Advanced Search
Mark Pendergrast
Mark Pendergrast
Uncommon Grounds
ISBN: 0465036317
Uncommon Grounds
From its discovery on an ancient Ethiopian hillside to its role as millennial elixir in the Age of Starbucks, coffee has dominated and molded the economies, politics, and social structures of entire countries. The second most valuable exported legal commodity on earth, coffee delivers the largest jolt of the world's most widely taken psychoactive drug. Revolutions have been planned, romanced sparked, business deals seals, novels written and friendships cemented over this potent brew.

By the author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola, Uncommon Grounds unfolds a panoramic story of epic proportions, a tale of how coffee trees came to girdle the globe between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Grown on tropical mountainsides by poor laborers, coffee beans travel half-way around the world to the coffee bars of the United States, Europe and Japan, where cosmopolitan consumers pay half a day's Third World wages for a good cup of coffee.

Coffee has been banned as a creator of revolutionary sedition, vilified as the worst health-destroyer on earth and praised as the book of mankind. Its history provides a window through which to view broader themes of colonialism and culture clash, the rise of mass production, modern-day media and marketing, women's issues and international commodity schemes. It also illustrates how an entire industry can lose focus, allowing upstart micro-roasters to reclaim quality and profits.

Mark Pendergrast enlivens his scrupulously researched history with anecdotes, eccentric characters and period commentary that will give readers stories to share-over good cups of coffee-for years to come. An uncommon brew, Uncommon Grounds offers a coffee-flavored history of the modern world.
—from the publisher's website

Uncommon Grounds
Program Air Date: August 29, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Mark Pendergrast, author of "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World," in the back of the book you run a number in your book, (800) GO—‘G-O’--BRITT—‘B-R-I-T-T’. Why did you do that? Why'd you pass that on to the audience?
Mr. MARK PENDERGRAST, AUTHOR, "UNCOMMON GROUNDS": Well, you know, I'm somebody who believes in telling people how to get at things if I talk about them. For instance, I also ran the fax number of the roaster--the Palani Roaster guy, where you can, for $3, buy this aluminum pie plate that has holes punched in it, and you can roast your own coffee. So I'm just trying to be user-friendly, basically.

What you're referring to is Cafe Britt, which is a roaster in Costa Rica, and I ended the book with him fairly deliberately because, you know, this is gonna be a little bit of a long answer to your question, but coffee beans are grown in the tropics, in relatively poor countries, and then the beans, once they're processed--the green beans, they're called before they're roasted--I don't think most people have seen them, but they look like little peanuts. They're kind of greenish-blue, peanut-looking things. And when they're roasted, they blow up to twice their size, and they become the roasted coffee that you and I both know and love.

Well, once it's roasted a time bomb starts to tick. Once it's roasted, if oxygen gets to it, it stales it very quickly. And so ideally coffee should be ground and brewed within a week or two of it being roasted, and that means that traditionally the people who actually grow the coffee don't really make all that much money off of it. Certainly the people who harvest the coffee are very, very poor most of the time and get very little of the added value. And most of that value comes after it is roasted, when it's roasted.

And I gave a plug deliberately to Cafe Britt because this guy is roasting it right there in Costa Rica, and he's adding money and value right there. And you can call this 800 number from North America, and you'll actually reach someone in Costa Rica, and they will send you the coffee. And the way that they can keep it relatively fresh is, number one, they send it right out--and I'm not trying to give them a plug, but there's something called a one-way valve bag now, where it will let air out, but not in. And it really does help preserve the coffee for longer, and they use those kinds of bags.

I wanted to encourage this sort of thing, where we're not, in the developed world, the only ones who are making most of the money off of this. I tried very hard in the book not to take any kind of moralizing tone. I tried to just present the facts throughout 99 percent of the book. But in the final chapter, you know, after 400 or so pages, I figured I'd earned the right to sort of have my say, and one of my says was just that.
LAMB: Well, let me go back to the number. It's (800) G-O-BRITT, B-R-I-T-T. If you call that number from the United States, do you pay tax?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Do you pay tax just calling the number?
LAMB: Where somebody ships you--no, no. Somebody ships you these beans...
LAMB: you then pay tax on them? I mean, do you avoid tax this way?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: No, I don't think you avoid tax. I think you have to pay tax on it.
LAMB: Do you avoid paying the middle person, all the way through the process, money?
LAMB: And how many middle people are there in this game?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: There are quite a few middle people in this game. Usually there's somebody who exports the coffee, and he has to deal with shippers and everything. And then there's somebody who imports the coffee, who's different from the exporter. Then there's--you know, there are all kinds of people who test the beans along the way. There's the coffee exchange, where the prices are set. There are the roasters. There are the retailers, who sell the roasted beans. And there are the coffee houses that sell it brewed. There are the supermarkets. There are the warehouses. It's like, you know, any other product, except for the fact that it's--you know, coffee grows on volcanic mountainsides usually between about 3,000 and 6,000 feet high in the tropics, where the temperature never varies too much out of the 70s--70 degrees Fahrenheit or so. So they're beautiful places, but they're quite remote.

To just take it from the very beginning, the coffee tree actually is native to Ethiopia, and then it spread from Ethiopia across the Red Sea to Yemen. And the Arabs tried to keep a monopoly for quite some time. They finally lost that monopoly. There was an Indian pilgrim named Baba Budan who reputedly strapped seven seeds to his stomach and took them to India. Then the Dutch got hold of some plants and planted them in Java. A French lieutenant got hold of a coffee tree and took it across the Atlantic to Martinique, and from that tree most of the coffee that we drank from the Western Hemisphere descended.

So it takes about four years for a seedling to grow to the point where it's a tree that's bearing enough berries to get the coffee. And the coffee berry is called a cherry. Usually it's red when it's ripe, although I've seen varieties when I was in Central America that were yellow. But most of them are red. And they have to be handpicked--at least the best ones are handpicked so that you avoid getting the ones that aren't quite ripe. Then they have to be processed immediately. The skin is taken off of them. What's called the mucilage, which is the sort of fruity part, which, by the way, tastes rather sweet if you chew it, that has to come off. And it doesn't want to come off the bean. It's sort of, like, very sticky. So in the wet process, they ferment it deliberately for a very strict, limited period of time, usually about 24 hours. And then it will wash off. And then the beans have to be very carefully dried.

So there's a lot to the processing of the beans before they even get exported. Even once the mucilage is taken off, there's something called a parchment, which is the sort of thick skin that's on them. That has to be taken off. And then there's a little, very thin tissue paper called the silver skin, and they try to get most of that off, but a lot of that turns into what's called chaff during the roasting process. So it's really a complicated business.
LAMB: There's a lot that I want to ask you about, including the guy you found that drinks 50 cups of coffee a day. Where'd you find him?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Joe McBratney. He owns a wonderful restaurant on Staten Island. It's called the Kreischer Mansion, and I highly recommend his mussels. But I found him from a "20/20" show on television. It was a show on caffeine and on its addictive qualities. And they showed Joe, and on television he appeared to be quite a calm person, and so I was intrigued. I thought, `Jeez, somebody who drinks'--it's the equivalent of 50 cups. By the way, I just mailed Joe a cup about this size as sort of a joke 'cause I found one that's bigger than this. It's huge. And he drinks out of cups about this big, so it's the equivalent of 50 regular cups that he drinks. This is water, by the way.
LAMB: And you know, this is a network that spends most of its time talking about what government does and laws and all that. You mentioned caffeine. Has the government ever tried to ban caffeine in this country?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, it came close to it in 1912. The government actually sued Coca-Cola in Chattanooga. It was a huge lawsuit. I wrote about this in a previous book, but I also wrote about it in this one. They went after caffeine in a big way. It was-- around the turn of the last century caffeine was extremely controversial, in large measure because of a fellow named C.W. Post that we might want to talk about in a little bit. I wrote a whole chapter about him and Postum.

But there was a fellow named Harvey Wiley, who was the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, and Harvey Wiley hated Coca-Cola. Interestingly enough, he didn't hate coffee so much. He was opposed to anything he thought was unnatural. He thought that Coca-Cola was deliberately adding this drug and was selling it to children, and that's what bothered him the most, whereas coffee was a natural constituent. But they had scientists on all sides of the issue debating this, and eventually Coca-Cola won on the lower courts, but then lost higher up, and they sort of did a settlement out of court. They agreed to reduce the amount of caffeine in Coca-Cola at that point.
LAMB: Some quick basics. Where do you live?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Vermont. Essex Junction, Vermont.
LAMB: You mentioned that "Uncommon Grounds," the name of your book, is also the name of a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes. As a matter of fact, the picture of me in the back of the book was taken in that fine coffee house. There's another one owned by the same people in Saratoga Springs. There's another one that just opened up in Watertown, Massachusetts. When I went out on my book tour to Berkeley, California, there's a roastery out there, very fine roastery called Uncommon Grounds. They came. They gave me a T-shirt. They gave me some of their coffee. So I think there are Uncommon Grounds all over the country.
LAMB: How long did you work on your book?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Three years.
LAMB: What gave you the idea to do it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, you know, I told you I'd written "For God, Country and Coca-Cola" before this, and that book was about the same length. It was, you know, quite an interesting story about how a rather inessential product, you know, 99 percent sugar water basically, became the world's most widely distributed product, and this is a similar kind of intriguing story. I liked the paradox of the fact that this is just--really, it's the pit of a berry of an obscure understory shrub, tree, whatever you want to call it. Well, it's the second most valuable exported commodity on Earth after oil. Now think about that. That's amazing.

And although--you know, if the whole world were deprived of coffee tomorrow, we would all have a gigantic withdrawal headache, but after a few days we--we'd all be OK. We don't need coffee. It doesn't provide any nutrition to speak of. And yet it's become central to our lives. As long ago as a h--over 100 years ago someone said, you know, `This has become the indispensable beverage.' And, arguably, it changed the course of civilization in many ways, for the good and for the bad.
LAMB: How many cups of coffee, on average, does an American drink every day?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I think it's a little over one now. It's not all that many. It's interesting, the per-capita consumption of coffee actually peaked, if you do it in pounds per capita, in 1946, right after World War II, at about 20 pounds per person. And now it's almost--it's about half that. It's about 10 pounds per person. So it's been declining ever since World War II. It has now leveled out. That's what the specialty industry has done. You know, we've sort of rediscovered quality coffee from origin now, and it's halted the decline. And it may begin to go up a little bit.
LAMB: Why do the Finns drink the most coffee of anybody in the world?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: That's a good question.
LAMB: And how many more pounds a year per capita do they use over there in Finland than we do here in the United States?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I'd have to look it up. I don't remember exactly how--but it's a...
LAMB: I remember a figure of 28 pounds a year or something like that for Finns.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah, that's right. You've read it more recently than I. Twenty-eight pounds per capita, I think, is correct. Well, it's awful cold up there and they also--the Scandinavians don't use any robusta. They use only the be--there's two kinds of coffee bean. One is called arabica, and one is robusta. Up until 100 years ago, no one ever used anything but arabica, and it's by far the superior type of coffee. What happened was there was something called Hemileia vastatrix, this--otherwise known as the coffee leaf rust. It's a fungus which attacks coffee, and it wiped out the industry in the East Indies in the last century.

Robusta grows at a lower altitude. It will withstand much more heat. It's also disease resistant. It will stand up to the leaf rust. The trouble is it doesn't taste very good and it has twice the caffeine. And so in this country, after World War II, we began to put, first, robusta into instant coffee, which became popular during the sort of 1950s convenience craze, you know, along with Minute Rice and TV dinners. And then we started putting robusta into our regular blends more and more, especially as the price went up. And we can talk about those price hikes a bit in a minute, too. But the Scandinavians never did that, and I think that because they appreciate really good coffee, they drink a lot of it.
LAMB: When you walk into any place, any store, whether it be a specialty store or be it a grocery store, what would be robusta coffee that you could pick up off the shelf?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, it's not gonna say `This contains robusta.'
LAMB: Right.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Unless it says `100 percent arabica,' it will contain some robusta.
LAMB: What has the most robusta in it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I'm not going to name a brand. I think the cheaper the blend is, the more robusta it will have in it.
LAMB: All right. And I want to ask you about the names anyway. Folgers coffee, would that have a lot of robusta in it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, it depends. Folgers puts out a lot of different coffees. For instance, if it says `100 percent Colombian,' it won't have any robusta in it. So you have to look at the label on each of them.
LAMB: Where did the name Folger come from?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Jim Folger was a 14-year-old who accompanied his two older brothers, who were only, I think, 18 and 16, in the--during the gold rush. They were from a very famous whaling family in Nantucket, but the whales were played out and they heard about this gold in California. So they took ship. They left their parents, apparently with their parents' blessing--I think this is unbelievable--went down to the Isthmus of Panama--of course, this was before the canal--went across, took ship up to San Francisco, and his two older brothers tried to mine gold. He took up with somebody who had started a little coffee roastery, and that's how Folgers began in 1850 in San Francisco.
LAMB: Chase & Sanborn. Who is Chase and who is Sanborn?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: They were both staunch New Englanders, sort of puritanical guys who started Chase & Sanborn in Boston after the Civil War, when--most of these brands began in the late 1800s, as we began to have branded products in general and as you had better transportation, etc.
LAMB: Do you remember their first names?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Caleb Chase and Edward Sanborn, I believe. And they were sort of--you know, they were like Bob and Ray. They were kind of laid back, but I enjoyed them.
LAMB: How about Hills Bros.? Where did that name come from?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: R.W. and A.H. Hills were from Maine originally. They came with their father, also all the way across the country, to San Francisco in search of a better life a little after the gold rush. And they began a small grocery which evolved into specializing in spices and in coffee. And they are the first people who came up with the vacuum can. First, they tried --they were supplying a different gold rush in the Yukon in the late 1800s, and they were frustrated because the butter they were sending up was turning rancid. And so they learned of this place that was beginning to vacuum-pack butter, and they tried that. And then they thought, `Well, why not try it on coffee?' And it's certainly not as good as a one-way valve, but it was a huge improvement.

Amazingly, nobody really took it up in the east for another 30 years. It was 1931, I think, that Maxwell House started vacuuming canning. But it was--the Hills brothers were, you know, sort of staunch New England types. Folgers was also sort of a little stick in the mud--most of the coffee people were, I would say, rather bland in their own way. They were good businesspeople. They didn't really want women in the business at all. There's a lot about women's issues in this book.
LAMB: What about Maxwell House? Where'd that name come from?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, Joel Cheek was a traveling salesman. He grew up in the hollers, the valleys of Kentucky. And he--this was when people in remote areas were still roasting their own coffee, so he was selling green beans. But he'd developed his own blend that he liked, and he eventually sold it to the very prestigious Maxwell House in Nashville, Tennessee. And he conned them, because he was a rather good businessman, into letting him call it Maxwell House coffee in return for giving them a good deal, I imagine. And he had, I think, nine sons, most of whom joined him in the business.

I ended up real--you know, you get to know these people. It's funny. I particularly liked Joel Cheek because, in an era when it really was not normal to treat your workers well or to talk about treating anybody well--it was the robber baron mentality--he gave wonderful speeches, which I presume he believed, about how you had to put your arms around your workers and show them that you care and get to know their families and make sure that everything was OK with them. And I was impressed by him. I was impressed by his attitude towards family, towards his own family. He was also a very clever advertiser. When Teddy Roosevelt came to the Maxwell House and drank a cup of his coffee--I think it was actually at The Hermitage where he drank the coffee--but he made a big deal out of the fact that the president...
LAMB: You mean Andrew Jackson's home?
LAMB: Which Hermitage? Andrew Jack...
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes, Andrew Jackson's home. He made a big deal out of the fact that Teddy Roosevelt had drunk his coffee, and eventually they started saying that he had said that it was good to the last drop, which I don't think he ever said because it was a good number of years after the incident when they started to claim this. And actually Coca-Cola had used the phrase earlier than they did. But, nonetheless, it's a terrific phrase, and it still is.

Can I talk about Postum here for a second? 'Cause it kind of leads in...
LAMB: Yeah, but I want to come back...
LAMB: I just have a couple of quick questions. How much coffee do you drink a day?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I drink one or two cups in the morning. One of my favorite reviews of the book appeared in the Trenton Times, and the guy reviewing it said he had never had a cup of coffee in his life, didn't drink it, didn't intend to drink it. And then he said, `And this is a wonderful book. I love this book,' and that shows that it really is interesting.

You know, one of my frustrations is--I've done a lot of book signings now, and people'll come up and they'll say, `Well, sign the book to my girlfriend 'cause she loves coffee. I wouldn't be interested in it 'cause I don't drink coffee.' And it makes me want to tear my hair out and say, `Look, you know, do you only read books about other social issues or drugs or whatever if you're a drug addict?' I don't understand.

I mean, this is a fascinating topic, fascinating history, lots of interesting characters, funny, tragic, slavery, politics, lots of Latin American history. Why do you have to be a coffee drinker to drink it?
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Atlanta, Georgia.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I lived there till I was 18. I went to Harvard, and I visit frequently. My parents and a lot of my siblings are still there.
LAMB: What'd you study at Harvard?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: English literature.
LAMB: Then what kind of work did you start doing?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Oh, no, this is going to turn into a resume. I taught high school English. I taught elementary school. I became a librarian after I got a master's in library science. And all during that time I was freelance writing for local papers, and then I sort of graduated to daily papers and then to magazines. But I never figured I would make a living from it. And then I got the idea to write a book about Coca-Cola. I did that. I wrote a book called "Victims of Memory," which I'm extremely proud of. It's a book about the repressed-memory therapy that harmed so many people in this country. And this is my third major book.
LAMB: When did you move to Vermont?
LAMB: And what was the reason for that?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Got a job teaching elementary school there.
LAMB: When'd you start drinking coffee?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I started drinking coffee when I was in college at first. It's interesting, both of the caffeinated beverages that I've written about my parents don't drink and didn't let us drink. I would sneak Coca-Cola at friends' houses, and I did sneak a little bit of coffee when I was a kid, too, you know, heavily diluted with cream and sugar. But I think Freud would probably have a good time with my choice of topics.
LAMB: And when you did this book, how many different countries did you travel to?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, I went to England to do some research in the International Coffee Organization. And I went to Central America, where I went to five countries during the course of a month. It was fascinating.
LAMB: Those five?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
LAMB: Go back to the number we gave at the beginning that you have in the book, the (800) GO-B-R-I-T-T. Again, in Costa Rica, how did the bean get there? And if you order directly with them, do you save money?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: No, not...
LAMB: What kind of bean do you get?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: You don't really save money, I don't think. It probably costs you somewhere between $10 and $12 a pound for roasted coffee, which is--you know, it's high-end coffee. It's very good coffee. It's arabica, high grown. They call it strictly hard bean in Costa Rica. The higher it's grown, the more dense and flavorful the bean is. And it's got what they call good acidity, and it doesn't mean it has literally a high pH. It has sort of a snap and brightness to the bean. It's good coffee.

There's another coffee from Costa Rica that I wrote about also from a farm called La Manita, which is sort of like a city-state, a model place where the guy who owns it is named Bill McAlpin, and he prides himself on paying his workers well and on obsessively paying attention to the quality of the beans and the processing, etc. So they grow some good coffee there.

How did it come to Costa Rica? You know, it's interesting, the way coffee developed in Costa Rica as opposed to, for instance, Guatemala and El Salvador, I argued in the book, has a lot to do with the form of government that they had. In Costa Rica--you know, the coffee tree, as I said, it came to Martinique and then it sort of spread from there. So it was in the 1850s, 1860s that coffee became a serious product in Central America, and it was largely--it was a combination of factors. They'd been growing something called cochineal, which is a--it was a kind of a--a bug that grows on a cactus and it's a dye. And when they developed synthetic aniline dyes, red dyes, the cochineal industry tanked. And so coffee began to replace it throughout Central America.

Costa Rica never had very many Indians, for some reason, and the few they had the early Spanish settlers either murdered or gave diseases to, and most of them died, whereas in Guatemala, for instance, there was a thriving Indian population. For that reason, in Guatemala they developed r--relatively large coffee plantations, and they forced the Indians to come down out of the altiplano, the higher places above where coffee would grow, to harvest their coffee and to work on the farms every year. And for that reason they developed a repressive military dictatorship to force the Indians to work. It was basically slave labor.

Same thing happened in Brazil, where it was literally slave labor. They had slaves until 1888, the longest of anyone in our hemisphere, strictly because of coffee. In Costa Rica, because they didn't have a ready labor force, they had much smaller farms, and everybody would help each other out, kind of like a quilting bee during the harvest season. And for that reason they developed a more egalitarian, democratic form of government, and you can see this, you know, throughout the last 150 years.
LAMB: You mentioned the Post thing. Right out here in the suburbs of Washington is the Marjorie Merriweather Post Pavilion. Who was she?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Marjorie Merriweather Post was C.W. Post's only daughter, and he raised her to be a boy, actually. He taught her to fix cars eventually, things like that. But C.W. Post was a sort of neurotic, high-strung inventor. He invented something called scientific suspenders. I like those. But he would periodically have nervous breakdowns and he ended up in the sanitarium run by John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the late 1800s. And he fails to get better there, until he sort of adopted Christian Science, but when he left, he started his own inn in competition with the sanitarium, and he called it La Vita Inn, and he sort of espoused a kind of--their version of New Age. It was called New Thought, and you could will yourself to get better.

And then he invented a fake coffee, which he called Postum, after himself. He was rather egomaniac, and it was a copy of the cereal coffee that was made at the sanitarium. But unlike Kellogg, he knew how to advertise and he was absolutely brilliant at defaming coffee. One of his headlines was that—‘Eyesight Lost Through Use of Coffee.’ He said that coffee destroyed your will to live. It destroyed all your organs. It kept you from money and fame. Everything that went wrong in your life was due to coffee. Of course, this drove the coffee people absolutely mad and it made Post a millionaire in seven years, which was the fastest that anyone in America had become a millionaire at that time.

Post then--he claimed, by the way, that he would never get ill because he could will himself to get better, and he was drinking Postum and eating Grape-Nuts, which he also invented. And he particularly claimed that this would cure appendicitis. Well, then he got appendicitis and it didn't kill him. He had an operation for it, but he fell into a terrible depression and he shot himself through the head in his late 50s, leaving Marjorie, his daughter, a millionaire--millionairess many times over. She then married E.F. Hutton, and together they transformed Postum into General Foods by purchasing other brands, such as Jell-O and Maxwell House, which is supreme irony. They bought the best-selling coffee in the United States and made it even more the best-selling coffee.
LAMB: What's in--is Postum still in grocery stores?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes, it is, although it's certainly not a major product anymore.
LAMB: What's in it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Barley, wheat, cereals, you know, basically roasted cereals.
LAMB: You ever tasted it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I've tasted it. I think, like many such things, it's an acquired taste. I don't care for it myself, but many people did at one time and still do probably.
LAMB: There's a footnote I want to read, but I want to ask you about: "I Am Well," the book.
LAMB: Did Post write that book and what's it about?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah, C.W. Post wrote a book where he said, `I am well.' And he was putting himself out as the ultimate example of the hale and hearty person that you could become if you only drank Postum and avoided coffee. And he also invented the phrase `the road to Wellville,' which we all know now from the novel and the movie.
LAMB: Let me just read your footnote. It says, `Post wrote in "I Am Well" that whiskey, morphine, tobacco, coffee, excessive animal passions and other unnatural conditions contributed to ill health. Post knew about animal passions, bedding an associate's wife and siring two children by her in 1894 and 1896.'
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes. Well, Post was a man of great passions in all ways. He an interesting character. He really is. That chapter is called The Drug Drink, because that's what he called coffee. And it's one of my favorite chapters in the book. I really enjoyed Post.
LAMB: Which country in the world supplies the most coffee?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Brazil does. And it has for a long time.
LAMB: What's the--I notice you use a figure of $80 billion sold a year of coffee around the world.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Mm-hmm. That's an estimate. And that includes coffee sold as a beverage. That includes cappuccinos, etc., which are a lot of milk. But, yeah, I estimate it's about 80.
LAMB: How much of that comes out of Brazil?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I don't know in terms of dollar value. I think Brazil--you know, I'd have to look it up. I would guess--I'm not going to say. I don't know what percentage of coffee now comes from Brazil, but I do know that they're the largest coffee producer in the world and have been for many years. Their share has been declining. I know that back around the turn of the last century they supplied 80 percent of the coffee in the world. And it's nowhere near that now. It's probably more like 10 percent or 15 percent of the coffee in the world, which is partly because they don't rely on coffee so much anymore, which is a good thing for Brazil.

Relying on a monoculture is a recipe for disaster in a world market where--what happened to the Brazilians is by 1906, they were growing way too much coffee for people to drink. And the price went way down and they instituted something called valorization, where they held coffee off the market and that worked temporarily. But eventually, during the Depression, they took to burning their coffee. They burned 78 million bags of coffee during the Depression. And it's still a problem. We have this boom-bust cycle in coffee, which I wish I knew a solution to, that I could wave a magic wand.

From 1962 to 1989, the United States agreed to belong to, sort of, an OPEC of coffee. It was called the International Coffee Agreement. And we did that for political reasons. We were afraid that if we allowed the price of coffee to go too low that Latin America and Africa would go Communist. And I think we may very well have been correct. And so we agreed to artificially prop up the price of coffee, not too much. We just barely kept people above starvation level 'cause we wouldn't allow it to go up that much. And then in 1989, when the Cold War was ending, we backed out of it. And the price of coffee collapsed for the next four years under the cost of production. It was horrible. It still is horrible. The price of coffee right now, I think, is hovering below a dollar a pound for green beans. It's not enough to live on.
LAMB: When was it the highest?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Probably the highest for, you know, the inflation rate in 1977. There was a huge frost in Brazil. I have a chapter on it called The Black Frost, in 1975. And it has a cumulative effect because it didn't really effect the crop in '75. It effected the next few years. And so in 1977 the price went way up. By the way, every time that the price has gone way up in the United States, we have congressional hearings. This happened in 1912, 1950, 1954 and 1977, where it seems to me a tremendous waste of our taxpayers' money and our politicians ire. If coffee were grown in the United States, we wouldn't have had these hearings.

But we would say, you know, `This is a Communist plot. Or this is the Latin American manipulators. They're doing this to us on purpose.' In fact, when the price went up, for the first time it would actually allow the people who were working on the coffee farms to be paid something decent. Of course, not all of them were because if they were large plantations owned by not very nice people, which they often were, they wouldn't pay substantially more to the workers even when they could. They would simply take the money and go to Paris and have a good time.
LAMB: You got as far as Roberto d'Aubuisson in El Salvador, and didn't he have a relative that's involved in—or somebody who was in the government with him down there involved in coffee?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes. The co-founder of the ARENA Party was named Ricardo Valdivieso and he turned out to be our guide for the--I was on a trip with the Specialty Coffee Association, and...
LAMB: Let me just stop you--just ask you, what is that, Specialty Coffee Association?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Oh, the Specialty Coffee Association of America--it was founded in 1981 and it was part of this whole, sort of, resurgence of rediscovery of good coffee. And they started to call gourmet coffee specialty coffee. And it's grown in importance to--it accounts for about 20 percent of coffee in the United States.
LAMB: So you're there on a trip that they put together?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I was there for three of those countries I mentioned with them, and then Guatemala and Costa Rica, I was on my own. Right.
LAMB: So what did you find, the ARENA Party chairman has a coffee plantation?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes. He's an interesting guy. He grew up in the United States, actually. And then he went back to El Salvador. And although I certainly don't agree with the politics of the ARENA Party, I liked him personally and I talked to him at great length. He was shot and nearly killed during an election campaign. He insists that he was not involved in any of the death squad activity, which d'Aubuisson was associated--or was--certainly accused of being associated with. And I simply don't know. But it was very interesting, that trip.

The day after talking to him about nearly being killed, we crossed the border into Nicaragua, and there was a big party at the home of General Lacayo--he was the head of the Nicaraguan army--at his huge coffee plantation. I mean, coffee is very much involved in the politics down there. And he had been the second in command behind Humberto Ortega during the Sandinista Revolution. And he was very open about how the Sandinistas--we had this image--I don't know what your politics are, I'm basically, sort of, a liberal-type person, always have been. I protested the war in Vietnam and I was not in favor of our policy towards the Sandinistas. But I think we tended to romanticize the Sandinistas.

And it turns out that they ruined the coffee industry. They were not good for it at all. They were these urban Marxist intellectuals who didn't know what they were doing. And this guy that I was--that general said, `Sure. First we nationalize Somoza's plantations, but then we didn't know how to run them.' And the people who had been working on the plantations were all going over to the Contras, because they were starving to death. They weren't making a living. So we gave them little pieces of land and said, `Here, this is your coffee plot. Here's a gun. Protect it.' He said, `We didn't give a damn whether they actually grew coffee or not.' And, in fact, you know, they didn't know what they were doing and so it's taken years for the Nicaraguans to come back now.
LAMB: You dedicate the book to Alfred Peet, coffee curmudgeon supreme. Who is Alfred Peet?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Alfred Peet is a Dutch immigrant to this country. He came to San Francisco in 1955, after--well, let's just back up. His father was a Dutch roaster so he learned to roast coffee from his dad. But his father was one of these, sort of, fathers who never really approved of his son. Alfred, it turns out, had a learning disability so he didn't do very well in school. But he loved the smell of coffee and he loved to help his father but he could never please him. So after World War II, during which Alfred was interned in a German labor camp, he worked for his father briefly, but then he fled and he worked in Sumatra, in java and the tea industry, primarily. Spent a little time in New Zealand and then he ended up in the '50s in San Francisco, where he worked for a coffee importer. And he was appalled by the quality of the coffee beans that he was supplying to places like Hills Brothers and Folger's. And he said, `This is terrible.' Then they laid him off.

And in 1966, he decided that he would start his own coffee house. He would import only the finest beans. He would roast them to within an inch of their life with this trademark dark roast that he developed. And he opened Peet's coffee in 1966 in Berkeley. And it quickly became--developed a cult following. I found it amusing 'cause I've gotten to know Alfred pretty well now and he told me that the hippies used to come into his store and he--you know, it was very straightlaced and very demanding and he didn't like them sitting in his place and being smelly and messy. So he took the stools out--he had six stools--and then they sat on the floor. But he would have people lined up around the corner and he really is the father of the specialty coffee movement. The people who started Starbucks were inspired directly by him, as were many other people around the country. George Howell, who began The Coffee Connection in Boston, was inspired by Alfred Peet. Many, many other people were, too.
LAMB: Who owns Peet's today?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Jerry Baldwin owns Peet's today. Jerry was one of the three people who started Starbucks in 1971, these sort of three hippies who wanted to get decent coffee to Seattle.
LAMB: When they first started, what was it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: It was not a coffeehouse the way that we know it. They primarily were selling whole beans, fresh roasted whole beans and they wanted people to go home and grind them and brew their own coffee.
LAMB: Would that always be arabica?
LAMB: Never...
Mr. PENDERGRAST: They would never have allowed one bean of robust in Starbucks and there still is not one bean of robust in Starbucks. But what happened was Starbucks is--a plastics salesman named Howard Schultz joined them in the early '80s because he couldn't figure out why he was selling so many of these thermoses with a little drip attachment so that you could drip the coffee directly into a thermos, to this little tiny place in Seattle. And he went out and he was just struck by their passion for what they were doing and he took a pay cut and moved across the country and joined them. Then they sent him to Italy to some sort of housewares convention.
LAMB: Schultz.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Schultz. And he was blown away by the espresso bars. There were 1,500 espresso bars in Milan alone. And by the theater of the barista, who was, you know, pulling a shot of espresso while he was steaming with the other hand, while he was conversing with a customer that he knew -- and Schultz thought, `This is theater. This is wonderful. This is what Starbucks should be doing.' And so he went back and tried to convince Jerry and his partners, and they did allow him to have a little espresso bar in a corner and it was very successful but it wasn't what they wanted to do. They didn't want to be in the business of making cappuccinos and whatever. And so Schultz went off on his own, started something called Il Giornale, which was an unfortunate name that nobody could pronounce and had no idea what it meant. It means daily. It was the name of the daily paper in Italy.

And about that time, Baldwin had the opportunity to buy Peet's, which to him was, you know, the--you know, `Oh, my God. I can own Peet's.' So he did and he sort of got stretched thin and he eventually sold Starbucks to Schultz, who had the vision to take it to what it is today.
LAMB: You point out in here that although we all know the name Starbucks, that there's more coffee sold probably through Dunkin' Donuts than there is Starbucks.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah. Dunkin' Donuts has something like 5,500 outlets and they've always--they've never used robust beans either. I think they deserve a lot of credit for maintaining fairly high standards of quality. They don't roast their own coffee. It's all, you know, sort of subcontracted for them. But I like Dunkin' Donuts.
LAMB: By the way, do you have a favorite coffee yourself?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, we mentioned La Manita. I really like it. I've become real fond lately of coffee from Sulawesi, also known as Celebes Kalossi. Basically, asking somebody who knows about coffee what their favorite coffee is is sort of frustrating. It's sort of like asking a wine connoisseur, `What's your favorite wine?' It depends on your mood. It depends on the time of the day. There are a lot of fine coffees out there. Alfred Peet, for instance, when he's asked that he likes blends. It's very rare to find one origin that has full body and the aroma that you want and the acidity that you want and so somebody who knows what they're doing can blend varieties from different places.
LAMB: You suggest that the revolution in the United States, or before the United States might have started over coffee?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, it started over tea, as we all know, with the Boston Tea Party. And I was--you know, I thought this was a myth, that the Boston Tea Party really had anything to do with what we drink now, but it did. I found John Adams writing to Abigail saying, `It's unpatriotic now to drink tea. And I'm going to have to live without it.' The Continental Congress passed a law against drinking tea, so they started drinking more and more coffee. Of course, we're very pragmatic here in America and so it turns out that during this time period, the Brazilians were growing more and more coffee and it was closer to us and it was cheaper. So that's another reason that we went for coffee in a big way.
LAMB: How much did coffee and the United States military during World War II have to do with the American use of the drink?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, you know, we call coffee cup of joe now and that came out of World War II. GI Joe became so closely identified with his coffee, most of which was instant and dreadful. I have a wonderful Bill Mauldin cartoon in there where there's a soldier who's got piles of matches all over the ground and he's telling somebody in a Jeep--he says, `I ain't worth a dern in the morning without my cup--a hot cup of coffee.' He's trying to heat it with matches. But, yeah, they lived off coffee during World War II.
LAMB: What's the first instant coffee in the world?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, it was probably G. Washington coffee. There was a guy named George Washington, who was actually Belgian and he invented instant coffee while he was living in Guatemala. Then he moved to the United States and started putting it out. But there were a number of people who claimed to have had the first instant coffee. It was around the turn of the century.
LAMB: What about Cafe Hague from Germany?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: That's decaffeinated coffee and this guy also invented Sanka. They called it--that comes from sans caffeine, you know, without coffee in French. His name was Ludwig Roselius. He was convinced that his father had died because he drank too much coffee, which is questionable. But he invented a decaffeination process around 1906 or so.
LAMB: And there's the other German, Hermann Zits -- How do you pronounce that?--Sielcken. No.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I'm not sure.
LAMB: The whole chapter is devoted to him.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Oh, Hermann Sielcken.
LAMB: I'm sorry.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
LAMB: ...I miss pronounced it.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: No, I was trying to think of somebody in Germany. Yeah, he was a German immigrant. I loved him, too. He was sort of the opposite of Joel Cheek. He was not a particularly nice man. He was very arrogant. And he saved the Brazilians with this valorization scheme by coming up with a 75 million pound loan to help the Brazilians buy up their own coffee and warehouse it and artificially keep the price up.
LAMB: Valorization?
LAMB: That word comes up a lot in your book. What's it mean?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: It means just what I said. It means taking--it means basically giving value to the coffee that's left by trying to hold coffee off of the market.
LAMB: Where'd the idea come from, originally? Do they do it...
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Originally, it came from somebody in Brazil, but it was Hermann Sielcken, an American--he was an immigrant to America who had become a very powerful coffee importer for a firm called Crossman and Sielcken, who came up with the money to help them actually pull this off. And he did so by extorting a lot of the money for himself. He became a multimillionaire. And as I told you, we had government hearings over this in 1912, and they were infuriated at Sielcken, particularly. He had maintained his German citizenship. He had this huge estate in Baden-Baden, where he would retire periodically and where he went permanently during World War I. And they wanted to throw him in jail.

And I quoted his appearance during a committee hearing and he just thumbed his nose at them. And he was very convincing. He said, `If I had not done this, the price of coffee would be even higher than it is now.' And they said, `What are you talking about?' And he said, `Because what would have happened would have been--you would have had a revolution. People down there would have, you know, overthrown the government and you wouldn't have had any coffee growing. And the price would have gone sky-high.' And he may be right. But he was an interesting character, very arrogant.
LAMB: On another subject, another footnote, page 313, you write, `One unusual indication of America's new-born interest in quality coffee made the news in 1975 when a judge--a federal judge in Suffolk County, New York, asked a deputy sheriff to buy him a cup of coffee from a refreshment truck parked outside the courthouse. Outraged by the awful brew, the judge ordered the vendor handicuffed and brought into his chambers where the judge screamed at him, releasing him only after he promised never again to serve poor coffee.' Is that a true story?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: It's a true story. It got the judge thrown off the bench, by the way.
LAMB: It did?
LAMB: Federal judge?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah. Yeah. He didn't get away with it. But I thought it was a funny story that he felt so strongly about his coffee that he threw the guy...
LAMB: Did he lose his job?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: jail. Yeah, he lost his job because of it. I didn't include that in the book, but, yes, that is what happened.
LAMB: That brings me to a question--'cause you do talk about it in here, what's the worst cup of coffee you've ever had?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, I said in the book that the worst cup of coffee I had was at a little breakfast place in Heredia, Costa Rica, which is the--you know, the heart of the coffee-growing region. I've had a lot of bad coffee in Central America. There's an irony to this. It's very difficult, generally, to find a good cup of coffee where they grow the best coffee in the world because they export all of it. And they keep the worst beans for themselves, in general. So it's difficult to find good coffee there.

That's one--another reason. You mentioned Cafe Brit, that I was impressed by them. They managed to--it used to be that all the beans that were kept in Costa Rica were dyed blue, which didn't help 'em much either. They had a rule that you had to keep 10 percent of the beans in the country, but they paid so little for it that companies would, basically, go to this auction. They'd sell 2 percent of the beans. They'd buy their own beans back and they'd do that five times and say, `Look. We sold 10 percent of our beans.' To prevent them from doing that, they would dye the stuff that was sold blue. So--that no longer happens.
LAMB: You know, we started off by talking about this 800 number that you put in the back of the book.
LAMB: Go Britt. G-O-B-R-I-T-T. It just kept--I kept thinking of the difference today than it--say, it would have been 25 years ago. When you call that number, do you give them a credit card?
LAMB: Do they do much business this way in the United States?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I think they do a--probably quite a large business. They have something called The Coffee Tour, which is--you know, it's a little song and dance thing. It's sort of like what--what Coca-Cola does with their museum. People pay for the right to be advertised to, essentially. And they have a little skit where they show you a little bit of what I tell you in the book about coffee history. And then they sell you their coffee at the end of it. And a lot of their customers come back to the United States and continue to order their coffee.
LAMB: Are there a lot of other places like this now cropping up with the new modern communications, like the Internet? Is stuff like this sold over the Internet?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: There certainly is a lot of coffee being sold over the Internet, yes. I'm not aware of any other place that's doing this from origin yet. I hope there will be. I think it's a good thing to happen.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, you know, I talk a lot in the book about fair trade coffee, that there's basically three kinds of what I call do-good coffee. And I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. One of them is fair trade. This started in the Netherlands about 15 years ago. And the idea is if you buy this coffee that has this little symbol on it and it says fair trade or--Max Havelaar is what it was originally called--you can be assured that the people who grew the coffee are being paid a decent wage for it. And they specifically buy from cooperatives of small holders. We started doing that in this country also. A place called Equal Exchange in Massachusetts pioneered it and now I think you're going to hear a lot more about it, because out in California, there's a place called Global Exchange and they've teamed up with TransFair and so you're going to see this fair trade mark on more and more coffee.

And I think it's a good idea because you don't have to pay very much more for it than you would for any other good coffee, but they are cutting out a lot of the middlemen. Similarly, I think organic coffee is a good idea, even though it doesn't matter from the consumer point of view. From the health point of view of the consumer, it makes no difference whether it's organic or not. But the people who are growing the coffee, it makes a great deal of difference as to whether they're exposed to pesticides. It makes a great deal of difference to the natural environment whether it's being exposed to it.
LAMB: We talked earlier about Maxwell House and Folger's and Chase & Sanborn and Hills Brothers, and all these names that are very familiar in the United States.
LAMB: Which company in the United States makes the most money or sells the most coffee by name that owns all those different brands today?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Well, let's just back up and say who owns them. Maxwell House is owned, ultimately, by Philip Morris. Hills Brothers, Chase & Sanborn, all of which, sort of, were family businesses that went downhill or had problems, got gobbled up by Nestle.
LAMB: Where is that based?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: That's based in Switzerland--Vevey, Switzerland. And Folger's is owned by Procter & Gamble. So they're owned by huge corporations.
LAMB: Which sells the most of all that?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: In the world, I would say that Nestle sells, by far, more. Second would be the Maxwell House brand because they've bought other brands in Germany. Folger's is pretty much limited--Procter & Gamble is pretty much limited to the United States.
LAMB: We're out of time. You have another book in you?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I suspect so.
LAMB: You know what it's going to be about?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: I have some ideas, but I'd prefer not to talk about it till I have a contract.
LAMB: Here is the book. It's by Mark Pendergrast, based in Vermont. It's called "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World." And we just scratched the surface. Thank you very much.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.