When I jumped on a plane one year ago and headed off to Guatemala with Seattle-based coffee roaster Caffé Vita, there was little more than the occasional blog post telling “the story behind coffee.” The majority of the writing about coffee I could find was focused on the history of the bean-like-seed: stories of cunning Dutch merchants, over-caffeinated whirling dervishes, and besieged Austrians, but nothing talking about the places and people that presently grow the second most valuable crop on the planet.
When Vita and I dropped down in Guatemala City, I didn’t know a damn thing about the bean: where it was grown, the politics that drive it, the human factor that shapes it, let alone the variety of ways it is processed, tested, sold, shipped, and ritualized. I simply knew that I adored the stuff when it was prepared in a careful manner. Now, with trips to farms in Ethiopia, Brazil, and Guatemala and with several thousand of my own words under my belt I can honestly say — I still really don’t know a damn thing about the bean. But I am happy to refer authors who do. Here are a couple of books that might not make The New York Times‘ bestsellers list, but certainly will give you a slight peek inside the dynamic world of coffea arabica.
When I received an advance copy of JavaTrekker by Dean Cycon, I was beside myself with excitement. I felt like I had found my mentor: someone who had spent the last decade dotting around the globe searching for remarkable beans and looking for gritty adventure. I immediately got on the phone with his publicist and asked if we could schedule a one pot dinner in Seattle. They said yes — just midway through the book and I already had an opportunity to sit down with Dean over bowls of Guatemalan Suban-ick! Then they canceled. I sighed and kept reading.
Dean has captured something rare and lovely, and if you want to know about the people who grow coffee, read it. I predict you will be quickly hooked with stories about the jackal man in Harrar that feeds the terrifying creatures raw meat from his own mouth, the coffee region in Papua New Guinea where certain farmers still process the cherry (ripe coffee) by sucking the fruit from the bean, and a delightful village in Indonesia that offers our hero a woman for the evening in trade for higher coffee prices. But if you are like me you will be a bit weighed down and ultimately tire of the self-congratulatory tone of his adventures. It starts out slowly but eventually builds to a full-on opera about the merits of Dean: the bridge he built, the water he provided, the water buffalo named after him, the firstborn named after him, the college he funded — in the end it becomes a little much. My hat does go off to the man, as he has made a remarkable impact, and I sure hope he changes his mind and joins us for dinner in Seattle. I would genuinely like to eat stew, drink Guatemalan wine, and hear about that Indonesian girl.
A brand new book, and yes, another one pot dinner invitation (they said yes as well) hit the shelves last month with the grandiose title God in a Cup. This is the tale of a self described late-blooming adventurer who decides to get the scoop on the “third wave” coffee movement after researching a piece on baristas for The New York Times. The central drama in this approachable account is that of specialty coffee’s most laureled god-child: the Geisha bean. Reputedly originating from a mythical wild coffee forest in the highlands of Ethiopia, this peculiar long and narrow bean eventually found its way to Costa Rica and Panama where at extreme altitudes it produces a spare crop of the most delicate, frenzy-inducing, transformative (and yes, over-hyped) coffee on the globe. This past year, the top lots of Geisha sold for over $100/pound — almost 50 times the cost of some of the finest specialty coffee on the market!
While weaving together the soap opera drama of Panama’s vaunted treasure, Michaela Weissman offers a poignant 3,000-foot view of the very complex coffee market, circling in closer on the niche “third-wavers” and landing spot down in the laps of three personalities that have thus far defined the new movement. Third-wave? This doesn’t refer to feminist coffee or the riot grrrl movement, but instead to the rise of hundreds of small independent coffee shops that have grown plump in the long shadow of Starbucks. Roasters and baristas who have focused on unerring quality, direct source coffees, and fancy brewing gizmos like the clover machine (which is now famously owned by Starbucks).
I must admit that what I enjoyed most about her handsome book is also what made me squirm a little: the US weekly-like coverage of the quirky personalities shaping the movement. Duane Sorenson of Stumptown takes a keen, almost intimate beating; Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia is made to seem like a swashbuckling pirate; and we end up knowing way too much about Peter Giuliano’s broken marriage and subsequent solitary life. I have been learning bits and pieces about these gentlemen over the past year and it was a bit like going from a first date to divorce court in seconds flat — exhilarating but a little disconcerting. These fellows aren’t movie stars, but now they understand the tabloid sting of overexposure.
I have an immense amount of respect for both authors. The coffee road is bumpy as hell, spiritually challenging, and filled with more murkiness than clarity. Yet somehow both Weismann and Cycon have etched out smart, funny, and at times, crystalline thoughts on the maddeningly complex world of coffee.