When I lived in Portland, Oregon, my apartment was near a Stumptown Coffee. One morning, I stood in an exceedingly long and slow-moving line, watching as hip baristas crafted espresso drinks. When I was near the front, a young man in a tweedy coat walked in the door. He handed a few dollars to the counter help, and then began filling his aluminum mug with the coffee of the day. Pausing for a sip, he announced loudly that the brew in the cup did not match the varietal advertised on the carafe, and demanded that Stumptown correct the error.
His outburst seemed a tad pretentious. Little did I know that this knowledge and snobbery were common characteristics in luxury coffee culture, a world documented in Michaele Weissman's new book, God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee.
The world of specialty coffee is far more personality-driven than you might imagine. Weissman's guides on her adventures through Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Panama are some of today's most admired coffee entrepreneurs: Peter Guliano of Counter Culture, Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia, and Duane Sorenson of Stumptown.
These "heroes" help Weissman—and readers of the book—understand the surprisingly complex world of ultra-premium coffee. It's a world that involves travel from Los Angeles's multi-million dollar Intelligentsia cafe to rural Nicaragua's remotest coffee farms. It's a world of importers and of cupping competitions where expert judges sniff and taste their way through hundreds of cups, their scores helping to determine the cost of premium beans.
It's also a world with a lot of egos. These days coffee is sexy, and luxury coffee seems to thrive in sophisticated cities where there's an excess of money and great attention is paid to trends. And that's what's a little bit annoying about this book: I'm not sure I wanted to know the political and interpersonal negotiations that end in my $5 latte. For this coffee drinker, reading God in a Cup was a bit like a devoted carnivore reading about the meat industry. This book will make you into a more thoughtful drinker, but it might also make you ponder giving up your daily cup.
If you can look beyond this criticism, there's a lot of practical information in God in a Cup. One stand-out section is a coffee tasting tutorial. Coffee has more aromatics than any food (red wine is #2 on the list) but the capacity of our nose to capture nuance in the cup outweighs the talents of our taste buds. Our tongue can only discern "simple" flavors of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.
Weissman's brief discussion of each of the five flavors—along with how they relate to coffee—is fascinating. For example, a sour taste in a coffee might come from beans that are picked green or coffee that gets wet during the drying phase. But when it comes to the taste of coffee, sourness can actually be an asset, resulting in a cup with good acid or "brightness."
The section titled "The Coffee Chain Explained" offers a succinct history of the coffee plant, how beans are roasted and harvested, how coffee growers are paid, and how beans make it into the global marketplace. This section is followed by one called "Making Great Coffee at Home," which is a solid discussion of the tools you need to brew a better cup. Unfortunately, both of these sections come at the end of the book. They would have made an excellent primer.
Ultimately, I wanted more from God in a Cup. More geeky tips and recommendations on how to pick coffee and build a better home brew, and a bit less of the gossipy narrative that revolved around premium coffee's bad boys.