The Rise and Fall and Rise of Coffee

The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
By Mark Pendergrast
Basic Books 520pp $27.50

Perhaps no product has done more to foment social unrest than coffee. Since the 16th century, when the governor of Mecca closed coffeehouses after learning that they were the venue for satirical songs about him, the little caffeinated bean has been upsetting the status quo.

It was over coffee that French intellectuals plotted much of their revolution in the late 1700s, and it was a Boston coffeehouse called the Green Dragon that Daniel Webster termed the headquarters of the American Revolution. Coffee ''has been the world's most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think,'' wrote William Ukers, an early historian of the beverage. In Latin America, meanwhile, economic dependence on the bean and the miserable conditions that accompany its harvest have been the cause of war for centuries.

In Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, author Mark Pendergrast tells the story of the drink that has become the fuel of modern society. Coffee today is the world's second-most-valuable exported commodity, trailing only oil, he writes. It is the world's most widely taken psychoactive drug, and more than 20 million people work in some part of the coffee industry.

Pendergrast traces coffee's history from its legendary discovery by an Ethiopian goatherd, said to have found his flock cavorting wildly in the forest after it had eaten the bean, to its 1990s Starbucks-led boom. Along the way, he tells of the advertising boundaries it has broken, the environmental damage it has wrought, and the international squabbling it has caused.

Unfortunately for most readers, Uncommon Grounds will be as difficult to get through as an overly bitter cup of espresso. The 520-page effort spends far too much time on the numbing details of price gyrations and long-disappeared brands. Rather than constructing a compelling narrative, Pendergrast has written something that often feels like a textbook for a college survey course on the history of coffee. Consider this typical sentence describing the formation of a trade group: ''Primarily through the efforts of California's Ted Lingle and New York's Donald Schoenholt, coffee idealists from both coasts met in San Francisco in October 1982, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the parlor of the little Hotel Louisa, and hammered out a national charter.''

It's a shame, because Pendergast has a wonderful tale to relate. At the end of the 18th century, despite the rich history of cafes, coffee still was not a product for the masses. The drink was not a part of the daily rationing for the American Continental Army, for example. That would change by the Civil War, when each Union soldier was given the equivalent of 36 pounds per year--three times our current consumption level. Indeed, by the end of the century, coffee was so popular that it had sparked a backlash. A health faddist named C.W. Post launched a coffee substitute called Postum, writing his own ad copy that decried caffeine as nefarious and unhealthy. Postum turned him into a millionaire, thanks in part to coffee brands that responded with ads blaming each other for illnesses.

But the bean's allure has been too strong for the periodic health scares, ranging from threats of nerve destruction to cancer, that have hampered it. By the start of the 20th century, coffee was the most popular beverage in the U.S. By the 1920s, after Post's death, his own company--which today is one of the nation's biggest cereal sellers--recognized its appeal and bought Maxwell House.

It was a high time for the drink. Prohibition boosted sales as consumers looked for an alcohol substitute, and many taverns became coffeehouses. National radio campaigns helped the strongest brands. Not even the Depression slowed coffee's rise: By the end of the '30s, 98% of U.S. families drank it in one form or another.

World War II aided coffee further, addicting millions of soldiers--who often warmed it with nothing other than matches. (Indeed, as the author notes, ''the American soldier became so closely identified with his coffee that G.I. Joe gave his name to the brew, a 'cuppa Joe.''') The Marine Corps bragged about imbibing more of it than any other division of the armed forces, and the British dropped packets into coffee-deprived Nazi-occupied countries to make the locals long for Allied victory. By the end of the war, the average American was using almost 20 pounds of coffee beans per year.

But the seeds of its decline had already been planted. Coca-Cola and Pepsi had also become popular among soldiers, and those companies spent the '50s and '60s using hip advertising, their products' sweet flavor, and their cans' portability to knock coffee off its perch.

In the following decades, the major java brands continued cheapening their roasts and using aging TV stars in promotions. The campaigns--such as the lame ''I go for coffee. You go for coffee. Let's go for coffee together''--utterly failed to inspire rebellious baby boomers, Pendergrast writes. Indeed, when a Wharton MBA named Mary Seggerman employed a young comedian named Jerry Seinfeld in a witty 1983 ad, her bosses at Maxwell House killed the spot.

The drink's true believers would revive its fortunes in the '90s. During the '70s and '80s, coffee stores and cafes had gained popularity, led by the pathbreaking Peet's in Berkeley, Calif. Three friends from Seattle copied that store's layout and started their own--called Starbucks--in 1971. When a salesman named Howard Schultz noticed how many drip-brewing thermoses they were buying from him, he joined the company and in time became CEO. Although Pendergrast doesn't say so, it was a reprise of the story of Ray Kroc, who became the first McDonald's Corp. franchisee after selling the original store owners their milkshake makers.

Today, although coffee consumption is still just about 60% of what it was in the 1940s, the drink's decline has been halted. Its success has set the stage for the latest controversy: the brutal business tactics of Starbucks that have driven many small cafes out of business.

Throughout Uncommon Grounds, Pendergrast gives a taste of what the book could have been. At one point, he uses the story of William Benton and Chester Bowles to describe the rise of modern advertising. They began their agency in 1929, just months before the stock market crash. It grew to $10 million in billings by 1935 on the strength of its client Maxwell House's sponsorship of one of the most popular radio programs of the day, ''The Maxwell House Show Boat.'' The duo eventually sold out, growing to regret their role in the creation of an advertising-driven consumer society. One became the governor of Connecticut, the other a U.S. Senator.

These are the kind of characters on which the author should have spent more ink. And there are many of them, such as the whaling Folger family of Nantucket, Mass., that included Benjamin Franklin's mother and makes an appearance in Moby Dick. Alas, they often lose out to the intricacies of the International Coffee Agreement. That is why, to use a phrase from the book's dust jacket, you may need to ''brew a pot of Joe (or two)'' before diving into Uncommon Grounds.


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The Rise and Fall and Rise of Coffee

PHOTO: Cover, ``Uncommon Grounds''

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