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Coffee and the people who bring us the bean


Reviewed by Mark Pendergrast

The Birth of Coffee
Photographs by Daniel Lorenzetti.
Text by Linda Rice Lorenzetti

Clarkson Potter, 192 pages. $45.

Although the coffee bean is just the pit of the berry of an understory tree, it provides a living for some 25 million people worldwide, is grown in about 50 countries, and provides the biggest jolt of the world's most widely taken psychoactive drug. Because the brew is so important to us, it isn't surprising that so many books about coffee are available, from full-scale histories to comic books. So why do we need another one?

Just open The Birth of Coffee to find out. Daniel and Linda Lorenzetti, a photographer/writer couple, traveled to eight major coffee-producing countries - Ethiopia, Yemen, Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Kenya - and have produced a unique, lush look at the origins of coffee that will be a revelation to most coffee-drinkers. In the black-and-white duotones (literally toned with coffee), we see coffee in all its incarnations except in the cup - in seedling, flower, cherry, process, and green, then roasted, bean. We learn about the laborious methods of harvesting - such as the wet process in which the skin is stripped off the beans, which are then fermented for a day to allow the sticky mucilage to be removed easily, then dried on vast terraces.

But the coffee beans themselves are not the primary focus of the book. It is the people. The Lorenzettis commence their tour in Ethiopia, coffee's birthplace, and the first picture shows a white-clad man standing in front of his round, thatched-roof hut in the legendary coffee town of Yirgachaffe, as steam and smoke rise mysteriously from the roof-peak. His wife and children peer shyly from the dark interior.

These powerful black-and-white images are to be savored like a rich, aromatic cup of strong coffee. The second picture in the book shows proud Ethiopian coffee harvesters, gathered for a group photo after a day of work in the fields. Each face conveys a story, and the sensitive text adds to the reader's understanding. "More than a day's work, picking coffee is often a social activity in the small towns and villages of the Ethiopian countryside . . . . Laughter and loud conversation are punctuated by the sounds of children running in their games."

Halfway around the world in Guatemala, we see children playing by a rushing stream while their parents and an older brother harvest coffee nearby. "Child labor is a complex problem with few simple answers," Linda Lorenzetti writes. "The children are there as part of the family unit, not because they are being forced to work. . . . The bonds between families and among families are clearly felt as one watches Guatemalans work hard together, relax together, take meals together . . . ."

Lorenzetti provides an introductory essay for each country's photographs that includes vital historical and geographical background and commentary. We learn, for instance, that Colombia's three jagged mountain ranges make coffee-growing and transportation a challenge; that the Spanish plundered the country for its gold in the 1500s; and that while coffee took over the mountains, civil wars and strife tore the country apart in the late 19th century.

Despite the ongoing political upheaval and violence, the cafeteros, small farmers of Colombia, survive. One picture shows a wooden cross next to a cornfield, with coffee trees in the background. The accompanying text explains that on El Dia de la Cruz, small offerings are placed at the bottom of the cross in May - "coins to ask for prosperity, maize to symbolize good crops, and aspirin to wish for good health."

In Brazil, the world's largest coffee producer, African slaves provided the labor until 1888, when slavery was abolished and immigrants from Italy, Japan and elsewhere took over the work. Unlike the other countries depicted in the book, Brazil's fields lie on vast, flat plains, and much of the harvesting is accomplished with many-spiked machines. Yet here, too, it is the people who matter, as we see a Bahian migrant with his stubbled, dignified face and haunted eyes.

Despite racial and cultural differences, the spirit of coffee laborers is universal. It shines through the monotonous work of sorting processed beans (almost always done by women), tending seedlings, harvesting, and carrying heavy bags bulging with beans.

This is such a splendid, informative, rewarding volume that I hesitate to criticize it. Yet I wish that Linda Lorenzetti had allowed herself to lapse into the first person more often. She and her husband must have experienced some amazing moments during their travels, and I would have liked to have heard more about them - though perhaps that is another book. While I appreciate her positive, balanced tone - blessedly lacking in politically correct shrillness - I also wish that she had explored issues of low pay, sexism, nutrition, and inequitable land distribution.

And while I appreciate the muted tones of the photographs, at times I yearned for the vibrant colors - the rich red coffee cherries, the glossy green leaves, the brightly colored huipil on the pensive Mayan harvester. Finally, it is extremely frustrating that there is no scholarly documentation here - not even a general bibliography.

But those are quibbles, really. One picture shows a close-up of muddy hands carefully tamping down a newly planted coffee seedling, and that conveys the whole story.


Mark Pendergrast is the author of "Uncommon Grounds: the History of Coffee and Hot It Transformed Our World." Article copyright Atlanta Constitution Journal and Philadelphia Enquirer