Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan–a Book Review

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Roasted coffee beans and coffee cherries
Roasted coffee beans and coffee cherries

Coffee, java, a cup o’ joe, or sniff, sniff, the afternoon tea and scones. The world runs on the caffeine molecule in coffee and to a lesser extent, tea. Tea is the more ceremonial elixir and coffee the more blue collar but underlying of both is… caffeine. And this is the focus of Michael Pollan’s book. As a self-confessed coffee-fiend I found the historical and social angles of his story fascinating. And this is my book review of Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World.

Whether you make a daily pilgrimage to Starbucks, have a drip coffeepot, or indulge in the slow-motion popular cold-brewing coffee process, you are mainstream if you indulge in coffee or tea. You are an addict but socially and legally benign.

A Brief History of Coffee

Pollan traces the history of coffee and tea consumption from their roots to how they transformed economies, cultures, and the workplace. Coffee as we know it today can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau.

Coffee was a social beverage. It was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in the many public coffee houses, called qahveh khaneh, which began to appear in cities across the Near East. The popularity of the coffee houses was unequaled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. European travelers to the Near East brought back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent.

In the year 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King mandated that it be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. Then in 1723, a young navy officer, Gabriel de Clieu, secretly obtained a seedling from the King’s cherished plant. In spite of a difficult voyage, complete with horrendous weather, a saboteur who tried to destroy the seedling, and a pirate attack, he was able to transport it safely to Martinique.

From there, it couldn’t be stopped. Once planted, the seedling did not only thrive, but it’s credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island of Martinique in the next 50 years. Even more incredible is that this seedling was the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South, and Central America. You’re welcome Juan Valdez, you imaginary Madison Avenue caricature.

Michael Pollan, an Experiment of One

To research and write this book, Pollan shunned coffee so he could write and document caffeine as, yes, a drug, albeit less harmful than say, meth. He also relates his experience of re-acquainting himself with it at the end of the experiment.

If you are like most of us, you take coffee, tea, soda, and the essential ingredient, caffeine, for granted. But a close reading (or in my case, listening to) of this book will educate and surprise you. From a war-time tie manufacturer who increased production via “coffee-breaks” to how London-coffee houses became the places to be for stock tips, you will be amazed how this caffeine molecule transformed the world. Without you noticing.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.


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