Heavy on the Caffeine, Light on the Coffee: A Review of “The Devil’s Cup” by Stewart Lee Allen

If you only know a few things about me one of those things is probably that I like coffee. “Like” is most definitely an understatement. I have an infatuation with coffee bordering on obsession. So when my friend Chase mailed me a book on coffee I got excited. The Devil’s Cup is a riveting read, and I enjoyed a cup of coffee with nearly every chapter as I read. The subtitle of the book is “A History of the World According to Coffee,” but that seems a stretch for this book. I enjoyed the book. It was full of interesting stories, anecdotes, fascinating tales, and yet it was only loosely connected to coffee. Coffee, in fact, served as more of a plot device for the real details of one man’s adventurous travels. The book claims to be about coffee, but it’s actually more about one man who happens to love coffee.

Allen’s quest began with a simple question raised over espresso in Calcutta: When had Europeans started drinking coffee, and what had it replaced (6)? Answering that question would prove more difficult for Allen than he originally planned. It would take him “three quarters of the way around the world, roughly twenty thousand miles,” but communicating this origin story would be even more difficult. Allen acknowledges that too.

 “Even now, penning this page, I don’t know what to make of what I’ve written. At times, it seems like the ramblings of a hypercaffeinated hophead; at others, a completely credible study.” (6)

He takes us on his journey, but more often than not the details about coffee get swept up into the drama of his story. But so do we.

There are moments where I forgot that I was supposed to be reading a history of the world according to coffee, and just listened as Allen recounted his wild adventures in Ethiopia, Yemen, Calcutta, Paris, and Bolivia. I am raptured by the details of his bus ride with a group of drug addicts, his failed attempt to be an art smuggler, and his appearance at an ancient voodoo ceremony. In all these stories coffee appears, but it’s a side note for the most part. The first few chapters give us snippets of coffee history. Allen delineates the uses of coffee in ancient pagan rituals and ceremonies. He discusses the differences between brewing coffee from the bean versus the leaf (an ancient practice), he discusses the reasons so many drink tea and the disgust that so many older Muslims had for java. He discusses too the differences between French and Italian espresso, but each of these “discussions” is little more than a passing comment on the path to his next stop.

The book as a whole is really a good read, and it’s engaging. Allen’s writing is humours, not laugh-out-loud funny, but full of wit. It is not, however, strictly speaking a history of coffee, and even less a history of the world. If the book itself were a cup of joe I might rate it poorly: heavy on the caffeine but light on the coffee. But as a book it’s good, enjoyable, and sometimes informative. It’s a fun read, even if it’s not what it claims to be.

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