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Uncommon Grounds: The History Of Coffee And How It Transformed Our World
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Uncommon Grounds: The History Of Coffee And How It Transformed Our World

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3.61 of 5 stars 3.61  ·  rating details  ·  963 ratings  ·  104 reviews
Since its discovery in an Ethiopian rainforest centuries ago, coffee has brewed up a rich and troubled history, according to Uncommon Grounds, a sweeping book by business writer Mark Pendergrast. Over the years, the beverage has fomented revolution, spurred deforestation, enriched a few while impoverishing the many, and addicted millions with its psychoactive caffeine. Cof...more
Kindle Edition, 504 pages
Published (first published 1999)
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Community Reviews

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Jason
Years ago, I'd read a book called The Devil's Cup by Stewart Lee Allen, which functioned as a combination travelogue/history of coffee throughout the world, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author traveled throughout Africa and the Middle East meeting unsavory characters and having memorable misadventures (at one point finding himself an art smuggler) while retracing the path coffee took from Eastern Africa through Yemen and the Ottoman Empire through Europe and into the New World.

I'd worried when...more
KeTURah
Aug 04, 2008 KeTURah rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: noone
I'm giving this book only 2 stars due to poor writing and even worse editing. It seems as if after the first 175 pages the editors (feeling the same as I did) got bored reading the manuscript and just sent it to the printers out of exhaustion. This is most evident when you get to the last 50 pages, when we finally learn the most basic facts about the thing we had been reading about for such a painfully long time: coffee's chemical composition, and the scientific facts about caffeine's affect on...more
Dawn
Aug 23, 2008 Dawn rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone interested in the history of coffee.
If you want an in depth, detailed look at the history of coffee, this is a great book to pick up. From its discovery in Africa, to how it became the second largest export in the world (with oil being the first); from plantation to cup, and everything in between, this book covers it all. It even describes the evolution of brewing techniques and instant coffees, weaving the history of coffee in with the history of world.


I work in the coffee industry as mostly a barista. I picked up this book in t...more
Meg
I have to give the author credit; it can't have been easy to make coffee soporific. But that's just what Mark Pendergrast has done with Uncommon Grounds!

"Coffee provides one fascinating thread, stitching together the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, medicine, and business, and offering a way to follow the interactions that have formed a global economy," he states in the concluding chapter. I totally agree; I think that that would have been a fascinating book. But that...more
Paul
Jan 01, 2009 Paul rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who are serious about their coffee and want to know more about it.
If you ever wanted to know the full and total history of the bewitching brew so many of us drink, otherwise known as "coffee", then you can't go wrong with this book.

It talks about everything for coffee - the origins, the history, the long and bloody history of the bean and its dominance for so long of Brazilian crops. How it was there to take the place of tea after the Boston Tea Party, how it was made and marketed in the early days, and all the companies that have been involved in coffee sinc...more
Matthew
Uncommon Grounds is exactly what I was looking for. I had finished a similar commodity book (Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky) and was blown away. I was hoping for the same experience and am happy to say that I found something similar. The author goes into quite a lot of detail about the origin, trade, branding and questionable medicinal qualities of coffee in a relatively entertaining fashion. It gets a little bogged down at times but overall, Pendergrast succinctly digests coffee's hist...more
Tso William
I rarely rated a book less than three stars but I made an exception for this book. The title, 'Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed our World', is totally misleading, not to say deceiving. It is better phrased as 'A History of Cheap Brands of Coffee in the United States of America'. I read this book with the expectation that coffee, as a healthily addictive drink, can unite people of different nationalities with its unique culture. What Mark Pendergrast wrote instead wa...more
Danielle
This is actually a really good book for the genre- I'm never sure if the stars are supposed to correlate to my internal satisfaction level entirely, or if some space is to be made for differences in genre. In any case, this book is a history of the advertising and economics of coffee and goes a long way to explaining the relative poverty of South America's coffee producing countries. It's also a fairly snobby history of how a cuppa joe's been brewed in this country since its inception- snobby in...more
Brandon
This was the first book I read in regards to the craft that I am taking up. It was good. I enjoyed a lot of it. I also flipped through a lot of it.

The information was very thorough and I believe it to be well researched. I will say that some of the information presented carries a tone of guilt for the privileged. I will admit that it is difficult not to pull this information up without getting sucked into the pity of the third world.

I loved all of the information about the coffee houses and cu...more
Richard Ward
I seldom give up on a book, but I just couldn't finish this one, nor even get far into it. I love coffee, and I love quirky history books, so I was expecting to really enjoy this. Too often history consists of "and then this head of state did this, and then another head of state did that," as though humanity is government and nothing more. This book should have been none of that, right‽ Yet what I read of it was just more of the same as ever, treating political history as though it is the only h...more
Matt
Very interesting history of coffee with a good awareness of the social inequality of the coffee economy. I wasn't very impressed with the short "how to brew the perfect cup of coffee" section at the end, and the wasn't much info on brewing in general. But as a history book it was a great read.
Jim
I confess that I tried; I tried to sit ddown and read the history of coffee, and it was just too much. Too much history, and too much information to absorb. It's a wonderful book, but overwhelming.
Sean
An excellent and exhaustive commodity history, with a sharp focus on the business aspect of everyone's favorite drink, especially from the nineteenth century forward.
Justin Hall
Great book for coffee lovers and gives a very detailed history of coffee. I just could not really stay focused on it and it was a bit dry at times. Being a barista and coffee shop owner I would definitely suggest it to staff members and customers to give them a good grasp on how important coffee is to the world and what it means to do it right. I think the only thing I have against this book is that I felt like I was reading it for a college class and not for pleasure and if you know me I am all...more
Ana
Feb 20, 2014 Ana marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
As many other reviewers have mentioned, the book title is rather misleading. Or perhaps I chose to misconstrue it: when I think "our world" I think not just 100 pages of everyone else, and the rest of the United States.

I have been looking for a definitive read on the history of coffee, and this one seemed promising at first. It does take a very brief tour around the world, looking at some of the more scandalous tidbits of coffee's history. This book is not meant to be a scholarly text, and it d...more
Mark
Man this book was more interesting than I anticipated! The history of coffee as a commodity wasn't particularly gripping but I found the social and cultural aspects of coffee crazy interesting. Also it is difficult to get your head around the wild and often bloody ride that a pound of beans takes to get to your pantry.

In no particular order here are some interesting tidbits:
* Switching people's after-work drinks from a depressant (pubs) to a stimulant (coffeehouses) caused people to stop singin...more
Meepspeeps
I agree that this book is "the history of coffee," but I'm not sure I understand how coffee "transformed our world" after reading it. I enjoyed some of the detailed history, including harvesting and pricing issues for farmers, and the competition among early to mid 20th Century USA coffee brands. I would have appreciated some of the political and other details of shifting power from a few landowners to the farmers in coffee-growing countries. I didn't really get a sense of what needs to be done,...more
Beth
This book deserves 3.5 stars- just can't rate it that way. After being in the airport in Addis Abba Ethiopia and seeing a woman sell the best tasting cup of coffee ever drank, and knowing that coffee began in the area, this book recommended by NPR became a MUST read. It's got the beginnings, the spread of coffee around the world, the change in the US from bulk selling to packaged sales. One finds out about how the various companies grew from entrepreneurs to coffee barons and then morphed into t...more
Fiona
A interesting and ambitious book with perhaps too much emphasis on the American side of the equation. If the central thesis was about the uncommon and indeed inequal grounds which the coffee industry has produced, then perhaps more emphasis could have been given to the producers in Africa, Indonesia and Latin America. More discussion on the European coffee plantations in the colonies, which is briefly mentioned, would also strengthen that argument. Some discussion on the cultural aspects of coff...more
Katherine
Are you interested in the price manipulations of the coffee trade during the last century and a half by basically everyone involved? No? Well, too bad because that's at least half of what this book is. The other half is mergers and acquisitions by mainly American companies as well as their ad campaigns. There was at least a little about the cultural aspects of coffee but if you're interested in anyplace other than the U.S. you're out of luck.
To be fair, the price shenanigans and the advertisemen...more
Jason
As a two cup a day coffee drinker, I was drawn to find out more about this wonderful beverage. Mark does not disappoint. Beginning at the myth of the goat herder finding the beans in the forest of Ethopia, the author takes us through the history of coffee and tells how this commoditiy has shaped world history. It is no coincidence that coffee-producing countries have suffered through years, decades really, of repression and revolution. Think of all of the Latin American countries that saw dictat...more
Wilson Hines
May 20, 2012 Wilson Hines rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Coffee aficionados
I read this book a couple years ago and I just saw it in a friend's library here and decided to put it on my virtual shelves.

The book is well written and it starts from the beginning of coffee in Ethiopia with the legend of Kaldi and takes you through it's carriage into Europe via the Muslims into Vienna (which was very intriguing), and then onward to the New World.

Further onward, it gets into how essential to morale coffee was to militaries throughout the world for the past 300 years! Finall...more
Henry
Jun 03, 2008 Henry rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
I thought that this book was pretty good. I was really able to see how my coffee was produced every single time i drink it. It made me realize how important it was to give thanks to those who had helped sort and helped pick the coffee beans because they make so little money that it was not enough to support their families. The employees of the coffee growing plantations in Ethiopia, Africa, is making about $1 per day. Most of the time their salary depended on how well the coffee was bing sold. I...more
Mic
I'm not a busy person so I read the entire book, but if I were recommending it to a busy friend I'd tell them to read the first few chapters that cover coffee's discovery and world expansion (which I found very interesting), then skip a large bulk of the middle which painstakingly (painful for the reader) details internal coffee wars between businessmen and global stockprices. Then I'd tell them t skip to the end and read US coffee history, maybe starting around WWII and into the small-roaster q...more
Leo Robertson
Did not read this so much as skim it for research, but I found everything I wanted and it looks good, so looking forward to returning later when I have more time :-)
Melynda
Mar 15, 2014 Melynda rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
Recommended to Melynda by: NPR
Shelves: favorites
Loved it! Who would of thought coffee could be all this. I think I'll re-read this. It even gives advice on how to make a great cup of coffee.
Alex
This book may end up hooking me on coffee. It's not a fantastic book -- too much broad survey of names and events discussed briefly and forgotten, too little ongoing historical or scientific analysis -- but despite that, the care and energy and richness of coffee as a human endeavor really came through. (As did the misery and poverty of the growers.) Besides lowering my resistance to drinking coffee regularly, I also picked up quite a number of interesting historical factoids, and can't help but...more
Rusty
For those wanting to learn about the history of coffee, this is a good primer. While sometimes a bit encyclopedic, it is easy to read and well researched. (As a grad student, it annoyed me there were not formal footnotes for each paragraph, but the author aimed for a general audience.) Pendergrast detailed the many variables that contribute to the availability of good coffee: weather, politics, (un)stable economies, volatile or stable governments, overproduction, labor, roasting, etc.

For those...more
Marks54
This book presents a history of coffee. It is well written and very entertaining, both in just informing about the details of coffee - for those who didn't know or who had been stuck on instant. I admit this is less a problem today. It is also important for discussing how coffee and been branded and sold in the US. This does not go into detail on the Starbucks phenomenon, but it is highly relevant on most other aspects of the business. This is a really quotable source of cool data for conversati...more
Mckinley
More serious that The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Allen (which is a very fun read). They both cover the same ground although this one goes into more detail and covers more history. With a focus on America, since it has been the largest consumer of the beverage, there is an overview of the impact of cultivating coffee in the parts of the world where it and has been attempted to grow it. A lot about the commercial nature and economic impact in 20th century USA which...more
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Mark Pendergrast was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, the fourth of seven children in a family that valued civil rights, the environment, sailing, reading, and games of chase and charades. He earned a B.A. in English literature from Harvard, taught high school and elementary school, then went back to Simmons College for a masters in library science and worked as an academic librarian—all the w...more
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