Book Review: “God in a Cup” Part 1

2011 June 21
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I’ve been wanting to read “God in a Cup” for awhile now and our recent trip to New Orleans (via train) gave me the reading time I needed to do just that. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, having been in the coffee business and knowing personally some of the people mentioned. Author Michaele Weissman did an excellent and balanced job of chronicling the modern pursuit of the finest coffee. I’ve broken up my book review into three parts to make it easier to digest. Furthermore, I have added commentary and observations on related topics that may not be supported by the author.

Overview

“God in a Cup – The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee” is named after a statement by Don Holly of Green Mountain Coffee who, after partaking of a remarkable coffee known as Hacienda La Esmeralda Special, exclaimed that he had seen the face of God in that cup. For him it was a revelatory experience of almost a spiritual nature that a coffee could be so perfect and awe-inspiring. The book attempts to tell the story of a group of coffee people (almost entirely from the U.S.) who are on an obsessive quest for that sort of perfect coffee.

The Coffee People

The story is told through three main characters, all of which are labeled as “third wave” coffee people (more on this label in subsequent posts). Each comes from one of the big three coffee companies that are considered influential in the “third wave” coffee movement, namely: Counter Culture Coffee (Durham, NC), Intelligentsia (Chicago), and Stumptown (Portland). Peter Giuliano is the coffee buyer for Counter Culture, Geoff Watts is the coffee buyer for Intelligentsia, and Duane Sorenson is the founder of Stumptown. In each case, Weissman points out that they are quirky people who did not fit into “normal” society and really found their meaning and joy in the pursuit of great coffee. She follows them to the farms around the world, to cupping competitions in various countries, and trade meetings to help the reader understand the lengths to which they go to procure coffee. They are a devoted group that is willing to endure the hardships of travel (often to very poor and dangerous places), long hours, and strains on personal relationships.

Direct Trade Coffee

A common idea among the three main characters is that it is important to interact with the actual grower of coffee if one is going to make improvements in the quality of coffee. The quality of the coffee is assessed through a standardized “cupping” procedure, which results in a numerical score. USAID plus coffee organizations have worked hard to develop cupping labs in the coffee producing countries so that evaluations can be done closer to where the coffee is actually grown. Each of the three firms tries to form relationships with farmers and tries to offer incentives to farmers whose coffees grade high. Commonly, coffee is pooled together at a co-op and it is impossible to reward quality, except on a district level. The “third wave” firms have had some success in being able to get coffee segregated in lot and micro-lots from specific farms. These segregated coffees can then be evaluated on their own merits and sold via auction or other contractual arrangement. This is often referred to as “direct trade” coffee.

Esmeralda Special

A second story line revolves around the star of the current coffee world Esmerald Special. There is much puzzlement about how these unusual coffee plants, called Geisha, arrived in Panama in the first place. All coffee originated in Ethiopia. It was first formally cultivated in Yemen from Ethiopian green coffee beans. All of the coffee in the New World was brought here by explorers and business people and this importing has occurred over the past three centuries. Nearly all of the New World coffee is of two variants: Bourbon and Typica, of which Geisha is neither. Ethiopia has a huge range of coffee variants with some people speculating that there may be over 10,000 types. Much time in the book is spent on people working on various theories: there are three towns in Ethiopia called Gesha, perhaps the variant came from there; perhaps it came from a Costa Rican research station that had some Ethiopian types; perhaps the shape of the bean implies a family link to longberry harrar, also from Ethiopia. More than a few other farmers want to get their hands on it so that they can compete in this rarified market. A 2007 micro-lot Esmeralda Special sold for $130 per pound (over $200, once roasted and retailed), which is about 50 times the price for basic Arabica coffee.

Undercurrents

Within the story, there are several undercurrents which the author illuminates but does not attempt to resolve. First is motivation. What motivates the featured coffee people? Altruism? Business segment? Competition? Pride? Second is how direct is “direct trade” and does it just sound good from an American point of view? What about “Fair Trade”? Third is what will happen to these “third wave” firms in the future? Fourth is what is the nature of an “obsessive quest” for anything? I shall discuss these undercurrents in some detail in my next post on “God in a Cup”

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4 Responses
  1. June 21, 2011

    One thing I wish was more oft discussed in the price of coffee is it’s rarity. From what I understand, coffee beans can be expensive not because they are the best tasting but because they are more rare, or have more costly tariffs, or are difficult to process.

    • July 18, 2011

      The rarity of coffee is a funny thing. Coffee, generally, is not that rare: it is second to oil as an internationally traded commodity. That being said, certain great coffees are pretty rare. The limited acreage, the labor to harvest carefully (and multiple times in the season), and the labor to exactingly process and mill the coffee make it rare and more costly than commodity coffee. In recent years, the demand for great coffees has increased and give supply and demand: prices have escalated. This is not new.

      When we were in the coffee business 20 years ago, Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee was considered to be some of the world’s best coffee. It was very expensive, even by today’s standards. One reason is that a hurricane had damaged the crops and infrastructure and the Japanese (being desirous of all things great and expensive) wisely lent Jamaica the money to rebuild, with the understanding that they would get the allotment of the bulk of the best coffee. This squeezed the market tremendously. One winter, we bought a single wooden barrel of Wallensford Estate Peaberry (specially sorted natural occurrence of one football shaped bean instead of two flat faced beans in a single coffee cherry) which was the rarest of the rare and sold it for $50 per pound. In today’s dollars, that is close to $80 per pound.

  2. bbqtad permalink
    June 24, 2011

    How exciting to see your Roaster Project vision take shape. As a big fan of shopping local whenever possible, I am thrilled to see so many Gilbert businesses involved in this fantastic undertaking.

    • July 18, 2011

      Thanks, Tad. I think it is important that we repatriate manufacturing to the US. It is also important to support the local economy, particularly with manufacturing because the multiplier effect is so great. Thankfully, the Town of Gilbert has some incredibly talented firms that do amazing work. They must just be intentionally sought out.

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