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
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Do you pay tax just calling the number?
LAMB: Where somebody ships you--no, no. Somebody ships you
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah.
LAMB: ...do you then pay tax on them? I mean, do you avoid tax
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
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes. Yes.
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
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
LAMB: How many cups of coffee, on average, does an American drink
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
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.'
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
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
LAMB: You mean Andrew Jackson's home?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yes.
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...
Mr. PENDERGRAST: OK.
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
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
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
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?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: 1972.
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
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
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
LAMB: What's in it?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Barley, wheat, cereals, you know, basically
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.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Mm-hmm.
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
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
LAMB: So what did you find, the ARENA Party chairman has a coffee
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,
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
LAMB: Would that always be arabica?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Oh, yes.
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
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
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'
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
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.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Mm-hmm.
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?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah.
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: ..in 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
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.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah.
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?
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Yeah.
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.
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
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.
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Which company in the United States makes the most money or
sells the most coffee by name that owns all those different brands
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
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
Mr. PENDERGRAST: Thank you.
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