“It’s not hard to brew a great cup of coffee,” writes Kelefa Sanneh in a recent New Yorker post on the Melbourne International Coffee Expo. “At least, it shouldn’t be.” He adds that “there’s no such thing as a foolproof process though: even coffee professionals are forever tweaking and rethinking their brew methods, as they get better at identifying, in each cup, what went wrong and what went right.” Even casual coffee drinkers, including those who have never made a cup for themselves, know how complicated the preparation process can become when one really starts to think about it. But the field of coffee studies boasts even more information to master when it comes to the history of the cultivation and usage of the beans themselves. You can begin your own coffee education with this tripartite television documentary, Black Coffee.
A Canadian production aired on PBS, Black Coffee (purchase on DVD here) examines “the world’s most widely taken legal drug,” a beverage whose intellectually intense die-hard enthusiasts give wine’s a run for their money, from historical, political, social, and economic angles. Part one, “The Irresistible Bean,” follows coffee’s spread from Ethiopa out across the entire world. Part two, “Gold in Your Cup,” looks at the “coffee barons” of the nineteenth century and the rise of coffee-house culture. Part three, “The Perfect Cup,” brings us up to date with the modern “romantic age of coffee” and what entrepreneurs (such as Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, who appears in the documentary) have done to, depending on your inclination, either democratize or cheapen the pursuit of a worthwhile sip. While a bit of knowledge always enriches the enjoyment of even something as common as coffee — and, in this case, also raises occasional thorny moral and agricultural questions — let us never lose sight of the simple sentiment expressed in expressed in Bach’s Coffee Cantata:
Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
smoother than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I must have coffee,
and if anyone wants to give me a treat,
ah!, just give me some coffee!
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.