Immediately upon opening The New Rules of Coffee by Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen (Ten Speed Press), the suspicions you held about the book before looking inside are confirmed. Just as you might expect if you are familiar with the authors and founders of the full-capture coffee website, Sprudge.com, the book is not a book of rules at all. Though not absent of pleasantly innocuous pontification, few of the fifty-five “rules” are rules by any stretch, but simple statements, assumed imperatives. This is an intentional and commonly used literary misnomer, which is why you suspected it. I only point it out because while the book is not exclusively for coffee consumers, it is aimed rather squarely at them. And some coffee consumers might roll their eyes at the thought of coffee snobs handing down yet another list of musts and must nots. Not at all. These are observations, insights, informative tidbits; and even when an actual rule in decreed, it is done so politely: “Please always tip your barista,” or “Please use your headphones.” So, if you’re a coffee professional and you give the book to friends and family as a gift this holiday season (a suggestion I am in no way receiving consideration to make but do make because you could do so much worse and hardly any better in an effort to explain what it is you do and why to anyone not similarly engaged), you may want to note as they raise an eyebrow, “they’re not really rules.”
None of this is to say The New Rules of Coffee is “coffee learning lite.” The writing is, at times, almost as whimsical as the lovely illustrations by Kelsey Wroten—which appear to be almost purely aesthetic accompaniments, but upon closer examination are found to be slyly educational. Don’t be fooled by the writing style either. The content is surprisingly detailed and comprehensive for a “primer,” as Michelman and Carlsen call it.
Interspersed among the fifty-five rules and 160 pages are a half-dozen or more (depending on whether you count some as extensions of rules or not) asides on various topics, some of which could have been rules themselves, but just aren’t (like “Kopi Luwak is problematic”) and some of which are purely bonus material (e.g. “Coffee 201: The Science of Coffee Brewing”). As with the illustrations, the written content is almost covertly in-depth, somewhat in contrast to the warm craft cover and all the inviting white space that flies off the pages during a flip-through. But then, it’s not really in contrast because the writing is very accessible.
Beyond the four loosely adherent sections of the book—rules for coffee around the world, at home, in the café, and for a new future—the organization of the rules feels a little intuitive and improvisational and you can open to any page and read a rule without any other context.
The kindly, gift book appearance of the volume might lead you to expect the authors to “play it safe” to ensure the widest possible appeal. While Michelman and Carlsen certainly don’t go out of their way to invite controversy, they do not shy away from a few things that are often notably absent from industry overviews designed as soft rides for consumer readers. For example, the fact that the history of coffee is filled with ugly colonialism (Rule 3 … also mentioned in Rule 55), or that “Flavored coffee is usually gross” (Rule 43). They may even invite a few pop shots from industry folk (Rule 50, “The flat white does not exist”).
The New Rules of Coffee will never make the reading list for Q-Grader preparation, and wasn’t intended to, but neither can it be dismissed as cotton candy. I’d readily recommend it as a solid introduction to coffee for a new barista who had never worked in coffee. In fact, the book could have a second life down the road if retitled, “So you think you want to work in coffee” because it makes clear that coffee is a complicated product with a complicated story and, you’ll probably love everything about it.
If I have any qualms with the book they are of the coffee history nerd variety and minor, if that, and in most cases things that are open to interpretation. One of my favorite things about the book is that they included an “index.” Any given “rule” may touch on several topics, so the index is very helpful. The fact that there are more than three times the number of entries in the index as there are rules tells you there is some hidden weight to the content. I write about coffee and the coffee industry almost every day and I can see flipping to the index to see if Michelman and Carlsen have something to say about a topic. I might not learn anything new, but it’s almost certain I’ll revisit a fresh perspective that might set me off anew on an old subject.
Mike Ferguson | 09.10.18