With a title like God in a Cup, journalist Michaele Weissman runs the risk of attracting food apparition fanatics. Weissman’s new book may pair well with a Mother Theresa cinnamon roll, but God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee profiles the real faces behind coffee.
But this is not an expose on Fair Trade, nor is it an extended interview with Juan Valdez, the campesino poster boy of Columbian coffee since 1960. It is, however, an important book for anyone who is trying to reach an increasingly discriminating coffee consumer, one that is motivated by specialty beans and so-called legendary service and inspired by narratives of coffee’s origins.
From crop to cup, Weissman’s interest is in the life cycle of specialty coffee. She interviews those who plant, produce, and pour it, but the story is not always so linear. The customers want to know the buyers. The buyers want to know the farmers. The farmers want to get paid what the customers are paying for their coffee.
It is easy to get political when covering a beverage so pervasively farmed by the third world and so readily enjoyed by the first world – often with a wide economic disparity in between. However, God in a Cup does not belabor the politics but threads it all into a larger history of coffee from its birthplace in Ethiopia to today’s to-go mug.
Weissman takes us “to origin” on several different tours, one in which a couple of the “Coffee Guys” – a new generation of coffee buyers that care about both the quality of the coffee cherries picked as well as about the pickers – go to meet the farmers of coffee, throw them a fiesta, and then announce a new deal for their coffee cooperative.
In contrast, she highlights a roaster who in 2007 was lambasted online for branding his coffee with the name of a farm he had never visited nor from which he had ever bought. No small crime in this new generation of coffee buying. No small gaffe in this sophisticated market of coffee consumption.
The buyers are intrepid. Hence their travels take them to the high altitudes of Nicaragua, the fields of Burundi, and a volcano in Panama. The consumers want authenticity. Hence 30% of coffee consumed in the U.S. is specialty. Anyone coming up short on either side of the counter is wise to just get out of the way.
Weissman paints each portrait of the Coffee Guys with texture so that we understand how a college drop-out like Peter Giuliano just followed coffee as far as it could take him – to part ownership of Durham-based Counter Culture (whose 2007 sales rung in at $7 million). “The founder wanted me to run a business,” said Guiliano, “All I really wanted to do was be a coffee guy.”
The character set is endearing but the journey to caffeinated nirvana is all the more fulfilling because Weissman has introduced us to the seekers, as well as the many ways they have sought enlightenment, e.g. Did you know there are a number of different ways to wash and dry coffee? And nirvana, the ultimate state of enlightenment, is an abiding goal for the specialty coffee purveyors who would seemingly rather die than settle for mediocre coffee.
Will you, at the end, find reason to spend your bucks at the indie coffee shop that faces Starbucks? Will you smell citrus blossom, lemon, and birch tree bark in your coffee’s scent? Perhaps you will find all of these, or none at all, but you will have traveled the world over, met some interesting characters – maybe even God.