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Review of "The World of Caffeine"

By Bennet Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer
Routledge, 2002
Review by Anika Scott-Klecker on Jan 29th 2003
The World of Caffeine

It is horrible to contemplate but there was, in fact, life before chocolate. And coffee. And tea.

Thankfully, The World of Caffeine by Bennet Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer doesn’t linger in the dark age before caffeine became the world’s most popular legal drug. Their entertaining study traces the exotic origins of caffeine products and their entrance into European (and later American) daily life using an interdisciplinary technique that weaves together history, myth, art, anthropology, religion and trade. The World of Caffeine reveals the fascination of people around the world when they first discovered the foods and drinks that we take for granted today.

Case in point, coffee. The authors tap immediately into the bitter drink’s colorful origins with the first line of Chapter One: “With every cup of coffee you drink, you partake of one of the great mysteries of cultural history.” (3) The tantalizing fact is that in ancient times the coffee bush grew throughout Africa and Arabia, yet there is no evidence that anyone – African, Arabian, Greek or Roman – had converted the coffee bean into a drink before the fifteenth century.

So how was the power of the coffee tree discovered? The most popular myth takes us back to Ethiopia at an unknown time, and to a goatherd named Kaldi. The observant man saw that his goats seemed friskier after nibbling on the red berries of a certain blossoming bush. When he tried the berries himself, he used the burst of energy to take the beans to an Islamic holy man who disdainfully tossed them into a fire. The rich fragrance that followed must have changed the holy man’s mind; he recovered the roasted beans and brewed them with hot water. So was coffee born. As entertaining as the story is, Weinberg and Bealer found no corroboration for it in early Arabic sources, and instead lay this myth at the foot of Roman professor Antoine Faustus Nairon, who wrote an early treatise on coffee in 1671. Despite this and other origin myths, coffee probably was, the authors write, discovered first in Ethiopia.

The authors admit that no one really knows the reason for the long delay between coffee’s discovery in Ethiopia and its spread in the Islamic world and to Europeans. But once coffee broke out of Sufi religious circles and into secular life, it brought with it a controversy that resurfaced many times, in many cultures, for centuries: Is caffeine merely another drug, a potentially dangerous stimulant that should be treated like alcohol or hashish? Throughout the book, the World of Caffeine describes the reactions of societies to caffeine products, but it focuses specifically on the actual health effects – beneficial and negative – in its last chapters.

In describing the impact of caffeine on our lives, The World of Caffeine makes stops around the world: from Sufi monasteries to Cromwell’s England, from Buddhist circles in Japan (where it was said that “The taste of ch’an [Zen] and the taste of ch’a [tea] are the same.”) to the Mexican lowlands before the arrival of the Maya. Interesting trivia such as the first year that the chocolate bar was produced -- 1847 in Bristol – are sprinkled throughout the book. Reproductions of engravings, paintings and period advertisements add to the vividness of the stories.

In all, the World of Caffeine is an impressive achievement and a good read for all caffeine addicts, whether the drug of choice is chocolate, coffee or tea.


© 2003 Anika Scott-Klecker


Anika Scott-Kleckler is a U.S. journalist and author living in Germany. A former Chicago Tribune staff writer, she now freelances travel and lifestyle articles for publications and web sites in the U.S. and Europe. She is also working on a nonfiction book about a famous music manuscript that disappeared during World War II.