There’s nothing better than settling into a seat at your favorite café with a good cup of coffee and a really good book. Well, maybe there’s one thing that can make it better — the book could be about coffee. (Ooh, meta!)
Despite the internet, the past few years have been a boom period for the bean-headed bookworms among us. Colin Harmon’s approachable and informative What I Know about Running Coffee Shops just came out in 2017; James Hoffmann’s released both The World Atlas of Coffee and his blog retrospective The Best of JimSeven since 2014; The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee is a lovely and lighter look inside the brand and its philosophy (with recipes!); and great technical writing like Everything but Espresso by Scott Rao can help you up your game.
While we all want to read what’s new and flashy, there’s also something to be said for revisiting the classics. It’s a very humbling exercise to realize that there were people thinking long and hard about coffee even before barista competitions and pumpkin-spice lattes came into existence. Plus, old books actually smell like coffee!
To get you started in stocking a really well-rounded coffee library, here are a few favorite books from the annals of Arabica.
All about Coffee, by William H. Ukers (1922)
The ultimate coffee tome, this gem is part text book, part master class, and part deep exploration of coffee in all areas, from botany and agriculture to early sensory analysis to the grindings of the coffee market to the complex logistics of shipping. It’s remarkable how much of the material here is still relevant, and how snappy and readable the writing still is after all this time.
Autobiography of a Business Woman, by Alice Foote MacDougall (1928)
Now mostly forgotten, during the 1920s Alice Foote MacDougall was the coffeehouse queen of New York City. She was also the first female coffee broker on record, renting a tiny jobbing office in the Coffee District in the early 1900s and slowly building an empire on the strength of her coffee and waffles. She also wrote two cookbooks, including one literally called Coffee and Waffles. She lost her fortune in the Great Depression, but her Europhile interior designs were ahead of their time, long before Starbucks was a gleam in Howard Schultz’s eyes.
The Book of Coffee and Tea, by David, Joel, and Karl Schapira (originally published in 1975, revised and reissued 1996)
This father-and-sons guidebook by longtime New York coffee merchants the Schapiras gives heaps of insight into the dawn of the specialty movement, and stands as a lasting love-letter to what was formerly known as “gourmet” coffee. Equally insightful is its informative but not snobbish exploration of tea.
Brown Gold: The Amazing Story of Coffee, by Andrés Uribe C. (1954)
Colombian coffee insider Andrés Uribe Campuzano wrote what might be considered one of the first “popular” books on coffee: As opposed to a trade, technical, or market-focused analysis that was common in coffee writing, Uribe C. went romantic, telling the story of the small farmer and painting a picture of the Colombian mountainside with his lovely yet remarkably astute words.
Coffee: A Dark History, by Antony Wild (2005)
Coffee historian and longtime trader Wild wrote an amusing, sarcastic, and indeed sometimes quite dark history of coffee that also manages to unravel some of the myths, unearth some of the mysteries, and right some of the misconceptions that have swirled around the bean and beverage. His emphasis on the little-known coffee connections between Napoleon and the 19th-century French poet Rimbaud alone are worth the read.
Coffee: Epic of a Commodity, by H.E. Jacob (originally published 1935, reissued 2015)
A journalist investigating the coffee industry becomes captivated by the complexities of the political, social, and financial underpinnings, and the result is this epic of an epic about an epic of a commodity. With sly wit and a curious voice, Jacob even details some of the coffee crises at the time, including the large-scale burning of coffee sacks in Brazil in attempt to control the arc of supply and demand.
Coffee: Its History, Classification and Description, by Joseph M. Walsh (1894)
Every generation of coffee professionals probably thinks it “discovered” this or that bit of information about the farming, processing, roasting, or brewing of the stuff — so there’s nothing quite as humbling as reading a 19th century book and realizing how much we used to know, and then forgot, and then “discovered” again. Free download available.
History and Reminiscences of Lower Wall Street and Vicinity, by Abram Wakeman (1914)
Coffee traders, New York–lovers, and anyone who geeks out about the C-market would do well to read this breezy and off-the-cuff nostalgic look at the early Coffee District in and around very-downtown Manhattan, where the early jobbers were largely based due to the proximity to the ports — and, therefore, the coffee shipments coming in. Author Wakeman gives a truly fascinating account of the events leading up to the inception of the New York Coffee Exchange, the first coffee futures market, in the 1880s. Free download available.
Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, by Multatuli (1860)
There’s Fair Trade, and then there’s Max Havelaar. This book is an incredible takedown of the Dutch colonial regime in Indonesia, written under a pen name by a Dutch controller on the island of Sumatra named Eduard Douwes Dekker. Its satiric exploration of the brutality, greed, inhumanity, and inefficiency of the Dutch toward the people in Java inspired not only some early political reform — the so-called Ethical Policy — but also inspired the earliest movements toward fair trade and responsible marketing in coffee and other commodities. Free download available.
Scientific Marketing of Coffee, by Joseph P. Quinn (1960)
Anyone in the business of selling coffee — and we’re all in the business of selling coffee — would do well to read this book, published by the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Company and offering a lot of startling insight into a coffee industry at a consumer crossroads. Competition, high prices, decreased interest in coffee by young people — Quinn analyses it all, and offers actually still very useful advice with regards to effective marketing, promotion, and consumer engagement in coffee, beyond also being an interesting sociological snapshot of a significant era in the industry’s history.
Ever Meister is a journalist and coffee professional who has written about and worked in the specialty coffee industry for more than 20 years. In addition to writing about coffee for both mainstream and trade publications, Meister is the author of "New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History" (The History Press 2017).