The experience of writing the book was an interesting one, and not always pleasant. The process involved finding as much information as I could, trying to pare it down to what I considered important and then doing my best to fact-check what I found.
There were moments when there would be little epiphanies, though these weren’t always good feeling ones. I came into coffee at a time when speciality was on the rise. I came to know coffee through stories of direct trade, relationships with producers, trying to pay premiums and to push quality forward.
What didn’t make sense to me were certifications like Fair Trade. I was dismissive of them because I couldn’t see how they fit into my world of speciality. They didn’t focus on quality at all! How ridiculous! What was worse, so many of my favourite coffees came from single estates – and when I learned that a single estate couldn’t ever be Fair Trade certified it seemed even more laughable to me. (Ah, the arrogance of youth…)
Writing the history of each coffee producing country brought my foolishness and shortsightedness into sharp focus. What I wanted to do was look at the history of each country to understand how it had ended up with the level of traceability it had: why was coffee in Central America so much more traceable than coffee in Papua New Guinea or Ethiopia?
Each and every chapter could likely have contained a sub heading of “That time the Europeans were complete b*stards” because, invariably in every country there was such a time. The English, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Belgians (especially the Belgians – who were often utterly evil and no one seems to take them to task about this any more) did atrocious, unspeakable things – from a place of greed, ignorance and a callous belief in their superiority. It got to the point during the research that I was just waiting, as I worked chronologically through the local coffee production timeline, for the bad things to happen – I was never disappointed…
That doesn’t mean that all the terrible things were done by colonists. The painful past and guilt of land ownership, of theft and displacement, of abuse and slavery, belongs to a great many people in each and every country. This doesn’t mean everyone who owns a coffee farm is a terrible person, or that every person who owns a coffee farm has some historical skeleton in the closet – it just means it’s all complicated. Certainly more complicated than I can deal with in this post, or within the book.
When you look at the past the actions of those who set up schemes like Fair Trade make more sense – and the idea that it was designed to support cooperatives, rather than those whose families had acquired land at some stage, makes a great deal of sense. This side of coffee’s history is rarely on display, and while the price crashes of the past are well known I don’t think many people in my coffee generation are particularly aware of this stuff.
Like I said – the history of coffee and land ownership raise incredibly big, difficult issues, and I didn’t really look to tackle them in the book. I hope people who read through the chapters are inspired to read a little more on the subject. For a quick overview, and a starting place on the subject, have a look at the Wikipedia article on land reform by country.
Writing about Guatemala was one of the most depressing chapters for me. You can read plenty about it online, but the summary would be that 10 years of progressive land reform between 1944 and 1954 didn’t sit well with US owned United Fruit Company. Their big, very profitable business, owned 42 percent of arable land in Guatemala (how they got it is another story) and it was threatened by this reform. In short, they convinced the USA government to have the CIA stage a coup d’etat, which spiralled into a civil war – the longest and bloodiest in Central American history. 100,000 Guatemalans would be “disappeared” during this war. United Fruit Company is now known as Chiquita Banana. This is the same company that had apparently urged the Colombian military to fire on its striking banana workers in 1928 – estimates of the casualties at the time range from 47 up to 2,000. (In case you were wondering where the term “Banana Republic” came from…)
On one level this has nothing to do with coffee. However, in so many ways it has everything to do with coffee – with our relationship with those who produce the crops we import, with the attitude we’ve inherited towards trade with developing countries, and how our history has shaped our present. As a species we like to demonstrate a complete failure to learn the lessons of our history. I confess that I had been in coffee a surprisingly long time before I really dug into its history. It was revelatory, saddening and also inspiring. I’d like to do better, for us all to do better – and I am more driven to that end than I have ever been.
In the past I’ve written up lists of recommended reading, and there is always one question that comes up that, I have struggled to answer: “What book should I buy on coffee roasting?”
Until today the options have been limited to Ken David’s book, or the harder to find little books like Gerhard A. Jensen’s “Coffee Roasting”. Neither are likely to make you an better at roasting, whether you roast at home or roast commercially. Roasting is a tricky business, and learning to roast feels more like trial and error than anything else. Many companies consider their roasting techniques and approaches proprietary, and have traditionally been unwilling to share. I’m actually a believer in proprietary information, and when I found out Scott Rao was going to write a book on coffee roasting this inspired further action for me at work. I had little doubt that this was going to be a book that was going to make coffee, across the whole industry, significantly better. I have not been disappointed.
Writing about roasting chemistry is difficult, and I think Scott has done an impressive job in cutting to the chase and presenting the important stuff in a way that seems real and accessible. While we understand the Chlorogenic acids are important, the whole discussion of them in roasting or brewing often feels abstract – here they do not.
What most people will want to read straight away are the practical roasting sections. Scott himself acknowledges this, but I would heed his note:
“I implore the reader to study the entire book and not focus solely on the “how to” chapters. Experience with my previous books has taught me that readers who cherry-pick the parts that appeal to them end up missing some of the big picture, leading them to misapply some recommendations”
I’m not going to cover the practical information in the book, other than to say that it is valuable and I definitely learned a good deal on my first couple of read throughs. Discussion of Rate of Rise (RoR), development, and things like ΔT are important, useful and ultimately very helpful. Scott has a very practical, methodical approach and I have no doubt that we’ll be looking at how we can implement his advice in a variety of places at work. I’m also delighted to see a section on sample roasting – something that it is almost impossible to find any good resources on.
Some people will reject what is in here, as it is contrary to their practices or beliefs. We’ve presented roasting as an art, as a personal expression of a roaster, so opinions that don’t validate what some people do can feel like criticism. They’re not – they’re opportunities to get better. Scott is cautious throughout to state that he’s trying to open up discussion. I think he’s given coffee roasters a base language that will allow us to better express the green coffees that we love, that we want to share and showcase to their full potential. I don’t think I absolutely agree with everything Scott writes, but I feel in a much better place when it comes to discussing that, arguing my point, and pushing my understanding of roasting to achieve the cup of coffee that we have in my heads.
You can buy the book direct from Scott. If you have any dealings with roasting coffee then I suspect this may be the best $45 you’ll spend.
After the last blog post I received a lot of emails and tweets from various people asking about selling the Atlas in their cafe, in their online shop etc, from around the world. So – if you’re a coffee business of any kind then hopefully this will be of interest to you…
I should be clear that I’m just the author, not the publisher – so I have limited control over somethings. However, it would mean a lot to me to have cafes supporting the book and I definitely want to do whatever I can to enable this and get distributors access to good pricing, to make this worthwhile. I want this to be useful to any coffee business in every way possible.
Worldwide the English language edition will be out in October. Translations won’t be out until June next year, though the English version will be available via distributors. There are currently translations planned (but not confirmed) for French, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Hopefully more to follow!
To help make all this easier I had a quick chat with the publisher and figured I would start with collecting the information of companies that would be interested. I can hopefully work with distributors and my publisher to sort out direct access to books. There will likely be a minimum order to get wholesale pricing, but I don’t know what that is yet.
There are a couple of boxes to check, relating to potential events. Nothing is confirmed yet, but I travel a lot and (while most authors tell you to avoid book signings) there may be a chance to do something creative if I am a town or city where people are stocking it. I am also working on an idea for a launch event that I’d like to try and coordinate nationally (and internationally if possible) that could be a more interesting way to do a book launch, and also get consumers a little more excited and curious about the possibilities of coffee. Nothing below is a commitment of any kind – just collecting contact info at this stage. Thanks again to those who’ve gotten in touch, the response has been lovely and I’m grateful that so many people want to support the book.
In around two months time, on October 6th, my first book will be released. I’m very excited, and maybe just a tiny bit nervous too. The book is titled “The World Atlas of Coffee”, and I want to talk a little bit about how this happened and what it is.
I remember a moment, very early on in my time in coffee, when I had been cupping coffees and was trying to understand exactly where they were from. I remember the coffee that triggered the question, something from Kalossi. More than that, I remember the feeling of being both stunned and annoyed when I asked which book I should buy to look up where this coffee came from and being told there was nothing. This was astonishing to me, considering how rich the world of coffee was and is.
While I always wanted to be the person to write that book, for a long time I never really felt it was my place to do so. (And I expect to hear that criticism in the future too.)
What changed was very simple: I was approached by a major publisher, already well known and respected for books like “The World Atlas of Wine“, and have a reputation for producing beautiful, high quality titles. They asked if I would be interested in writing this book, and I thought I would be a fool to pass up such an opportunity. So I jumped at it.
What followed was full of all the necessary clichés, best summarised by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” I don’t mean to be dramatic but this book is undeniably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. (I know people say that, but there’s a good reason they say that. Listening to Oliver Strand talk about how difficult it is on the portafilter podcast was hugely reassuring.)
I had one unusual challenge in writing this – focusing on exactly who I was writing this for. I wanted to produce something valuable to those coming into the industry who want to learn, and also something that’s a useful reference for those of us who’ve worked in coffee for some time. More than both of this, I wanted to write something for all our customers – the people who go out and buy, brew, drink and enjoy coffee every day. I believe that understanding something more can make it more enjoyable, and I wanted to make more of coffee accessible rather than make it more mysterious and exclusive. I want to help people to understand what they like, explore what they don’t know yet, and feel more confident in the somewhat intimidating world of specialty coffee.
The book isn’t about me, or about Square Mile Coffee, but just about coffee. The book is divided into three sections: an introduction to coffee in general, a section on brewing techniques (aimed at making professional standards accessible and worthwhile to home users) and then the atlas section, with individual countries divided by continent.
This third section was the killer. Finding accurate, credible information and facts that can be double checked felt nigh on impossible sometimes. I’m aware that the moment we publish the book some facts will be wrong, or be disputable. This is why I am hopeful this does well enough for a second edition (which will also be out of date the moment it is published!).
What I have tried to do for each country, in writing a summary of its history of coffee production is to try to explain why its past makes it the way it is. The existence of smallholders and garden coffee in Ethiopia is the result of a very different history than that of Brazil – with single estate businesses that can produce more coffee than all of Bolivia put together. So along, with the history I’ve tried to explain where a customer’s expectation of traceability should be. I’ve done my utmost to get harvest times, altitudes and typical varieties for each region within each country that I’ve covered. Inevitably a source of some contention – there are some very basic guidelines for how coffees from a producing country may taste. (I’m aware that this seems reductive and negative but please wait to judge me until after reading them.)
I haven’t covered every single country that produces coffee. I’ve covered those with a focus on arabica and the capacity for speciality. In some cases I’ve decided not to include a country because I don’t feel the data available is accurate enough. (Haiti, for example, is a difficult place to write confidently about post earthquake.) Equally, this is not a project without constraints of size and word count. If it is successful then it will be expanded in future editions, and the work is already done on some additional countries.
My greatest hope for this book is that it becomes a genuinely useful tool for us to communicate better with our customers, to help make coffee more engaging, and more valuable. I’m proud of the work I have done, I’ve given it my best, and I hope that you’ll either enjoy it, support it – or both! I’m going to promote the book as widely as I can, and I will be working hard to do it in an interesting way – rather than just ramming it down people’s throats until you unfollow me on twitter and block me on Facebook!
I am going to post more about it in the next couple of months – about its availability around the world (Including various translations), about reselling (if people/cafes/roasteries/coffee businesses around the world are interested), to say thank you to those that have helped me, and about any events I may be doing to promote it (come and say hello!).
It’s actually available to preorder on amazon already (and has been for a month already, despite the fact that I’ve yet to hold a physical copy – such is the nature of modern publishing). While I’m deeply conflicted about amazon, I can’t deny it is probably the cheapest place to buy it and if preorders are decent the price actually drops (which is why the US price is already lower than RRP)! The book will only be available as hardback (the digital version I dream of requires some physical sales first) and it is both fabric bound and without a dust jacket! (I just really, really hate dust jackets so this makes me very happy!). Here are some links:
The World Atlas of Coffee – Amazon UK
The World Atlas of Coffee – Amazon US