By Mike Ferguson
In June of 1922, William Harrison Ukers was gathering his thoughts.
He was ready to return final proofs of his first book, All About Coffee, to the printer and the time had come to write his preface. As might befit a volume that had taken 17 years to research and write—the first serious American book on coffee to be published in 30 years, its author noted—Ukers used most of the preface to acknowledge more than 100 institutions and individuals for their assistance. This thorough thank-you list foreshadowed what would follow, 800 detailed and at times pedantic pages that amounted to more than just a serious book about coffee. Far from being an exuberant boast, the title was a simple statement of fact. All About Coffee was… all about coffee, an exhaustive if not always wholly accurate encyclopedia on the topic, more comprehensive than anything previously written.
Published in October of 1922, the tome that celebrates its 100th birthday this year was arguably the most important single book about coffee of the 20th century. Long after some of the science, details about countries, and social customs found between its covers had become dated, much of the content remained relevant. All About Coffee was reprinted more than a dozen times after the publication of a second edition in 1935, and then underwent 20 years of revival printings by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) starting in 1993. If you own a copy of All About Coffee, chances are it is one of these SCAA reprints. In 2009, The Gutenberg Project scanned the 1922 edition and made it available online for free. Several copies of the 1935 edition are available online from the Internet Archive at archive.org.
“Even after a century, William H. Ukers’s masterpiece remains a singular and indispensable guide to the world of coffee. Few books on any subject can make the same claim. Its endurance across dramatic changes in the coffee industry itself is a testament to its author’s astonishing mastery of his subject, earned through decades of research and writing on the story of coffee. The amount of work that went into the book is all but impossible to imagine — yet it paid off. Ukers wrote a classic that is unlikely to be matched in the next hundred years, either.”
-Professor Augustine Sedgewick, author of Coffeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, winner of the 2022 Cherasco International History Prize
Publication of All About Coffee was a milestone moment for the editor of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, who everyone in the office, including his wife, called Mr. Ukers. He was marking 20 years as a coffee writer and editor. In recognition of his contributions not only to coffee but the grocery trade in general as a writer and spokesperson, Central High School in Philadelphia, where Ukers had received his Bachelor of Arts degree—to this day, the only high school in America with the authority to issue a BA degree—bestowed upon him an honorary Master of Arts. And yet, in 1922, at age 49, Ukers had not even reached the midpoint of his coffee and tea writing career.
An ambitious young man, Ukers began professional life as a seemingly frenetic journalist in 1893. He wrote for five newspapers over four years in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and finally in New York City, which remained his home until his death in 1954. In 1897 he found his field if not quite his position when he started writing for trade magazines like The Paper Trade Journal and House Furnishing Review, where he won his first job as editor. When he was made editor of The Spice Mill magazine in 1902, he’d found his niche. Coffee and tea.
The Spice Mill was founded in 1878 by coffee equipment inventor Jabez Burns whose company would become the “Burns” in Probat-Burns 100 years later. Ukers would later write that The Spice Mill was “the first publication in America devoted to the coffee and spice trade.” At the same time, the magazine was devoted to promoting the business of Jabez Burns & Sons. These types of publications were known as “house organs” and were distributed primarily to employees and customers. It’s been said that Ukers did not care for the idea that The Spice Mill was not a truly independent trade journal. In All About Coffee Ukers writes plainly about his time at The Spice Mill: “William H. Ukers was made editor in 1902, and he continued until 1904, when he left to assume editorial direction of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.”
This somewhat cryptic phrasing, “assume editorial direction,” has a companion in Ukers’ coffee chronology at the end of the book, where he indicates a bit of magic may have occurred in 1901 when “The first issue of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, devoted to the interests of the tea and coffee trades, appears in New York.” Sources that one would presume authoritative often state that Ukers founded the magazine in 1901. In some instances, it is said he tried to convince the Burns family to make The Spice Mill a true trade journal and when they refused, he went out and started Tea and Coffee Trade Journal. This particular version cannot be reconciled with Ukers own dates; however, it’s possible, maybe even likely given the somewhat vague language he uses to describe these events, that he worked as editor of The Spice Mill at the same time he was working through the start-up years of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.
Unlike The Spice Mill, which was produced out of the Jabez Burns & Sons building on the Upper West Side, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal had offices on Wall Street, deep in the heart of the American coffee trade, just a block from Lower Wall Street where “coffee importers, coffee roasters, coffee dealers, and coffee brokers conduct their ‘street’ sales.” This detail frames one of the endless golden nuggets scattered throughout All About Coffee, in this instance a historically contextual explanation of the difference between sales of futures and sales of spot coffee, which is bought and sold “on the spot.” Even for those who have little room for the traditions, manners, and customs that have been handed down over the years inside the coffee industry, there is value in understanding what lies beneath the structures, standards, and practices that we’ve inherited, even when we decide to set them aside.
Ukers’ claim that All About Coffee took 17 years to research and write is not inaccurate, it’s just a little incomplete. Those 17 years correspond to his years of writing and editing Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, which he dubbed “The Recognized Organ of the Tea, Coffee, Spice, and Fine Grocery Trade.” A good portion of the content found in his book was recycled from the magazine during what might be considered especially interesting times for the coffee industry.
During the 17 years Ukers worked on his book, over 4,000 coffee related patents were granted in the U.S. alone, including the “Burns tilting sample-roaster,” whose design remains ubiquitous in cupping labs today. Regular and significant advances were made in the science of decaffeination and the manufacture of soluble coffees. Overproduction in Brazil went from an occasional event to a chronic condition, causing Brazil to attempt various strategies for keeping coffee off the market and prices from dropping, and putting the U.S. government on a trade-war footing.
Among the greatest challenges to the American coffee industry during these years was the combination of the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906 and ongoing, relentless attacks on coffee from manufacturers of coffee substitutes, the primary culprit being C.W. Post (yes, as in breakfast cereal).
Post manufactured a coffee substitute called “Postum.” Exploiting some of the consumer fear that helped lead to passage of the Pure Food and Drug act, and somewhat ironically given the truth in labelling aspects of the new law, Post just simply lied about coffee. This is from a Postum advertisement:
“The woman who cares is watchful of every influence that bears upon her husband’s health. And her part lies largely in selecting proper food and drink. For example, when science says that coffee contains a drug whose constant use makes for premature old age, and whose reactionary effects cripple nerves and heart, she shelves the coffee and serves the delicious, pure-food drink POSTUM.”
Science, by the way, didn’t say any such thing. Post also claimed that his Grape Nuts cereal could cure appendicitis, but in 1913 when he was dying of appendicitis, he didn’t request a bowl of Grape Nuts.
It was this type of threat that helped unite roasters in 1911 to form the National Coffee Roasters Traffic and Pure Food Association, which would soon change its name to the National Coffee Roasters Association and, eventually, National Coffee Association. Ukers devoted himself in both his magazine and All About Coffee to answering attacks on coffee as unwholesome. The wounds remained fresh enough in 1922 that he wrote in his forward:
“Trading upon the credulity of the hypochondriac and the caffein-sensitive, in recent years there has appeared in America and abroad a curious collection of so-called coffee substitutes. Most of them have been shown by official government analyses to be sadly deficient in food value—their only alleged virtue.”
Although coffee was going through both challenging and innovative times as Ukers took on the editor’s mantle full-time at Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, it was coffee through the ages that clearly fascinated him as much if not more than any news of the day. The acknowledgements for All About Coffee indicate that much of the copious research that went into the book was devoted to the past. Half of the chapters and 40% of the writing in the 1922 first edition of the book address aspects of coffee history, from ancient times to recent memory. The book devotes many pages to stories about the trials and tribulations that coffee has endured through the ages. Given the context of his first two decades as editor, which included the World War I, Ukers seemed to learn and want to pass along what is perhaps one of the most important lessons for anyone who attaches their prospects to the “festive cup.”
Coffee survives. It could be argued that these histories, combined with the book’s comprehensive bibliography, constitute its most enduring value if not its most significant contribution to coffee.
“William Ukers was the ultimate tea and coffee man of his times, and his comprehensive history of coffee laid the groundwork for all future histories of the unique bean. He may not have gotten everything completely right, but his breadth of knowledge is a vital basis for all that followed.”
-Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: This History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.
Groundwork that is more apparent from a distance than in context is that Ukers helped usher in the recognition of greater variety and specificity when describing the taste of coffee.
Two hundred years before All About Coffee, Humphret Broadbent wrote in Domestick Coffee-Man (1722) that underboiled coffee tastes “flat or sour,” and that spring water makes coffee “hard and distasteful” while river water makes it “smooth and pleasant.” 70 years later in A Treatise Concerning the Properties and Effects of Coffee (1792), Benjamin Moseley described coffee under various conditions as tasting bitterish, tasteless, insipid, coarse, rank, excellent, superior, disagreeable, exhilarating, delicate, and grateful. By 1872 when Robert Hewitt published Coffee: Its History Cultivation and Uses we see a pattern emerging. Negative taste attributes were gaining specificity while positive attributes remained vague: bitter, muddy, harsh, and astringent versus mild, delicate, and delightful.
Hewitt’s book is one of the “serious” coffee books acknowledged in Ukers preface, as is Coffee From Plantation to Cup(1881) by Francis Thurber, which expanded significantly on the coffee tasting vocabulary, using at least 17 words, including several words new to the literature at the time that can be found on the SCA/WCR flavor wheel today, like stale, woody, musty, and acrid.
While positive descriptions remained vague, a tasting vocabulary was emerging around which there was some sort of intrinsic consensus. Forty years after Thurber published his book, almost all of his taste descriptors appeared in All About Coffee, the single exception being the word “acrid.” Ukers doubled Thurber’s lexicon, using twice as many words to talk about coffee’s flavors. With some subtle variations in usage, all of the terms can be found in Ukers’ 1935 edition as well, “rubbery” being the only obvious addition. Oddly, rubbery is not used in a real world context. It can only be found in the Coffee Dictionary, itself new to the 1935 edition and accounting for eight of the 15 new pages of content prior to the index. The other seven new pages can be found, understandably, in the science sections.
The descriptions of taste found in All About Coffee sound incomplete to the specialty coffee ear because the purpose of “cup testing” at the time was to identify faults, not explore a highly differentiated product with flavor characteristics that need to be described on a bag and on a website in a crowded market. Even so, one need not spend long on the coffee aisle in any grocery store to find antique coffee taste descriptors like rich and mild and of course, smooth, which is at least 300 years old as a coffee tasting note.
Ukers followed up All About Coffee with over a dozen books on coffee and tea, including several travel books called the Little Journey Series. He even wrote a novel set around the time of the Boston Tea Party titled Rosemary and Briar Sweet: An Eighteenth Century Romance of John Company and Young America. According to James Quinn, who succeeded Ukers as editor and eventually publisher of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, all of Ukers’ books were successful except for the novel. In 1935, the same year he updated All About Coffee, Ukers published another monumental work, All About Tea, a two volume set held in the same regard by tea professional over the years as his coffee opus is by coffee professionals.
“Ukers is such a giant in the field of coffee it’s difficult to know where to start. The irony being that Ukers is pretty much where I always start if I am trying to research a new topic. If there is a title of ‘the last person to know everything about coffee’ it surely belongs to him. I can’t imagine anyone having the courage, let alone the knowledge, to write a similar tome today. The great thing about the book is that he gives such a comprehensive portrait of all aspects of the trade, particularly the commercial aspects, where he is strongest on the passage from green coffee purchasing to retail – the elements that are most obscured in other accounts.
That doesn’t mean that he gets everything right, of course. One searches the book in vain for any discussion of ethical issues or worries about sustainability in his descriptions of production at origin where labour is simply described as another input without any deeper concern for the lives of those involved (interestingly Francis Thurber’s Coffee from Plantation to Cup published back in 1881 displays more sensitivity to such issues).”
-Professor Jonathan Morris, author of Coffee: A Global History and co-producer of the A History of Coffee Podcast series.
Beyond the value of All About Coffee as a history textbook, we should not assume all of the technical information is no longer relevant. Several sections of the book that discuss roasting and brewing would fit nicely into any discourse on specialty coffee today. Indeed, once upon a time, a sentence from Ukers’ forward served as a ready definition of specialty coffee for many specialty coffee professionals. Though we have as an industry segment set aside the simplicity of his words long ago for all the complexity we encounter in trying to truly differentiate our product, his words ring true in that they reflect what most of us find satisfying most of the time: “Good coffee, carefully roasted and properly brewed.”
Notes on the year Ukers died: The Library of Congress lists William Ukers death as 1946 and this is the most common citation. In a 2001 interview James Quinn, the second editor of T&CTJ states that Ukers died in 1956. However, according to an obituary that appeared in the New York Times, he died on January 19, 1954.
Notes on Ukers’ world view: It should be noted for those approaching All About Coffee for the first time that, like much if not all writing that tallies its age by decades, the world view is at times jarring and sad, though hardly surprising. Ukers not only fails to rise above the retrospectively disappointing social mores of his era, he seems to rush too readily into racist colonial hot-takes on indigenous populations for someone otherwise given to thoroughness and considered opinion in the context of business musings. While it’s tempting to intellectualize century old perspectives, they cannot be excused when more enlightened contemporaries where not exactly hiding their lamp under a bushel.
Writer’s note: I would like to thank the authors and prominent coffee historians Mark Pendergrast, Professor Augustine Sedgewick, and Professor Jonathan Morris for generously contributing their thoughts on William H. Ukers and All About Coffee to this article. For we happy few who delight inordinately in coffee history their books, cited above, are both sustenance and feast.
Mike Ferguson (@aboutferguson) is an American coffee professional and writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Read more Mike Ferguson on Sprudge.