A Salutary Elitism, Part 1: The Morning Cuppa

There are hundreds of blogs with posts on the Church’s teaching, worship, prayer, etc., and this site will no doubt offer similar things. But as the Incarnation provides a light to see all the world by, even the world of the kitchen counter, living room sofa, and front porch, why not also offer posts on things like coffee? Chances are good that many readers of this blog enjoy coffee on a daily basis, so thinking about it in light of the incarnational logic of our faith should come naturally for Catholics. Matter matters, including what we use in those rituals of domesticity and friendship which include beverages like coffee. So here are some thoughts about what many start their day with; in a later post I'll discuss bourbon.

   I’m all for elitism. When inspired by quality and excellence, elitism is a salutary thing, especially when an insipid egalitarianism or indifference threaten to degrade thought and taste. To defend household matters against this fate, in what follows I’ll defend the virtue of taking coffee seriously enough to commit the necessary expense, time, and effort to its enjoyment. Let the apathetic ignore or disparage the pursuit of virtuosity in the everyday routines of life and drink their morning swill; Catholics should know better than to settle for anything less than an exceptional cuppa.

    A little personal history is in order. My first encounter with coffee was in graduate school, when I had some variation of General Foods International Coffee, a powdered, flavored concoction which delivered such an intense caffeine rush that questions of quality were rendered irrelevant. I was buzzed, and fortified to study well into the morning. Soon I became a coffee vampire, drinking after sundown and only for the staying power those cups delivered. I still recall sitting at my desk at 2:00 am in the dining room of our one-bedroom apartment in Carrboro, N.C., with our cat Dante wrapped around my neck purring, while I read St. Augustine for a class on the City of God. This is what coffee is for, I surmised; keeping you awake so you could read more St. Augustine with your cat.

   My utilitarianism would gradually fade, as two things happened at about the same time: The Law of Diminishing Caffeine Returns and the coffee craze of the early ’90’s. As my body grew more accustomed to caffeine and its effects on me decreased, I sipped my first latte in 1993 at Steamers, a hip little joint in downtown Milwaukee which treated coffee as an experience both to treasure and to pay a lot for. The milk, the foam, the burning hands as I carried the large paper cup, not to mention the five spot I handed over at the register, all made for a stimulating experience. Other local startups followed, with oversized cookies and muffins served with the oversized cups of coffee and espresso drinks I now drank in the full light of day. Starbucks was beginning its takeover of both the civilized world and the English lexicon, with people called baristas telling us not only that small is tall, medium is large, and large is twenty, but that we should be able to say ridiculous things like “Venti half-caff mocha Frap with extra whip and sprinkles” without getting slapped silly or brained with ice tongs. Coffee in all its manifestations was now a hip, stylish beverage, with its own hip, stylish language. It was part of a “lifestyle,” one I happily welcomed.    

   A lifestyle, moreover, that made demands on the home front. I gathered all the accoutrements for drinking at home, including bags of coffee beans. I ground my beans with a cheap blade grinder, buying them mostly from Starbucks (their Arabian Mocha Sanani, at $17 a pound, was my favorite at the time, as it was expensive, sounded cool, and tasted different enough to make me feel like I was in the know), and drank my brew with a secure sense of superiority, assuring myself that I was a Coffee Guy. And, yes, it felt meet and right to look down on the unwashed masses who bought their beans from Safeway or Fry’s. The slack-jawed yokels who defiled themselves even further and drank pre-ground or, worse, freeze-dried, coffee were beneath contempt. “Protestant gnostics” I sneered when thinking of the shame they were inviting upon themselves. They deserved every drop of their disgrace, along with the bitter aftertaste of their Taster’s Choice.

   While it would be fitting to attribute my eventual change of mind to an encounter with a probing essay that challenged my smugness and warned me of its dangers (CS Lewis’s “The Inner Ring” would have been appropriate), it would also be inaccurate. To make a long story short, one night I was bouncing around the internet for information on something coffee related and I ran into Coffee Review, a wonderland for coffee enthusiasts. Here I found reviews of dozens of different coffees, articles on brewing methods and equipment, and links to roasters throughout the country, all written by knowledgeable people who treated coffee as if it were more than just a caffeine delivery system or a means of looking down at your inferiors. After a few repeat visits to this and similar sites my pretensions were suitably deflated, and I was now ready to begin Phase Two of my coffee life, this time guided by sensible advice. Several months later, having sampled coffees from several recommended roasters, I now understood the differences between things like West Coast and East Coast roast, why oily coffee beans are to be avoided, why a burr grinder is superior to a blade grinder, what kinds of coffee I preferred, and where to buy them. As I enjoyed cup after cup of Mamuto AA Kenyan from George Howell Coffee (bursting with blackberry flavor notes; who knew coffee could taste like that?), Deri Kochoha Ethiopian from JBC Coffee Roasters (silky sweet with a bright acidic punch; who knew how the flavor profile of a single cup could change so interestingly as it cooled?), and Sumatran Aceh Gold from Paradise Roasters (with agreeably earthy, vegetal notes; who knew that the classic Sumatran flavor profile would soon become my favorite?), I realized how glorious a simple cup of coffee could be.

    All this took some time and effort, and a little more expense than I was used to. But I learned that better coffee is more satisfying than its alternative, and I began to drink less once I started purchasing better beans; now I drink one 12-ounce cup of coffee in the morning, and that suffices. The mild caffeine effect, while pleasant enough and a short-term aid to concentration, is a secondary benefit (here good tea is superior to coffee, as the caffeine arc is less dramatic and more gradual). The whole experience that leads up to that first sip is essential to its enjoyment. It begins by choosing and ordering the beans, getting them in the mail about three days after they are roasted, opening the bag for the first time, and letting the kids breathe in the enchanting aroma. Then comes the morning ritual, as I hand-grind the beans, boil the purified water (let the water settle for a few moments after it comes to a boil), and use the pour-over method to produce a fine cup. No cream, milk, or sugar, and certainly no vanilla hazelnut or caramel pecan flavored nonsense, are needed if the beans are good. Would you ruin a perfectly prepared filet mignon with ketchup? Shame on you.

   While this might be more time-consuming than using an automatic coffee maker, the ritual enhances, even hallows, the enjoyment of what God has given us. Yes, thanks be to God for the coffee bean and those who bring it to us in all its roasted glory. I don’t hesitate to use the term “beauty” when considering the entire experience. Why should I? In The Portal of Beauty Bruno Forte has written that beauty is an event; it happens when the Whole offers itself in the fragment, when eternity shortens itself for our sake. The incarnational aesthetic he develops from his consideration of the Christian tradition surely includes within its scope such a humble thing as a cup of coffee, which, like all of creation, reveals something of the splendor and radiance of God. It is through matter that we encounter God, and there is no reason to exempt coffee from the long list of ways we can discern and appreciate something of the divine handiwork. Let the gnostics fulminate against this mindset, but Catholics should know better, especially after considering the Adversus Haereses of St. Irenaeus or the treatises of St. John of Damascus against the iconoclasts. If this sounds over the top, read those works with an icon of the Blessed Virgin in front of you, spend time looking at the paintings of peasants by Millet, and recall that one reason why St. Thérèse is such a beloved figure is because she treated the humble moments of everyday activities as shot through with eternal significance. She knew that there simply are no “ordinary” things or moments, just as Millet knew that there are no ordinary people. Kitchen counters—messy, cluttered, maybe in need of repair or an update—are never neutral spaces, any more than the porch or recliner where I drink my coffee is. Carefully preparing coffee on that counter and thankfully drinking it on that porch can be an extraordinary experience, helping attentive believers not only to establish a rhythm of receptive gratitude for the day to come, but also to resist the unremitting pull of mediocrity that would lead them to drink overroasted beans with a splash of artificial flavoring to mask their deficiency. Anathema sit.

A few practical considerations:

   It starts with fresh, filtered water, a burr grinder (blades chop the beans unevenly, not grind them; this does matter), and good coffee beans freshly roasted. Pre-ground coffee is out of the question, unless it is from quality beans and you drink it immediately. Ignore bags without the one-way valve that keeps oxygen from getting in and lets the carbon dioxide released by the beans out. Most roasters use these valves now, which helps keep the beans fresh. Oxygen is the enemy here, which rules out cans of beans, bags with no valve, and grocery beans stored in large, plastic canisters. And don’t look for an expiration date; this isn’t mayonnaise we’re talking about. Look for the roasting date. A fellow I spoke with at Paradise Roasters in Minnesota told me the folks there try to drink coffee from 3-9 days after roasting. That’s impractical for most people not working at a roaster (though Paradise and some other roasters sell green, unroasted beans; there are several ways you can roast your own beans if you’re willing), so the 30-day-ish rule is probably more reasonable. There is no need to stick the bag in the fridge or freezer. Just keep it sealed and try to use the beans in about a month.

   This means you should avoid beans from grocery stores. And while Starbucks has been getting more adventurous with small-lot coffees which are of higher quality than their regular selections (many of them overroasted), other, smaller roasters generally have higher-quality beans. The smaller roasters can afford to be far more selective in purchasing from coffee growers, as they are not buying for a corporation trying to put a retail outlet on every corner. Starbucks is similar to Peet’s of San Francisco in roasting many of their beans for too long, leading to the West Coast roast phenomena (the popularity of dark, dark roasts, as opposed to the lighter roasts of more traditional coffees). This is one reason never to buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks. And while the lines between East Coast and West Coast roast are getting blurrier all the time, most coffee experts agree that lighter roasts are preferable for most types of coffee beans. This might seem counterintuitive to people who grew up drinking dark roasts, but a little experience suggests the wisdom of a lighter touch.

   Of course there’s room for argument (and tasting) on this point. But do try to avoid oily coffee beans, which some people wrongly believe are a sign of quality. Oiliness signifies that the coffee is either over-roasted or old. Oils start to extract from beans as they age, and the darker the roast the more quickly the oils extract. And those oils go rancid, decreasing the quality of the bean and the brew.  

   I understand that people take their pleasures seriously, and it might be tempting to claim that I am too easily dismissive of what so many enjoy. You may love coffees from Trader Joes, Starbucks, etc.; you may keep beans, oiliness and all, for several months in cans, valve-less bags, etc.; against nature and all sense you may even prefer a cup of Folgers. Who’s to argue with taste? Me, for one. Many people enjoyed the 2008 film “The Hottie and the Nottie” starring Paris Hilton (three-and-a-half stars on Amazon). Many people also enjoy vampire romance fiction, Kraft Easy Cheese, and Coors Light. Am I going too far in saying they are all wrong to do so? That their “personal taste” is bankrupt? Sorry, but the cultivation of taste is an important matter, and to pretend that repeating a platitude like “But I enjoy it” or “It’s so popular” will transform mediocrity into quality is delusional. No subtle alchemy will effect such a transformation, regardless of how often and loudly someone insists it will. And if you offer some precious banality such as “You can’t criticize what I like, because I like it,” “Matters of taste are entirely subjective, so bugger off,” or “Who the #@%! are you to call me bankrupt?” I encourage you to put down your bottle of light beer and can of Cheez Whiz, learn about the transcendentals, and spend some time watching good movies, reading good fiction, and drinking real beer out of a chilled glass. Taste develops and matures, and, like oily coffee beans, can turn rancid. We owe it to God and ourselves to develop it properly.

   Of course we all have what are called guilty pleasures. I still have a soft spot for Totino’s Party Pizzas (“quick and fun deliciousness,” according to the website, and they got that right). This is as bad as frozen pizza gets, maybe as bad as anything you can get from the grocery store, yet every so often I gotta have me a couple Totinos. And I know as well as anyone the tangy thrill of bright orange processed cheese on a Ritz cracker, just as I understand that there are movies which are not very good but still wildly enjoyable. But I also know the difference between Totinos and a pie from Spinatos or any other pizzeria that takes its work seriously. I know the difference between the implausible, ephemeral fun of “National Treasure” and the “The Third Man” with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. The problem is not enjoying an overbaked Totinos while watching Nicholas Cage steal the Declaration of Independence, or insisting that we should never indulge those guilty pleasures because we are too superior. It’s refusing to see the qualitative difference between the guilty pleasure and the fuller, more satisfying pleasure that comes from habituating ourselves to genuine excellence. It’s refusing to take the time and effort to develop those habits because of any of the reasons we settle for third best. Does that qualify as elitism? Sure, and that’s a virtue, especially for those who take Philippians 4:8 seriously.   

   I can also hear someone in the background asking, “Hey, I got a family and a mortgage. Who's to pay for this elitism?" Yes, I did spend $30 for some Kenyan beans a couple times, and, yes, that’s a lot. But I'm glad I spent it, for those beans were extraordinary, and I learned a lot about Kenyan coffee farms and the distinctive flavor profile of their beans, just as I learned that I prefer less acidic coffees than the Kenyans. But my normal coffee habit is a bag of Sumatran (less acidic than most African and Central American coffees) at around $13-15 a bag, depending on where I order it from; with shipping it comes out to $17-20. At about five cups per week (I like to drink teas from Red Blossom Tea Company in San Francisco a couple times a week, and no one else in my family drinks coffee), a bag usually lasts me a bit over a month. I don’t know how much other people spend on coffee, especially if they buy drinks from Starbucks or wherever, but this expense is hardly prohibitive and well worth it. Certainly one can spend not only too much money on coffee, as well as too much time and effort, and I’m willing to say that the $20 I spend might be too much for some. Each person is responsible to God, their family, their conscience, etc. What CS Lewis said about the gluttony of delicacy in The Screwtape Letters is dead on; it can become too easy to say, “It’s just a wee cuppa, and there’s nothing wrong in my demanding excellence in my coffee,” all the while ignoring that we are being unreasonable in the ways we make our demands. We can make too much of, demand too much from, just about any good thing, including coffee, books on prayer, taking the family on vacation, that bottle of Col. EH Taylor Cask Strength bourbon, whatever. One can even turn the “pursuit of excellence” into a fetish and justify almost any expense of time, money, or effort in its name. Nothing new in calling for prudence.

   All that said, coffee is for many people an expected and enjoyable part of each day. And it can be another reminder of how the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands bear witness to the greatness, and the goodness, of God and his creation. Amen and amen.

For the past several years my roasters of choice include Paradise Roasters in Ramsey, MN; JBC Coffee Roasters from Madison, WI; and my current favorite, Klatch Coffee, with three locations in Southern California. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any roasters in the Phoenix area whose coffee I have enjoyed enough to keep buying, though I've tried several. This isn't to say that I think Cartel Coffee Lab (several Phoenix locations) unworthy of your business; I've simply preferred the coffees from the above-mentioned roasters, and Cartel doesn't have many selections (though I would like to try the New Guinea coffee they currently have). I’m all for some well-heeled coffee whisperer setting up shop nearby and hiring me on as a taste consultant/profit-sharing-but-non-investing partner. Let me know if you have a lot of extra cash you’d like to let me help you spend.

Many of the better roasters have websites which provide useful information about coffee, different ways to prepare it, how to store it, and so forth. Coffee Review is a good place to start; you'll find a lot of helpful links.

And do visit Red Blossom Tea Company. Their Formosa Red #18 Mi Xiang tea is outrageous; it smells like honey and will enchant you. It’s referred to by us Americans as “black” tea, though the Chinese refer to it as red; black would be the aged and fermented pu-erh teas. It has to do with the color of the tea when brewed.

 

Anthony DiStefano