02 February 2018

Book Review: The Philosophy of Coffee

What do dancing goats, an Indian Sufi named Baba Budan and a City of London side street called St Michael’s Alley have in common? If you've read The Philosophy of Coffee by Brian Williams (AKA the titular Brian of Brian's Coffee Spot), recently published by the British Library, you should know the answer.

But if you need more of a hint, all three feature in Brian's fact-packed, whistle-stop tour of the history and global ascendancy of coffee as a bean, commodity and beloved beverage. Brian charts the rise of coffee houses and their ever-evolving role in society, shares some fascinating stories — including from his own personal coffee journey — and debunks a few myths and misunderstandings along the way (the oft-cited 'statistic' that coffee is the second most-traded commodity on the planet, for example).

In the journey from the seven coffee seeds of the Indian Sufi Baba Budan to the first, second and third waves of coffee, there are 'penny universities' (see also The Black Penny), petitions against the 'Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE', and more recent disrupters from Starbucks and the Friends coffee house, Central Perk, to speciality coffee companies such as Prufrock and Square Mile.

Although I've been on a coffee journey of my own since the turn of the millennium, I've never studied the history and evolution of coffee. Instead, I've picked up parts of the story along the way but Brian's book offers a wonderful overview, which draws together many of those loose ends. I found the chapters discussing the emergence, spread and culture of the coffee house — and its role as a forum, meeting place and socio-political hub — particularly interesting. I grew up in Oxford where I used to hang out at the Queen's Lane Coffee House, which is reputed to be Europe's oldest continually operating coffee house. My coffee tastes have changed since then but I used to enjoy reading or working there, surrounded by centuries of history, coffee-stimulated discussions and cultural connections.

The Philosophy of Coffee also benefits from some lovely illustrations and photographs from the British Library's archives — I'm a sucker for the adverts of yore, in particular. This isn't a book solely for coffee obsessives, however (although they will, of course, enjoy it): it is a fascinating read and very accessible to non-specialists.

Disclaimer: The Philosophy of Coffee is out now, published by The British Library. I bought my own copy from The British Library shop and although Brian is a friend, all opinions here are my own and, as always, completely honest.

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