The best books on the history of coffee and coffeehouses

Who am I?

I went to college in Portland, Oregon when the Pacific northwest’s coffee boom was just getting started. My love of coffee turned academic as I began to research and write what would turn out to be a prize-winning book on the early history of coffee and coffeehouses in Great Britain: The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (2005). I’ve continued to publish articles on coffee history and the history of sociability ever since, and I regularly teach a research seminar on the history of coffee at McGill University. Now I serve as president of the board of directors for an international research group on the history of sociability.


I wrote...

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse

By Brian Cowan,

Book cover of The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse

What is my book about?

What induced the British to adopt foreign coffee-drinking customs in the seventeenth century? Why did an entirely new social institution, the coffeehouse, emerge as the primary place for consumption of this new drink? Brian Cowan finds the answers to these questions in the particularly British combination of curiosity, commerce, and civil society. Cowan provides the definitive account of the origins of coffee drinking and coffeehouse society, and in so doing he reshapes our understanding of the early modern commercial and consumer revolutions in Britain.

The books I picked & why

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Coffee: A Global History

By Jonathan Morris,

Book cover of Coffee: A Global History

Why this book?

This is a book that I wished had been published when I was working on the origins of coffee drinking in early modern Britain. It offers a broad overview of the history of coffee around the world from its origins in the Ottoman empire to the present day. The book focuses mainly on the economic history of coffee production and consumption, and so it has less to say about the history of cafes and coffeehouses. It is very short and succinct and as such, it’s the obvious introduction to this fascinating topic. If you want a quick and reliable guide to the history of coffee, this is the book you need.

Coffee: A Global History

By Jonathan Morris,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Coffee as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Coffee is a global beverage: it is grown commercially on four continents, and consumed enthusiastically in all seven. There is even an Italian espresso machine on the International Space Station. Coffee's journey has taken it from the forests of Ethiopia to the fincas of Latin America, from Ottoman coffee houses to `Third Wave' cafes, and from the simple coffee pot to the capsule machine. In Coffee: A Global History, Jonathan Morris explains how the world acquired a taste for coffee, yet why coffee tastes so different throughout the world.

Morris discusses who drank coffee, as well as why and where,…

A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture

By Shachar M. Pinsker,

Book cover of A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture

Why this book?

Pinsker’s A Rich Brew combines Jewish history and the literary history of modernist fiction as a way of studying the social history of café culture in five cities with large Jewish populations: Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, New York City, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Café culture from the mid-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century was particularly associated with Jewry and with modernism. This book helps us understand why this elective affinity between Jews, modernism and coffee developed in the way in which it did. Discerning readers will also find references to loads of novels, stories, and journalism from the era that are worth reading in their own right.

A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture

By Shachar M. Pinsker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Rich Brew as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finalist, 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience, presented by the Jewish Book Council
Winner, 2019 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, in the Jewish Literature and Linguistics Category, given by the Association for Jewish Studies
A fascinating glimpse into the world of the coffeehouse and its role in shaping modern Jewish culture
Unlike the synagogue, the house of study, the community center, or the Jewish deli, the cafe is rarely considered a Jewish space. Yet, coffeehouses profoundly influenced the creation of modern Jewish culture from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. With roots stemming from the Ottoman Empire,…


Coffee Life in Japan

By Merry White,

Book cover of Coffee Life in Japan

Why this book?

While one probably associates tea drinking with Japan more than coffee, Japan is now the third-largest coffee-consuming country in the world, surpassed only by the USA and Germany. Written by an anthropologist, White’s book serves as both an ethnography and a history of coffee life in modern Japan. Coffee came later to Japan than it did to Europe, being introduced only in the later nineteenth century. Here you will learn how coffee came to be associated with global modernity in Japan as well as how Japanese cafés came to serve a key role as centers of urban sociability and for self-expression.

Coffee Life in Japan

By Merry White,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Coffee Life in Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This fascinating book - part ethnography, part memoir - traces Japan's vibrant cafe society over one hundred and thirty years. Merry White traces Japan's coffee craze from the turn of the twentieth century, when Japan helped to launch the Brazilian coffee industry, to the present day, as uniquely Japanese ways with coffee surface in Europe and America. White's book takes up themes as diverse as gender, privacy, perfectionism, and urbanism. She shows how coffee and coffee spaces have been central to the formation of Japanese notions about the uses of public space, social change, modernity, and pleasure. White describes how…

The World of the Paris Café: Sociability Among the French Working Class, 1789-1914

By W. Scott Haine,

Book cover of The World of the Paris Café: Sociability Among the French Working Class, 1789-1914

Why this book?

Haine provides his readers with a solid social history of the French café in the long nineteenth century. While coffee was introduced to France earlier in the seventeenth century and cafés became a notable aspect of the social scene in Enlightenment Paris, it is only after the French Revolution that the café became a crucial place for working-class people to gather, socialize, and to drink (alcohol more often than coffee, as it happened) together. This is the book to turn to when you want to know how many cafés could be found in Balzac’s Paris, who got arrested for what in those cafés, and who could be found drinking and hanging out there.

The World of the Paris Café: Sociability Among the French Working Class, 1789-1914

By W. Scott Haine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World of the Paris Café as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"[Haine] invites the reader of The World of the Paris Cafe to step up to the serving counter of a nineteenth-century Parisian cafe to eavesdrop on the conversations and to observe the dynamics of this unique working-class establishment ...These cafes were far more than places to eat and drink to the great majority of working-class Parisians, who also frequented such establishments seeking shelter from authorities, exchanging and developing and sometimes enacting their ideas."-Jack B. Ridley, History: Review of New Books In The World of the Paris Cafe, W. Scott Haine investigates what the working-class cafe reveals about the formation of…

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

By Sidney W. Mintz,

Book cover of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Why this book?

Mintz’s book is about sugar, but it is still a key work in the history of coffee. It served as one of the major inspirations for my own study of the reception of coffee in early modern Britain. Sugar was a key ingredient in coffee by the later seventeenth century and would become a staple in the hot drinks consumed by the English working class. Mintz shows us how this symbiotic relationship between sugar and coffee developed, and he places the construction of an Atlantic slave system and the industrial revolution at the heart of his story. This is a classic work of both anthropology and history; it inspired a whole new way of thinking about the Atlantic world and the history of consumption at a time when both of those fields were still newborn. 

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

By Sidney W. Mintz,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sweetness and Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating persuasive history of how sugar has shaped the world, from European colonies to our modern diets

In this eye-opening study, Sidney Mintz shows how Europeans and Americans transformed sugar from a rare foreign luxury to a commonplace necessity of modern life, and how it changed the history of capitalism and industry. He discusses the production and consumption of sugar, and reveals how closely interwoven are sugar's origins as a "slave" crop grown in Europe's tropical colonies with is use first as an extravagant luxury for the aristocracy, then as a staple of the diet of the new industrial…

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Interested in coffee, sugar, and pop culture?

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