers earn an average of $3 a day. Many live in poverty without plumbing, electricity, medical care, or nutritious foods. The coffee they prepare lands on breakfast tables, in offices and upscale coffee bars of the United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries, where cosmopolitan consumers often pay a day’s Third World wages for a cappuccino.

The list of those who make money from coffee doesn’t stop in the producing countries. There are the exporters, importers, and roasters. There are the frantic traders in the pits of the coffee exchanges who gesticulate, scream, and set the price of a commodity they rarely see in its raw form. There are the expert cuppers (equivalent to wine tasters) who spend their day slurping, savoring, and spitting coffee. There are the retailers, the vending machine suppliers, the marketers, the advertising copywriters, the consultants.

Coffee’s quality is first determined by essentials such as type of plant, soil conditions, and growing altitude. It can be ruined at any step along the line. A coffee bean greedily absorbs odors and flavors. Too much moisture produces mold. A too-light roast produces undeveloped, bitter coffee, while over-roasted coffee resembles charcoal. After roasting, the bean stales quickly unless used within a week or so. Boiling or sitting on a hot plate quickly reduces the finest brew to a stale cup of black bile.

How do we judge coffee quality? Coffee experts talk about four basic components that blend to create the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity, and flavor. The aroma is familiar and obvious enough—that fragrance that often promises more than the taste delivers. Body refers to the feel or “weight” of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity refers to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory. Coffee experts become downright poetic in describing these components. For example, Sulawesi coffee possesses “a seductive combination of butter-caramel sweetness and herbaceous, loamy tastes,” coffee aficionado Kevin Knox wrote.

Yet, poetic as its taste may be, coffee’s history is rife with controversy and politics. It has been banned as a creator of revolutionary sedition in Arab countries and in Europe. It has been vilified as the worst health destroyer on earth and praised as the boon of mankind. Coffee lies at the heart of the Mayan Indian’s continued subjugation in Guatemala, the democratic tradition in Costa Rica, and the taming of the Wild West in the United States. When Idi Amin was killing his Ugandan countrymen, coffee provided virtually all of his foreign exchange, and the Sandinistas launched their revolution by commandeering Somoza’s coffee plantations.

Beginning as a medicinal drink for the elite, coffee became the favored modern stimulant of the blue-collar worker during his break, the gossip starter in middle-class kitchens, the romantic binder for wooing couples, and the sole, bitter companion of the lost soul. Coffeehouses have provided places to plan revolutions, write poetry, do business, and meet friends. The drink became such an intrinsic part of Western culture that it has seeped into an incredible number of popular songs: “You’re the cream in my coffee”; “Let’s have another cup of coffee, let’s have another piece of pie”; “I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me”; “Black coffee, love’s a hand-me-down brew.”

The modern coffee industry was spawned in late nineteenth-century America during the furiously capitalistic Gilded Age. At the end of the Civil War, Jabez Burns invented the first efficient industrial coffee roaster. The railroad, telegraph, and steamship revolutionized distribution and communication, while newspapers, magazines, and lithography allowed massive advertising campaigns. Moguls tried to corner the coffee market, while Brazilians frantically planted thousands of acres of coffee trees, only to see the price decline catastrophically. A pattern of worldwide boom and bust commenced.

By the early twentieth century, coffee had become a major consumer product, advertised widely throughout the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, national corporations such as Standard Brands and General Foods snapped up major brands and pushed them through radio programs. By the 1950s, coffee was the American middle-class beverage of choice.

Coffee’s modern saga explores broader themes as well: the importance of advertising, development of assembly line mass production, urbanization, women’s issues, concentration and consolidation of national markets, the rise of the supermarket, automobile, radio, television, “instant” gratification, technological innovation, multinational conglomerates, market segmentation, commodity control schemes, and just-in-time inventories. The bean’s history also illustrates how an entire industry can lose focus, allowing upstart microroasters to reclaim quality and profits—and then how the cycle begins again, with bigger companies gobbling smaller ones in another round of concentration and merger.

The coffee industry has dominated and molded the economy, politics, and social structure of entire countries. On the one hand, its monocultural avatar has led to the oppression and land dispossession of indigenous peoples, the abandoning of subsistence agriculture in favor of exports, overreliance on foreign markets, destruction of the rain forest, and environmental degradation. On the other hand, coffee has provided an essential cash crop for struggling family farmers, the basis for national industrialization and modernization, a model of organic production and fair trade, and a valuable habitat for migratory birds.

The coffee saga encompasses a panoramic story of epic proportions involving the clash and blending of cultures, the cheap jazzing of the industrial laborer, the rise of the national brand, and the ultimate abandonment of quality in favor of price cutting and commodification of a fine product in the post–World War II era. It involves an eccentric cast of characters, all of them with a passion for the golden bean. Something about coffee seems to make many coffee men (and the increasing number of women who have made their way into their ranks) opinionated, contentious, and monomaniacal. They disagree over just about everything, from whether Ethiopian Harrar or Guatemalan Antigua is the best coffee, to the best roasting method, to whether a press pot or drip filter makes superior coffee.

Around the world we are currently witnessing a coffee revival, as miniroasters revive the fine art of coffee blending and customers rediscover the joy of fresh-roasted, fresh-ground, fresh-brewed coffee and espresso, made from the best beans in the world.

And yet, they’re just the berries from an Ethiopian shrub.

Coffee. May you enjoy its convoluted history over many cups.


to the New Edition

Since the first edition of Uncommon Grounds was published in 1999, my coffee travels have taken me to Germany, Italy, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica, as well as annual Specialty Coffee Association of America (now expanded to be the Specialty Coffee Association worldwide) conferences and speaking engagements around the United States, into specialty coffee roaster facilities, to Camp Coffee in Vermont (a gathering of coffee cognoscenti), and even into a Massachusetts deep freeze, where specialty pioneer George Howell stored his green coffee beans. I continued to write freelance articles for coffee magazines such as the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, Fresh Cup, and Barista, as well as a semi-regular column about coffee in the Wine Spectator.

I have met growers who shared their stories and love for the beans, along with their frustrations and fears. I have met passionate roasters and retailers who want to serve the best coffee in the world while they try to assure that the farmers who grew their product are paid a living wage and receive good medical care. They are also concerned about environmental issues, such as shade-grown coffee that promotes biodiversity, proper processing to prevent water pollution, and the use of organic fertilizers.

I have found little from the first edition that requires correction, though I have taken out the assertion that coffee was the “second most valuable exported legal commodity on earth (after oil).” Although this factoid has been incessantly repeated in the coffee world, it turns out not to be true. Wheat, flour, sugar, and soybeans beat out raw coffee, not to mention copper, aluminum, and yes, oil. Coffee is, nonetheless, the fourth most valuable agricultural commodity, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Another factoid needs correction as well. Steve Brown, formerly of TechnoServe and the creator of the Enveritas certification program, has convincingly argued that there are “only” 12.5 million coffee farmers in the world (half of the much-repeated but erroneous claim of 25 million farmers). That is still a lot of people who rely on coffee for a living, probably over 100 million, including everyone along the chain, up to baristas and retailers.

I have left other myths alone, such as the lovely story of Kaldi and the dancing goats. Who knows, it might have happened that way. Then there are the stories of Georg Franz Kolschitzky founding the Blue Bottle, a Viennese coffeehouse (probably not the first one there); Gabriel de Clieu bringing the first coffee tree to Martinique, from which most of the trees in the Americas descended (well, the Dutch and French had already introduced coffee elsewhere in Latin America); and the Brazilian Francisco Palheta seducing the governor’s wife to bring the first coffee to Brazil (perhaps it wasn’t really the very first).

Uncommon Grounds seems to have spawned a mini-industry of coffee books, documentaries, and interest in coffee’s social, environmental, and economic impact. Too many books have come out to mention them all, but I have added some to the “Notes on Sources” section at the end of the book. Most notable are Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup (2008); Daniel Jaffe’s Brewing Justice (2007); Antony Wild’s Coffee: A Dark History (2004); John Talbot’s Grounds for Agreement (2004); Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer’s The World of Caffeine (2001); James Hoffmann’s The World Atlas of Coffee (2018); Majka Burhardt and Travis Horn’s Coffee Story: Ethiopia (2018); and my own book, Beyond Fair Trade (2015), which tells the story of a hill tribe growing excellent coffee in northwestern Thailand.

Uncommon Grounds and other books have been assigned in universities that have recognized that a course on coffee is a great way to engage students in cross-disciplinary, interconnected studies. These courses can also show several documentaries about coffee. Two are most notable. Irene Angelico’s Black Coffee (2005), a three-hour Canadian documentary, offers the most comprehensive, balanced look at coffee—though I am perhaps somewhat prejudiced because I appear in it. It should not be confused with Black Gold (2006), directed by Nick and Marc Francis, a British documentary that raises important issues but presents a black-and-white picture of evil roasters versus poor farmers.

In order to keep the book at a reasonable length, I have judiciously pruned here and there for this edition. Rest assured that the fascinating story of coffee is all here.

Much has happened in the coffee world since the turn of the twentieth century—the disastrous coffee crisis (1999–2004) that further impoverished coffee growers worldwide, the increased sales and awareness of Fair Trade coffee, the creation of the Cup of Excellence, the Coffee Quality Institute and Q graders, the popularity of single-cup brewing systems, global warming’s impact on coffee growers, a “third wave” of coffee fanatics scouring the world for the best beans, the beginnings of a flattened coffee playing field due to the cell phone and internet. Many more people are aware of the issues raised by coffee’s dramatic, troubled history and its ongoing saga.

So the good news is that coffee is in the public awareness more than ever before, with multitudinous blogs, websites, social media, apps, and print space devoted to the beverage. And there are many more efforts to address the inequities built into the global coffee economy. The bad news is that glaring disparities remain and will remain for the indefinite future. The coffee crisis was no surprise to anyone who read the first edition of Uncommon Grounds. Such a humanitarian disaster simply extended the boom-bust cycle that began in the late nineteenth century and may continue in the future.

The world’s population has grown beyond 7 billion and is projected to swell to 9.8 billion by the year 2050, which (among other things) makes water issues a source of grave concern. That’s why efforts to reduce the amount of water used in processing coffee are so important, along with recycling not only water but coffee pulp, grounds, and packaging. Pulp can be recycled as fertilizer for coffee plants or used for bio-digesting to produce methane gas. Grounds can be used in compost, as a medium to grow mushrooms, as an ingredient in plastic, and the like. Roasters are still trying to find economically viable ways to produce recyclable one-way valve bags and capsules, but many more coffee cups and auxiliary items can now be recycled.

The coffee-consuming world is changing as well, with explosive growth of coffee culture throughout much of the Asian Rim. Korea has become coffee-obsessed, with some excellent specialty coffee shops and roasters, and now China is exploding as a coffee culture, growing some 6 percent a year, as opposed to developed markets that grow only 1 percent or so. China is even beginning to grow its own coffee in the mountainous Yunnan region. Coffee shops are springing up in India as well.

Meanwhile, traditional coffee-growing countries such as Brazil and Ethiopia are consuming more of their own coffee rather than exporting it, so the line between “consuming” and “producing” countries is increasingly blurred. With more of the world rising to join the middle or upper classes and with the overall population increasing, coffee consumption is growing. The demand for more coffee, along with the problems that climate change is causing for growers, may exacerbate the trend toward a bigger demand for robusta, which is hardier and less subject to disease, but robusta coffee is generally of inferior quality.

Does that mean that the boom-bust cycle, which began in the late nineteenth century, will be a thing of the past, as demand outstrips production? Some coffee experts have predicted just that, but as I write this late in 2018, the price of coffee has dropped down to $1 a pound again, a disaster for coffee producers. Brazil had a banner production year in 2018, but that means a smaller harvest for 2019, and prices will probably go up again. Yet some of the price decline is due to speculation in the futures market and is unrelated to essential supply and demand for coffee, and other commodities can influence the price as well. With low prices, Colombian growers may once again abandon coffee in favor of coca, and the younger generation, already flocking to cities in coffee-growing countries, may fail to carry on the family coffee farms or even migrate illegally to other countries such as the United States.

Other changes in the coffee world? The impact of climate change has arguably contributed to the devastating epidemic of coffee leaf rust, which, beginning in 2012, swept throughout Latin America, hitting Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia particularly hard. As the temperatures rise, arabica coffee plants must retreat farther up mountainsides or flee farther from the equator. Coffee is now growing in California for the first time, which is a new opportunity, but it is likely that the amount of arabica coffee grown in the world will dwindle as the land on which it can grow becomes scarcer. The death of the boom-bust cycle? I don’t think so.

The coffee roasting and retail market has consolidated substantially in the last few years, with the German private firm JAB Holding Company snapping up Keurig Green Mountain and a majority ownership of Peet’s, Caribou, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and others, while Nestlé (Nescafe, Nespresso, and a deal to distribute Starbucks worldwide) has become equally huge. Between them, those two corporations control an equal portion of about half of the world coffee market. And in 2018 Coca-Cola bought the British Costa Coffee chain. With such consolidation, these huge corporations can exert downward pressure on prices paid to growers, exporters, and importers, so that the traditional disconnect between profits for those at origin and roasters may grow even worse. Currently, profits of only about 10 percent remain with the growers.

On the other hand, there has been an explosion of micro-roasters in the United States and Europe, and they are pursuing direct trade not only with specific specialty estates but with co-ops and small farmers down to the micro-level of a particular type of coffee and processing method from a particular mountainside. Although there will inevitably be a shakedown in the number of such ventures that succeed or fail, it is an encouraging trend that provides a counterbalance to consolidation in the industry.

Another form of consolidation has taken place within the specialty coffee industry infrastructure, with the European, American, and other specialty organizations joining forces in 2016 to become the Special Coffee Association (SCA). Although some founders of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) objected vehemently, the merger appears to be successful thus far.

Coffee competitions have proliferated since 2010 as well, with baristas, latte artists, filter brewers, roasters, designers, and cup tasters plying their art for prizes worldwide. In addition, there is a “Coffee in Good Spirits” award for the best “mixed” drink. There’s a sustainability award and best new coffee-related product. In addition to the Cup of Excellence, other countrywide competitions have launched, and in 2016 the first annual Ernesto Illy International Coffee Award brought the top coffee growers from nine countries to New York City for a cupping contest to choose the best of the best.

Other good news is that large epidemiological studies of coffee continue to provide evidence that moderate (or even fairly heavy) coffee consumption can be good for you, reducing the incidence of liver cancer, for instance, as well as suicide attempts. Scandinavian countries tend to rank high in the “Happiness Index” compiled by Professor Jeffrey Sachs. Is it a pure coincidence that they also rank high in per capita coffee consumption?

Consumers are becoming more aware of social issues, concerned that their coffee is grown ethically and sustainably. They are also becoming more aware that Fair Trade certifications—which split over philosophical differences between Fair Trade USA and the rest of the world—as well as Rainforest Alliance, CCCC (Common Codes for the Coffee Community), or company certifications such as Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices (Coffee and Farmer Equity), are not necessarily cure-alls. Because they generally charge substantial fees for their auditors, and because many have parameters demanding that members join cooperatives, not all coffee farmers can be certified.

Not only that, but investigators in places such as Chiapas have found child labor used on some certified farms—not caught because the auditors give notice that they are about to arrive, giving growers time to clean up their acts. In 2018, a new form of certification, Enveritas, was launched with the support of some major roasters. Called an “assurance” rather than a certification, it charges roasters for audits, and the audits are surprise visits. On the other hand, Enveritas does not insure any particular price for the coffee beans, unlike the base of beans sold as Fair Trade.

The argument over the desirability of any certification continues, however, with many specialty roasters insisting that high quality is the only way to assure a sustainable premium. The trouble, of course, is that not all coffee is specialty grade, and that nonspecialty sector includes all the robusta growers.

About half of those who labor to produce your coffee are women. Everywhere in the world, it is women who sort in tedious fashion to remove defective beans, and women continue in general to be underpaid and undereducated. That is changing, as women increasingly own farms, processing plants, and retail shops. In an effort to increase awareness, illycaffé, the top-end Italian espresso maker, sold coffee in 2018 in odd-looking cups that to all appearances had literally been cut down the middle, illustrating what coffee would be without women’s involvement. The International Women’s Coffee Alliance and other organizations are pushing for the shattering of glass coffee ceilings.

The #MeToo movement, calling out sexual harassment worldwide, has also impacted the coffee industry, though there have been few high-profile cases. In 2017, industry veteran Molly Soeder founded #coffeetoo to document such problems. Soeder claimed to have witnessed and experienced sexual harassment at a recent coffee conference. “Unfortunately,” she said, “this wasn’t surprising.”

Jeremy Tooker, the founder of Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, was ousted in early 2018 after eight female employees came forward to accuse him of creating a “toxic workplace culture,” including sexual assault. Four Barrell had featured coffee mugs with the logo, “F__ it” and “Dickens Cider,” pronounced as “dick inside her.” Although he was unusually gross in the refined coffee world, Tooker’s case indicated that there were indeed sexual problems in the industry. In the world of coffee growers, there are undoubtedly similar issues in macho Latin America or sexist Africa or Asia.

The good news is that technology continues to have an impact, with the internet and cell phones bringing education and awareness to even the most remote growers—news not only of the #MeToo movement, but also of coffee prices and products. Innovative designs for cookstoves have reduced rural pollution from dung and wood fires.

There have been surprising consumer trends as well, with the popularity of single-serve capsules that yield relatively high-quality coffee, such as K-Cups and Nespresso capsules. It appears that people are willing to pay handsomely for convenience, both at home and in the office, even if it means more plastic in the waste stream.

Cold-brew coffee, chilled with liquid nitrogen that produces a heady foam when opened, has become another popular trend. Pioneered by Cuvee Coffee, it uses a similar method to Guinness beer. Stumptown led the segment, resulting in its sale to Peet’s, which began to produce cold-brew itself, along with Starbucks, even though both of the latter companies had sworn never to do so.

With the introduction of Starbucks’ Via in 2009, instant coffee joined the ranks of specialty coffee, offering a decent soluble cup. Beginning in 2016, several other companies—Sudden Coffee, Voila, and Swift Cup—introduced single-origin instant brews that cost as much as $3 apiece. It remains to be seen whether they will find a large enough market to survive.

There has been an explosion of coffee studies in academia, as previously mentioned. The University of California at Davis now has a coffee center, as does Texas A&M, Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Nottingham University, and others. Putting this in context, it is widely thought that the advent of brewing education at UC Davis fueled the current boom of craft beer in the United States. Could the same be happening for coffee? It is more likely to be the other way around, though the academic interest will certainly also increase coffee awareness and consumption.

Starbucks has made headlines, as ever, but sometimes not the kind it wants. In 2018, for instance, two African American men were handcuffed and arrested for sitting at a Philadelphia Starbucks. They were waiting for a business meeting but had not yet ordered anything, and the manager called the cops. Starbucks initiated racism training courses as a result.


  • "With wit and humor, Pendergrast has served up a rich blend of anecdote, character study, market analysis, and social history....Everything you ought to know about coffee is here, even how to make it."—New York Times
  • "A focused and juicy history of our last legal and socially acceptable drug."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Pendergrast's account satisfies because of its thoroughness....Pendergrast unearths coffee-based trade wars, health reports, and café cultures, bringing to light amusing treasures along the way."—Mother Jones
  • "Ask anyone in the coffee world and they will cite this book as a favorite...[I]t gives a comprehensive understanding to the history and complexities of your favorite drink."—The Kitchn
  • "Pendergrast...has produced a splendid tale, setting out all one could hope to know about coffee."—Scientific American
  • "Pendergrast's broad vision, meticulous research, and colloquial delivery combine aromatically."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Uncommon Grounds is not only a good read but a vital one."—Washington Monthly
  • "An exhaustive, admirably ambitious examination of coffee's global impact, from its roots in 15th-century Ethiopia to its critical role in shaping the nations of Central and Latin America....Should be read by anyone curious about what goes into their daily cup of Java"—Kirkus
  • "Pendergrast's sprightly, yet thoroughly scholarly, history of America's favorite hot beverage packs the pleasurable punch of a double espresso."—Booklist

On Sale
Jul 9, 2019
Page Count
480 pages
Basic Books

Mark Pendergrast

About the Author

Mark Pendergrast is an independent scholar who brews a fantastic cup of coffee. He is the author of many books, including For God, Country and Coca-Cola. He lives in Vermont

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