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Book Review: God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee by Michaele Weissman

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Sometimes a book’s title just rings true. For a huge section of the American populace, myself included, it’s not much of an intellectual leap to believe you can meet God in a hot cup of coffee. After all, my first sip in the morning might as well be the words “let there be light,” since my response is invariably “it’s good.” In this book, though, Weissman introduces readers to a coffee-fueled world far beyond the simple brew most people love.

God in a Cup is not about the great wide world of coffee production, nor is it the history of the blessed bean; the story told is much more, well, specialized. Weissman immerses herself in the culture of high-end specialty coffee, focusing on a handful of industry players. This isn’t Starbucks she’s talking about, but a group of young, entrepreneurial companies and men who are, as the subtitle suggests, obsessive in the “quest for the perfect coffee.”

As Weissman explains it, there have been three waves of coffee companies in this country. The first, beginning in and around World War II, was the freeze-dried, vacuum packed crowd who brought us (shudder) instant coffee. Their bottom line was money, and so they commodified the market, mixing in vast quantities of low-quality beans to deaden the American pallet and increase their profit margin. The second wave began in the late 60s and was made up of a mixture of Americans and northern European immigrants. These guys focused on resurrecting old world styles of roasting and sought to put flavor back into coffee. To many, this wave reached its peak in the mid-90s, most notably through the ascendancy of Starbucks. The third wave, Weissman’s main focus, is trying to take coffee somewhere even better.

The central characters of this next generation are energetic, passionate and interested in both creating great businesses and raising the quality of coffee farming around the world. There’s Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia, the so-called “rock star” of the group who everyone loves; Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture, Geoff’s close friend who seems a little more grounded; and Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee, the individualist, standing by himself out in left field. It’s almost immediately clear that Weissman has a great affection for these guys, and a clear tenderness comes through her writing, especially for Geoff and Peter. From a certain point of view, it’s understandable. She spent a lot of time with them, traveling all over the coffee growing world, while researching the book. And there’s nothing like the road to bring you closer to someone. On the other hand, this attitude gave me some hiccups as a reader since it created something of a mixed narrative.

Michaele Weissman is an accomplished author and journalist, and the detached tone I would expect from those credentials is dominant in parts of the book. She presents facts and history, and allows the interview subjects to tell the story for her. In other places, though, she becomes part of the story. There are sections, especially the ones focusing on her “trips to origin” (coffee growing countries), where the narrative suddenly becomes a travelogue. Now, I don’t object to a mixing of styles, but there does need to be a certain consistency in the blending. As a reader, I didn’t pick up on that sort of directed intention, which left me feeling a little confused as to what exactly I should expect from the book.

Execution issues aside, the specialty coffee industry is an interesting and conflicted world. Most of the people Weissman talks to are torn between a desire to serve the best coffee in the world and what seems like a genuine drive to help coffee farmers. Coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil, and yet its farmers are among the poorest people in the world. There is a vast array of reasons for this dichotomy, but the third wave guys are trying to help by placing the focus on quality. Their general philosophy is that if farmers learn how to produce better beans, buyers will pay more for it, putting more money in the farmers’ pocket. Of course, it’s not that simple. There are cooperatives, exporters and even whole governments standing between coffee growers and consumers. It’s a complicated issue which, even if the specialty model works, will not be easily untangled. If nothing else, I think the book does an excellent job of helping the reader become aware of the network through which coffee flows.

About Chris Bancells

  • robbie

    What I didn’t like the book is that the author spent too much time being a complicit cheerleader for her subjects and not enough being a critically thinking journalist.