WHERE THE WILD COFFEE GROWS
The Untold Story of Coffee From the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup
By Jeff Koehler
268 pp. Bloomsbury. $28.
Once upon a time, there was a tiny kingdom in the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia where coffee grew wild in the forests. This realm was protected by its trees and its animals, or so the people of Kafa believed. They were ruled by a king whose feet were not allowed to touch the ground, who was hand-fed by servants, morsel by morsel, and who had, among the symbols of his power, a gold ring. Koehler’s re-creation of this lost realm — the Eden of the misnamed Coffea Arabica — is enchanting and tragic. His depiction of its disappearance is almost Tolkienesque. Kafa would be engulfed in the late 19th century by the Ethiopian empire, whose soldiers, armed with European guns, would not be repelled by Kafa’s unusual weapons: red ants and bees hurled at the invading forces. The last king, on his way to imprisonment in Addis Ababa, takes off his ring and slips it into a river, where it is lost forever.
Koehler weaves an absorbing narrative of politics, ecology and economics: the spread of Arabica (which should have been known as Aethiopica) to farms and plantations around the world, and the continuing perils it faces from fungal invasions, deforestation and global warming. There are cameo appearances by Isak Dinesen and Arthur Rimbaud, both part of Africa’s coffee trade — her farm in Kenya, his post-poetry career. There is one more poetic touch: The dangers the plant now faces may be mitigated by the surviving wild coffee of Kafa, which still holds, deep in its forests, the ring of power in the form of primal yet diverse genetic material.
BY THE SMOKE & THE SMELL
My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail
By Thad Vogler
291 pp. Ten Speed Press. $27.
You can learn practical things from this book — like how to smell Cognac. If you dip your nose in the glass the way you sniff wine, you’ll overwhelm the olfactory cells linked to your taste buds. Bring the spirit only close enough so you can just sense the aroma, appreciating its qualities from a distance. There’s nothing distant or pedantic, however, about Vogler’s bracing, deeply personal narrative of his travels through the homelands of Calvados, Cognac, Armagnac, rum, scotch and mezcal, in search of the soul of those spirits.
The author is the owner of Bar Agricole — a restaurant with perhaps the most exacting standards for spirits in San Francisco — and has ambitions for the book beyond aesthetics. The adventures he and his drinking companions share in search of liquid truth are argonautic, with sleepless labors in France, labyrinthine exertions in Cuba and one near cataclysmic encounter in Mexico. He cites a friend who describes the magic of the drinks they seek: “That’s why they call them spirits. They are freed to the heavens in the form of vapor, an escaped essence, only to be recaptured and brought back to earth.” Vogler’s stories are heartfelt, wise and moving, if occasionally overwrought. He is particularly worked up about human greed. The tragic theme he repeats is of the consolidation of small distilleries bought up by soulless corporations. It’s an infernal reversal of the biblical begats as scores of artisanal enterprises with names out of poetry are swallowed — big gulp by big gulp — by giants who turn them into brands bereft of authenticity.