The Religion of Coffee – Can You Go Too Deep?

2010 January 21
by Joe Johnston

If one earnestly studies coffee, from growing to the final cup, it becomes evident that there is an infinite amount to be learned. The growing of the plant, while seemingly simple in a tropical environment, is quite complex when you delve into the variables, plant physiology, and relationship to final quality. If we examine the bean alone, it is made up of countless compounds bound up in a highly complex cell structure. Deep thinking on the subject of roasting soon leads to chemistry and the myriad of reactions we have some knowledge of and others even Dr. Illy would say are “as yet unknown”.

One can easily devote their life to the pursuit of knowledge and some sort of mastery of coffee. It is a path to find the “god shot” or a perfect, transcendent cup. Such a path can be all consuming. One step is mastered, only to find that there is yet a better way or more to understand.

A Common Pursuit: Holiness in an Activity or Thing

$9,000 Speakers

This sort of devotion is quite common. When I was at Stanford, I used to build high performance stereo speakers as a side hobby/business. This lead me to become something of an audiophile and to be in the company of truly devoted audiophiles. They were all-consumed by the desire to get the best equipment and make the endless modifications necessary to achieve perfect reproduction of music. It was never-ending, expensive, and the subject of raging debates between tube amplifier/solid state amplifier camps.

If you have ever been in the company of a devoted wine connoisseur, or an organic foods evangelist, or a militant raw foods person, you will observe a common thread. There is desire to somehow be perfect; achieve a form of holiness through activity or mastery of a thing. None of these activities or things are in any way bad or, in some sense, evil.

The real problem is that all of them are designed to point you to the Creator, not the created thing. Therefore, they cannot ultimately satisfy. The fact that there is an infinite amount to know about coffee is just a window on one attribute of the Creator. The fact that there is so much beauty, form, organization, and interconnectedness (e.g. that our tongues are designed to taste the multiple components that make up coffee flavor) points to something about the Creator, not coffee.

So What About Coffee?

I think it is important to put coffee in the right perspective. On the one hand, it is nothing more than the seed of a common tropical fruit that has been roasted, ground up, and made into a beverage for us to enjoy. On the other hand, it is a fantastic part of creation to be “subdued”, meaning developed to its maximum potential for the betterment of people while being a good steward of the creation, in general. It is good to develop a knowledge of coffee, to aspire to express its flavor in a beautiful way, it is good to help farmers earn a proper livelihood. Yes, it is even good to design and build the best roaster you can to roast coffee as well as you can.

Just keep it in perspective: it is just coffee… and it is GLORIOUS COFFEE. Don’t mock those who have great enjoyment in simple coffee, don’t mock those who are very passionate about the details of great coffee. But most of all, don’t place your true devotion in coffee or any created thing.

6 Responses
  1. Mark permalink
    January 22, 2010

    Regarding audiophiles and going too deep: I’m an audiophile and javaphile, and I’ve witnessed otherwise smart people sink into techno-superstition when it comes to achieving the absolute sound. Though they enjoy techno-speak and gadgetry, audiophiles tend to reject science when it comes to their hobby. Most of them hold views which do not stand up to rigorous, scientifically controlled double-blind testing, yet they hold those views with irrational fervor.

    I think you’d find any of the following articles interesting from an audio standpoint as well as inspirational to your coffee quest. The gist of all of them is the scientific approach to measurement and evaluation. So instead of doing what a lot of speaker builders do (stuff drivers into a box and design the crossover on a computer and call it good) Harman combines world-class objective and subjective evaluation of loudspeakers into one process. I think there are a lot of parallels to the production and evaluation of roasted coffee.

    I don’t work with or for them, but would recommend Revel speakers if you have not heard them. papers

    Here’s a blog by Dr. Sean Olive, who runs the group which subjectively evaluates Harman’s loudspeakers. They use trained listeners in double blind tests to do efficient and effective subjective evaluation of loudspeakers. I’ve got to wonder if there’s some inspiration there for someone who wants to develop a technical product designed to produce an affective, aesthetic response.


    • January 24, 2010

      Mark, thanks for your comments regarding the design of speakers. It is a fascinating topic and there is certainly “The Religion of Faithful Audio Reproduction” where the same principles of misplaced devotion apply. I do admire those who take a reasoned approach to the subject. Please feel free to comment further in this blog.

  2. @CoffeePedaler permalink
    February 3, 2010

    This is an interesting read. I am just getting into roasting (air pop). I know I won’t be roasting the perfect cup, but I have fallen in love with the process. Soil to cup, I love coffee. So I want to roast to get closer to the beverage. I too have take a hobby or interest too seriously before, and it looses the quality that attracted me every time, the fun. So keep it simple, keep it interesting. Maybe I too will build a DIY roaster someday.

    Anyways, thanks for the blog.

    • February 3, 2010

      Thanks for your comment. Beware the hot air roaster! The moment I started playing with a popcorn popper to roast coffee (1987) I was hooked on roasting coffee. That lead to starting a chain of coffeehouses and roasting +50 tons/year by 1992. Hobbies can become businesses very easily! I do not regret one moment of it, either.

      Keep on roasting!

  3. Jon permalink
    February 4, 2010

    Joe, The Religion of Coffee – Can You Go Too Deep, gives me pause.

    In particular “The real problem is that all of them are designed to point you to the Creator, not the created thing.” Now that’s good stuff! That speaks to my heart in a huge way.

    I tend to devote long hours trying to master some of the details in my life and my hobbies (at the moment espresso and my big green egg). There are times I would feel pretty silly for investing hours worth of research and reading about espresso and espresso machines, which leads to grinder selections.. which leads to bean selections. Being a perfectionist I quickly realized getting into “real” espresso or ( “really good espresso”) was going to be hard and exceedingly expensive for a working class hero like myself. Then there is all the nuances in between that can make your head spin: for example Heat Exchanger or Double Boiler. Case in point. Each detail of espresso has some hard decisions to make.

    Espresso has been torture on me. My family and friends think I am indisputably insane for caring this much about coffee. So I pull back probably something like an alcoholic and keep my espresso needs hidden from others. But now, it is more of a beauty thing for me because of your analysis on the Creator not the coffee.

    What a humble and brilliant perspective to be seeing from.

    • February 4, 2010

      Jon, thanks for your comments. I firmly believe that going deep in any subject points you to God. Even the creative process directs you to God. The “Book of Romans” in the Bible has a lot to say about how creation is a pointer. When our relationship with God is put right, then there is greater enjoyment of the creation. It is said that “contentment plus godliness is great gain”.

      Hope you enjoy the blog and feel free to comment at any time!

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