Book Review: “God in a Cup” Part 3

2011 July 5
by Joe Johnston
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On the Nature of Obsessive Quests

The tag line for “God in a Cup” is “The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee”. Obsessive quests are by no means isolated to coffee – they are common to man. I have had firsthand experience with people involved in the obsessive quest for the perfect wine, best cheese, most money, great real estate deals, perfect parenting, best audio equipment, and great cars (to name a few).

Obsessive quests are rooted in a deep inner desire that life will be better, if the goal is attained or that the quest alone will give meaning and joy in life. Unfortunately, the deeper you go in the quest, the more illusive the goal becomes. As one becomes more enlightened as to the details, nuances, and complexity of any object of quest, the more obvious it becomes how little one really knows and how much further away the goal remains.

In truth, there is only one obsessive quest of real value and that satisfies. That is the quest for God; and I don’t mean “God in a Cup”. Only the quest for the Creator of all objects of other quests, can really be of any eternal value. God has promised that those who seek will find. Furthermore, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). The obsessive quest for God is still a quest: if what can be known of coffee is mind boggling, how much more what can be known of God. There is no end to it, now or ever.

Once the obsessive quest for God is given preeminence, all other quests are put into their proper place: very secondary, but very important. The quests for those other things will end up being a subset of the obsessive quest for God.

God in a Cup

Returning to the title of the book “God in a Cup”, it is at once insightful and absurd. It is absurd in that if your god is the sort that can be found in a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, your god is pretty lame. Your god is small, powerless, and passive. On the other hand, it is very insightful in that diving deeply into any created thing should point to God, the Creator.

No doubt digging deeply into coffee will humble you. The deeper you dig, the more infinite the details and knowledge. This begs the question: why is it so? What is behind the beauty and complexity? In the book, Don Holly, who coined the phrase says: “I am the least religious person here and when I tasted this coffee I saw the face of God in a cup”. Also, Peter Giuliano (Counter Culture Coffee) told the author “What interests me in coffee is the beauty of it. The beauty of the moment coffee can create”. The same can be said of wine, art, cheese, etc.

There should be moments where there is a flash of something. Something other worldly that speaks of transcendent beauty and meaning. The flash of God can be in a cup. It is not intended to end there. (For an infinitely more interesting account of glimpses of God: “Surprised by Joy” by C.S.Lewis)

A Side Note: Third Wave

The term “third wave” is used extensively in the book. The idea is that the first wave of coffee was the era through WWII in which the focus was building the consumption of coffee in the US. The second wave started in the late ‘60’s and was the advent of specialty coffee: a focus on quality and upgrading the coffee experience. The third wave is a return to hand crafted coffee and a desire to equate coffee and wine (a focus on terroir and quality, individual producers).

As with many “label” terms, “third wave” is not very clearly defined. I used my favorite form of social media, twitter (on @roasterproject), to get definitions from coffee people I respect. The response was very interesting. Several thought that the definition was too hard to express concisely. Others defined it as “a movement in Specialty Coffee to produce highest quality coffees through every stage of coffee life, from seed to cup”, “people that truly care about coffee and not just a brand; people that pursue perfection and are willing to teach”, and “The craft of (& passion for) coffee as a unique culinary experience & pursuing excellence at every level of production”. The most concise definition was just four words long and stated by the esteemed George Howell: “terroir driven coffee businesses.” George is mentioned in “God in a Cup” and the roots of “third wave” must be attributed to him in creating “Cup of Excellence” (1999).

More than a few people did not answer via public message (but did send private messages) or indicated that it was not a term they were fond of using. The problem with the term is two fold. First of all, people who define themselves by a label are often people we don’t want to associate with. I do not enjoy interacting with people who state up front that they are “conservative” or “liberal” or “fundamentalist” or “atheist”. It brings a set of baggage (assumptions of the definition) and immediately sets up a confrontational atmosphere. No topic worth discussing can be properly packaged under a label: all such topics are nuanced and deserve thoughtful unpacking.

Secondly, the implication of the term “third wave” is that this is a new and discrete movement that came about in the early to mid 2000’s. This irritates people who have devoted their lives to improving coffee quality and care about the coffee farming community. It is rooted much earlier than this and the implication that most “second wave” people did not “get it” is patently false. It is true that many did not, but that is the problem with a label: it paints everyone with the same brush. It is also our myopic view of modernity. One would think that pour-overs and siphons were invented in the last 10 years, when in fact Mellita Bentz invented the paper filter in 1908 and sold plenty of ceramic drip cones before the Hario V60. Similarly, the Chemex drip system dates to 1941 (according to the wave labels: first wave). The siphon, more commonly known as a vacuum pot, dates to the 1830’s. Many “third wave” companies use vintage German roasters from the early to mid-1900’s. We somehow think that great coffee was not available until recently. That is a foolish assumption. One might want to peruse Uker’s “All About Coffee” (1922) and draw their own conclusions. It is too bad we cannot go back in time and visit some of the great coffeehouses of all time. I think it would be instructive and humbling.

As for the term “third wave”: I would propose that people go into a bit more depth and perhaps come up with a handful of distinctives for their coffee organization that paint a clearer picture of their heartfelt principles.

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3 Responses
  1. keith potter permalink
    July 12, 2011

    Prior to reading this review series, I had never been introduced to the concepts of direct-trade coffee or 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-wave coffee (apart from seeing the @roasterproject call for Third Wave definitions). I previously (lazily) fell into the category of “purchase fair trade coffee because it’s just better.” I feel as though you covered the topic very objectively and I am glad to have been introduced to these topics in the way that you introduce/discuss them. Had I simply stumbled across a “definition” of third wave on the internet, I hardly believe that it would have covered all of the implications that are brought to light in your post.

    And what a marvelous way to perceive one’s obsessive quests (or, passions) as very secondary [to God], but yet still so important. I couldn’t agree with that statement more. As I enter in to a new chapter of life with a new baby, understanding that the quest for God must be pursued first and foremost, the quest of trying to be a “perfect parent,” for example, can be put in much better perspective, and He helps me understand just how unattainable that goal may be 😉 and I’m just fine with it.

    Thank you, Joe, for the insight and the wonderful review of what sounds like a great read!
    ~Keith

    • July 18, 2011

      I appreciate you comments, Keith. Many people with obsessive quests who put the quest for God first have done amazing things. Congratulations on being a new father.

  2. July 13, 2011

    I have enjoyed this book review a lot. I personally never liked the term third wave but do recognize that the coffee companies mentioned in the book have worked pretty hard on getting that title and deserve recognition. The term makes all the coffee companies that strive to get there to aim at only getting to be third wave and what about the fourth wave, fifth ,sixth etc. I prefer the term “cutting edge” because you can always be there as long as you are wiling to reinvent yourself and if you are living like every day is grand opening you are most likely in the cutting edge no matter what you do. I have been in the coffee industry for more than 20 years and have not been able to create a huge fortune, do love what I do and the people I do business with; with that in mind the word humbling hit me pretty deep.
    Great job Mr. Johnston

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