God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee

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Can a cup of coffee reveal the face of God? Can it become the holy grail of modern-day knights errant who brave hardship and peril in a relentless quest for perfection? Can it change the world? These questions are not rhetorical. When highly prized coffee beans sell at auction for $50, $100, or $150 a pound wholesale (and potentially twice that at retail), anything can happen. In God in a Cup, journalist and late-blooming adventurer Michaele Weissman treks into an exotic and paradoxical realm of specialty coffee where the successful traveler must be part passionate coffee connoisseur, part ambitious entrepreneur, part activist, and part Indiana Jones. Her guides on the journey are the nation's most heralded coffee business hotshots—Counter Culture's Peter Giuliano, Intelligentsia's Geoff Watts, and Stump-town's Duane Sorenson. With their obsessive standards and fiercely competitive baristas, these roasters are creating a new culture of coffee connoisseurship in America—a culture in which $10 lattes are both a purist's pleasure and a way to improve the lives of third-world farmers. If you love a good cup of coffee—or a great adventure story—you'll love this unprecedented look up close at the people and passions behind today's best beans.


Michaele Weissman
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God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee
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America's obsession with coffee can be traced back to the surge of coffee shops spurred by the popularity of Starbucks in the 90's.  Suddenly ordinary people that had been happy with their morning cup of Folgers wanted something different, something fancy with an Italian background.  But how much do we all really know about the most popular hot drink in the nation?

Michaele Weissman's book starts at the very beginning, back in the late sixties when the roots of the current coffee fascination were planted.  She introduces us to the main players on the scene, many of which are familiar to consumers (heard of Peet's Coffee?), and then moves quickly to the newest and most influential movers and shakers in the industry.  She has chosen to present the young and liberal owners of some of the most popular coffee shops in the country, many of which are also familiar to readers, and gets deep into their heads to figure out exactly why coffee is so incredibly fascinating.

The enthusiasm of the newest entrepreneurs in the industry soon leads Michaele to tasting contests where coffee is "cupped" just like a good wine.  The coffee is tasted for tinges of the natural environment the beans are grown in, and the reader is drawn into the intricacy of identifying which coffee deserves the highest rating based on smoothness, flavor, and that little something extra.  It's a whole new world, and a far cry from the instant coffees of the fifties.

But one of the biggest themes of Michaele's book is where the coffee actually comes from and who is responsible for providing us with our daily cup.  We all know that coffee comes originally from Ethiopia, but the newest farms are in areas of the developing world, places like Nicaragua.  These smaller Central and South American countries are the hotspots for coffee production in the current market, but there's a small problem: these farms are normally small and poor.

Coffee production in the smaller, developing nations relies mainly on the production of small, family owned farms.  These farms rely solely on the popularity of their product in rich countries like the US and Japan, and coffee buyers can play an instrumental part in which coffee becomes the next best thing on the open market.  The largest coffee companies regularly send representatives to these areas to look for the next up-and-coming thing, and amazingly, these are often the same entrepreneurs that are helping to change the industry.

These new entrepreneurs are not only interested in furthering the coffee industry back home, but also helping the farmers in these far-flung locations.  The new focus of the industry is to be more conscious about the effect that coffee buying has on the small farmer and try to bring many of these farmers out of obscurity and poverty.  With prices reaching $130 a pound for the best coffee, sales can make or break the small landowner.  The US buyers would like to try and regulate the market to keep the prices more stable.  Farmers that lose everything often pull all of their trees out and plant flowers, which is a considerable loss to the industry.

But there's always the mystique of the coffee to consider.  A recent winner of a Panama cupping contest is from a type of varietal called Geisha, which buyers believe somehow made its way from Africa.  The great mystery is how.  Buyers have traveled from Panama to Ethiopia in search of the answer, but the mystery is what adds some extra spice to the story and myth to the industry.

Michaele's book is an absorbing look at the coffee industry and how it has grown from something that most people didn't give a second thought to something that many Americans now make part of their daily routine with often passionate loyalty.  For those that are part of this world, the Starbucks devotees and their like, this book will just feed the yearning for me.  For those that have never been caught up in the fervor, it makes an enlightening, if not absorbing, read.


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