Saturday, December 10, 2011

Coffee Talk:
The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew
By Morton Satin
Prometheus Books

Since a book on coffee is likely to be read mostly by coffee fanatics, there are several requirements. First, it must provide glowing detail about how wonderful coffee is, and how good it is for you. Fortunately, the latest health studies have been very positive, so that’s not the problem it used to be.   So author Morton Satin accomplished this easily.  He notes certain excesses and dark sides in coffee industries, but coffee drinkers are familiar with the bitter and the sweet.

 Satin also provides the requisite history with aplomb, from “The Legend of Khaldi and his Dancing Goats” (What could they be eating to make them dance?) to Coffee Trivia and Coffee Quotes (“The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportional to the quantity of coffee he drinks”—Sir James Mackintosh.) It’s also important to name famous coffee addicts (like Bach and Balzac) because fanatics love company, especially if it makes them look smart and sophisticated. Satin devotes more pages than usual on the evolution of coffeehouse culture, something that’s fascinated me, though I’d be interested in more recent history.

All that is preliminary to the second and more important requirement. A book on coffee must confront the coffee addict’s greatest anxiety: that he or she is not getting the best cup of coffee possible. Some readers will focus on the details of coffee types, countries of origin, and types of roasting, etc. Others will skip to chapters on how coffee beverages are professionally prepared, and how to make the best brew at home. For example, one method I use (besides the mokka) is the French press (though it, like so much in coffee history, started in Italy.) Satin recommends letting the coffee brew for three to four minutes. The last coffee book I read said four to six minutes.

Well, I can tell you where I got the best espresso in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, or the little café in Cambridge that made an unparalleled French Roast, or that the Coffee People in Portland make the best mocha. But I can’t tell you whether it’s better to brew for three or six minutes. Which is why I’ll probably consult another coffee book. Just reading about all the methods and their history evokes coffee nostalgia: its elevation of the ordinary.  Like coffee hot off the stovetop with milk and sugar in grandmother’s kitchen, mother’s afternoon chats with neighbors with coffee poured from the perculator into slightly translucent green ceramic mugs. Staring into the black existential depths of a paper cup in the college coffee shop, when midwestern girls who drank their coffee black with sugar were exotic.  From urban cafes--in the heady days of Vancouver and Seattle just before Starbucks bought everybody out--to coffee around the campfire, seeded with grounds.   And so much more.

This book (complete with entertaining espressilogue) is a more stylish looking volume than most, which adds to the self-congratulations that is another prime factor in books for fanatics of all kinds, but particularly for something so associated with both romance and inspiration, the heart and the head—the ordinary elixir called coffee.  

No comments: