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Hot on the Caffeine Trail

  • Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, Basic Books, 1999, 525 pages
  • Grab a cup of joe and crack open Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, a tale of the tasty brew and the industry that's inextricably linked with politics and history worldwide.

    Obviously a coffee addict, author Mark Pendergrast -- who himself even traveled to Latin America to pick coffee beans -- weaves the interlocking stories of how this labor-intensive crop came to colonize the world, build fortunes, inspire revolutions and spawn an unrivaled loyalty around the world.

    And Pendergrast's book has hit bookshelves just as the specialty coffee craze may have reached a boiling point, with companies like Starbucks (SBUX) desperately trying to brew up the next coffee success.

    But Pendergrast starts with the discovery of the green coffee bean in Ethiopia, traces the arrival of coffee from the Ottoman Empire to the Western world in the 1600s and brings us to today.

    War and coffee, it seems, made good bedfellows, although it wasn't until the American Civil War that coffee became a staple at soldier campfires. Coffee dynasties like that of James Folger in San Francisco also boomed with the California gold rush, proving an instant success among miners. By the late 1800s, America was consuming so much coffee and was hit so hard by fluctuating prices that the New York Coffee Exchange was founded in 1881 to track the day's prices around the world.

    Mark Pendergrast
    Making the most of an addiction
    Photo Credit: Betty Molnar

    Prohibition helped supplant bars and saloons with coffeehouses, but it was World War II that solidified America's addiction to coffee, with more than 75 million pounds of coffee shipped to U.S. forces. "While the war did not make the world safe for democracy, it had addicted veterans to coffee," Pendergrast writes.

    In 1923, U.S. per capita consumption of coffee rose to 13 pounds from 10 to 11, with Americans consuming half the world's supply. And by 1946, that figure jumped to 19.8 pounds.

    Advertising indeed helped pour coffee into the national lexicon. A famous slogan came about when President Theodore Roosevelt sampled Maxwell House Coffee -- started as the private blend of a prestigious Nashville hotel -- and proclaimed it "Good to the last drop!" And the invention of the coffee break by the lobbying group Pan American Coffee Bureau helped, too. "The coffee break had been so thoroughly publicized that the phrase had become a part of our language," notes Pendergrast.

    Coffee also went corporate with the growth of supermarkets. Hills Brothers, Folgers and MJB brands adopted the vacuum can, and Postum bought Maxwell House and renamed itself General Foods.

    Coffee remained America's favorite national drink until it had to compete with other caffeinated beverages -- namely Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP). But that forced coffee producers to cut prices and spread cheap, less tasty brands across the market.

    All of that laid the groundwork for quality coffee to make a comeback with Chock Full o'Nuts (CHF), founded by William Black in 1953. His tiny upstart astonished the coffee trade in the midst of a price crisis brought on by a horrific Brazilian coffee crop frost. With supermarket shelving at a premium, his one-can/one-grind required less space and relied on premium pricing.

    The relationship of coffee and advertising turned even more symbiotic with the creation of proud-yet-humble Juan Valdez, the mythical Colombian coffee grower who "captured the American imagination" in 1960.

    What's more, advertising helped the coffee industry survive health scares, starting with scientific studies allegedly linking forms of cancer to excessive caffeine intake. Sales of decaffeinated coffee surged. In 1976 General Foods hired actor Robert Young to pitch its Sanka brand, just on the heels of Young's long-running role on television as Marcus Welby, M.D.

    The late-20th-century fascination with coffee, says Pendergrast, started with the "renewed quest for quality spearheaded by disaffected baby boomers" and the Black Frost of 1975, which boosted prices so much that the percentage gap between inferior and quality coffees narrowed. Specialty coffee also proved to be the perfect drink for the go-go '80s. By the mid-1990s, it was clear to industry observers that "major roasters had lost their way, while gourmet small-scale coffees were booming," he notes.

    By 1995, one specialty roaster emerged as the clear leader the fragmented market: Starbucks. Established in 1971, the pioneering Seattle company caught the eye of plastic salesman Howard Schultz. Schultz became head of marketing and pushed Starbucks to adopt the coffee culture of Italian espresso bars, introducing the U.S. to strong, dark-roasted cappuccinos and lattes. In 1992, the company went public with overwhelming success. Pendergrast gives an interesting, if somewhat brief, description of the cult of Starbucks -- especially timely given the company's current financial troubles.

    But despite problems at Starbucks now, the market for all forms of coffee is a healthy $80 billion annually. So settle down with a cup and get to the bottom of your addiction.

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