James Hoffman discusses his new book The World Atlas of Coffee

03 Oct 2014
James Hoffman discusses his new book The World Atlas of Coffee

Co-founder of Square Mile Coffee Roasters and former barista champ James Hoffman discusses his highly anticipated new tome, The World Atlas of Coffee with site editor Derek Lamberton. The book, published by Mitchell Beazley, will be available in stores on 6 October. You can pre-order it now via Amazon.

DL: The book is arranged into three sections: a general introduction to coffee, brewing techniques and the atlas. Tell us a bit about each.

 

JH: The first section is really there to act as a reference point for later in the book. As production varies, from technique to varieties, in each producing country it seemed appropriate to cover the essentials of coffee production. The goal was to be accurate, succinct and approachable - rather than be overly detail obsessed and a bit intimidating.

I couldn't leave out coffee brewing as a chapter - it is so important to enjoying a cup of coffee at home. Again, I wanted to present techniques that get you are far as possible, as easily as possible. We covered the main brewing methods found at home, and hopefully even if you've been making coffee for a while there'll be a few little bits of information that will help make your brews better.

With the final section I decided to focus primarily on countries producing speciality coffees, and countries whose coffees are broadly available. With somewhere like Puerto Rico it is tricky, I left it out not because they don't produce good coffee, but because they don't really export any of it. The countries are split up by continent. As well as the history of coffee in a country, I wanted to focus on regionality within each country, covering important aspects like harvest times, altitudes and typical varieties grown. If you pick up a bag of coffee on a shelf I want people to be able to understand how it fits in - whether it is a typical example of a great coffee from a region, or if it is somewhat unusual.


DL: Have you written the book with a specific reader in mind? How much familiarity with speciality coffee do you anticipate readers will have?

 

JH: I wanted to write a book that would feed a burgeoning interest in coffee. If you're someone who has found themselves enjoying coffee more and more, as great coffee has spread into cities like London, then this should be for you. Reading it should be a pleasure in itself (I hope), but I want to help make the coffees people drink even more enjoyable - whether that is through better brewing, or just knowing more about the hows and whys of the place and people that produced it.

DL: Tell us about the design of the book. Are the pages similar to Mitchell Beazley's The World Atlas of Wine?

 

JH: It is great to work with a publisher that has so much history, experience and talent when it comes to producing books like The World Atlas of Wine or The World Atlas of Whisky. There are aspects of the wine atlas that made sense to carry over - their cartography team make things much easier! However, it has a different look and feel to their other atlases, which is great.


DL: You've written that the atlas section was the most daunting to write as so little exists on the subject. What was most challenging about this to research?

 

JH: It is very difficult to get to the accurate data in coffee. In part because it isn't well regulated in much of the world, and also because it has a strong mythology. I worried a lot about fact checking, and only including something if I felt confident in it. I spent a lot of time in the ICO (International Coffee Organisation) library, as well as having assistance from a researcher, to try to get to the bottom of things.

DL: Which countries were the most difficult to research and write about?

 

JH: Bolivia was tricky, there isn't much structure around its production and export there. Also - countries like Peru and Ecuador were difficult too as there is less of a focus on speciality and traceability there - though this is changing!

DL: The first edition of The World Atlas of Wine in the 1970s proved a watermark for wine cartography. How did you approach the research of the coffee cartography section of your book? What sort of sources did you use?

 

JH: Anything and everything I could find! There's very little agreement on many of the boundaries of coffee production in most countries. I passed a number of maps through to the cartographers, and the maps are areas that we feel confident in. We didn't go for the same level of detail as you might see in a wine atlas, as we would have ended up with some guesswork in there.


DL: Were you surprised by anything that you learned while writing this book? Is there anything in particular that you have been inspired to explore further?

 

JH: The brutal history of coffee production, of colonial abuse and the roots of our coffee industry were hard to read about over and over again. I think speciality has focused so much on positive stories, on paying extra for great coffees, that we've overlooked some of our difficult history and how it influences the way we trade today. I'm definitely increasingly interested in this aspect of our trade.

DL: What other books or resources would you recommend to readers interested in coffee?

 

JH: My business partner recently published "Coffee Obsession", which covers some of the same territory but also other aspects of coffee - I think they're pretty complimentary.


For brewing guides I'd recommend anything Scott Rao has written for sure. Tim Wendelboe's book is also a great introduction to coffee.


DL: Serious coffee writing seems to have a long way to go to catch up with other food and drink subjects. Why do you think this is? And do you see this book as a catalyst?

 

JH: I think we're challenged by the distance we feel there is between the stories we want to tell and how the general public currently see coffee. The magazine I also help publish, Longberry, is trying to bridge this gap and I hope the book contributes in some way too.

DL: You mentioned on your site a desire to produce a second edition. What would you like to include?

 

JH: More of everything! More countries, more brewing methods, more of the history of coffee. As I said, we chose to leave out some countries, partially to stay within the confines of the book's brief and also because the coffees they produce aren't accessible easily. I'd still like to include them in future editions to encourage interest in them. Equally, I have no doubt things will have changed dramatically in many producing countries (with the influence of climate change and issues like leaf rust) so we'll need to update aspects too.

 

You can pre-order The World Atlas of Coffee from Amazon or buy it from a selection of independent bookstores and cafes.