Review: The Coffee Dictionary

A new dictionary of coffee offers a wonderful array of information, superbly presented, as Best Coffee editor Alex Stewart finds out. 

Coffee is an integral part of the day for many of us, but how much do we really grasp about the complexities of growing, processing, and making the thing that ends up in our cup? Requiring a range of knowledge from agronomy to gastronomy, coffee is a surprisingly sprawling subject and it is little wonder that people spend their lives studying its intricacies.

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, champion barista and the coffee expert behind Colonna and Bath’s hugely popular Colonna & Smalls, is one such student. And he has written a guide for the perplexed and the interested, The Coffee Dictionary. As he says in a brisk, lively introduction, “For me, coffee has proved to be endlessly fascinating, engaging, and rewarding. Coffee is many different things for different people…full of flavour, intrigue, history, and countless stories.” His book is equally fascinating and rewarding.

Beautifully laid out and lovingly illustrated by Tom Jay, The Coffee Dictionary is a genuine treasure trove of information that moves from the whimsical to the crucial in the space of a few pages. Did you know, for example, that the Aeropress was invented by the same man, Alan Adler, who invented the long-range Frisbee, the Aerobie? Or that Coffee X is “a design project led by the Rhode Island School of Design…to make a tasty cup of coffee on the International Space Station”? There is technical stuff – Agtron scale, dry distillates, parabolic drying, volumetrics – and plenty on the whys and wherefores of making and serving coffee. There is geography in entries on various coffee producing nations and history in the form of entries on, among other things, Third Wave coffee and the Boston Tea Party.

It’s good to see, too, that the book doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. The entry for Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, rightly raises concerns about the welfare of the animals involved, and there are sections on Fairtrade and sustainability, which references the good work of Cup of Excellence and points to the growing threat of climate change. Colonna-Dashwood knows his subject expertly, and his is a voice we should listen to on such topics. 

This engaging, beautiful book can be read cover-to-cover or, more likely, dipped in and out of. Whichever way you choose to consume it, the deft, light prose and superb illustrations are informative and entertaining in equal measure (check out the entry for 'Spittoon' and you'll see exactly what I mean). This book is a genuine treat for all, from coffee occasionals to diehard fans.

The Coffee Dictionary is published by Octopus and available from all good bookshops or via Amazon, here.

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