Trouble Brewing

The story of how coffee recalibrated the world

Maren Barbee/Flickr
Maren Barbee/Flickr

Today, almost 90 percent of the world’s population is hooked on coffee or its most addictive component, caffeine. But 500 years ago, hardly anyone drank it, and the story of how coffee came to grace so many breakfast tables, office kitchens, and factory breakrooms speaks volumes about the very unequal world we live in. Our guest this week is Augustine Sedgewick, whose new book, Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, uses the global history of the Hill family, a coffee dynasty in El Salvador, to unravel how societies, rural and urban alike, were recast in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Ultimately, that restructuring led to many of the inequalities we still see today between the global North that drinks coffee and the global South that farms it.

Go beyond the episode:

Commonplace Book, Celebrity Coffee Fan Edition:

  • “Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried-up piece of goat”—J. S. Bach
  • “I never laugh until I’ve had my coffee”—Clark Gable
  • “I would rather suffer with coffee than be senseless.”—Napoleon Bonaparte
  • “Coffee: the favorite drink of the civilized world.”—Thomas Jefferson
  • “As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move … similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.”—Honoré de Balzac
  • “Among the numerous luxuries of the table … coffee may be considered as one of the most valuable. It excites cheerfulness without intoxication; and the pleasing flow of spirits which it occasions … is never followed by sadness, languor or debility.”—Benjamin Franklin
  • “Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the Word of the Lord is to the soul.”—Isak Dinesen
  • “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”—Albert Camus

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek and sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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