Black Coffee: Documentary Covers the History, Politics & Economics of the “Most Widely Taken Legal Drug”

“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!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every­thing You Want­ed to Know About Cof­fee in Three Min­utes

“The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink”: London’s First Cafe Cre­ates Ad for Cof­fee in the 1650s

The His­to­ry of Cof­fee and How It Trans­formed Our World

This is Cof­fee!: A 1961 Trib­ute to Our Favorite Stim­u­lant

The Fine Art of Paint­ing Por­traits on Cof­fee Foam

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les PrimerFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • coffee club says:

    Also, see to it that you fol­low the cor­rect cof­fee beans and water pro­por­tion. Putting too much water and lit­tle cof­fee beans in the cof­fee mak­er will cer­tain­ly yield a poor and “weak” brew. A gen­er­al rule when brew­ing is to put 2 table­spoons of ground­ed cof­fee beans for every 6 ounces of water.

  • Johnnie Jones says:

    Also, do what I do: Brew it accord­ing to your par­tic­u­lar taste. For instance…I use oth­er folks’ “advice” as *guid­ance* and go from there. For me, two scoops (that’s a Bodum 7 gram scoop) of whole bean, hand-ground in a Zassen­haus mill, and brewed with 11 ounces of water in a Braun KF-12, through a gold mesh fil­ter (when I’m in a hur­ry). On week­ends, I use a Silex 2‑cupper (heat­ing my water in a vin­tage Sona 4‑cup ket­tle). Or a Melit­ta 101. Or a Wear­ev­er 3042 dripo­la­tor. Or one of the oth­er 30 some-odd devices in my col­lec­tion.

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