Happy Monday to you all! Since the last couple of weeks have been a little bit heavy, this week I thought we’d shift over to the more creative side of The Messy Coffee Table. So, as promised, today we’re finally talking about one of my favorite things: coffee!!
As some of you may know, I’m a worship leader at my church, and ministry is something I’ve felt a calling to for a long time. It’s what I love to do and it’s where I feel the Lord continues to lead me to serve and use my gifts. Truth be told, this does not always pay the bills. As a result, I’ve had to take a couple “side jobs” here and there to enable me to still do what I love, which is plan and lead music for the church. It would be SO easy to look at my secondary employment as a distraction from pursuing what I really want to do. A trap I think a lot of believers can fall into is in questioning whether or not we can glorify the name of Jesus in a seemingly mundane work environment. I’m here to say that we absolutely can!
A quote often attributed to Martin Luther (though we don’t really know who said it): “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Though I believe I’m also called to ministry, currently God has bestowed upon me the role of barista alongside that call. So how can I be glorifying God while working at a cafe?
I’m learning it’s two things: 1) Practice good hospitality, and 2) Make a good cup of coffee. That second point is what I’m here to talk about today.
Although recent, coffee has become a hobby with which I am obsessed. There’s so much I’ve learned just in the past couple years about what goes into that pretty little latte you might see on Instagram. And I’m still learning a lot! Making coffee is an intricate, organic process and it’s different every day. So much happens before it even gets to your local barista’s hands. Every region it’s harvested from brings different colors to the tasting palate, every roasting method brings yet even more, giving each batch comes its own personality, its own quirks and frustrations, and its own “sweet spot” where the flavor is extracted perfectly. It truly is a creative process.
The morning “dial-in” is all about bringing out the best the beans have to offer that day. Making the grinds finer, coarser, adjusting the dose, playing with brew time, pressure, temperature…fine tuning it all until you find the “sweet spot”: the right combination of all the variables that makes the espresso linger on the palate, highlights the flavor notes, and leaves you wanting more. Getting that right on the money is nothing short of a victory. It still excites me when it happens.
Okay, I’m sure by now some of you are thinking “This chick is nuts. She’s gushing over coffee beans.” But think about how amazing this process is: God wasn’t content with just making this plant spring up from the ground and calling it a day. He has since invited us in to discover and manipulate it to see what else it might become. We harvest its fruits, we prep it in different ways, we apply heat to roast them along a wide spectrum, we grind them to different coarseness or fineness and brew those grounds on a variety of concentration levels, from espresso to French press. God took one tiny thing and made it a million different things (He enjoys doing that, it seems… Mark 6:30-34). And the craziest part is that He doesn’t do all this himself. Like Jesus with the disciples and all that bread and fish, He invites us into the creative multiplication process.
Working with an organic material like coffee and being creative with it connects me to my Creator in ways I never expected.
It starts with the espresso. We usually have two different espresso beans at our cafe, one for drinks with milk (your lattes, cappuccinos, etc), and the other for straight espresso and what’s called a “long black” (essentially the Australia/New Zealand version of the Americano). I spend the first half hour of the morning, before the doors open, dialing in all the variables I mentioned before, taking into consideration how old the coffee is, what the numbers were the day before, and ultimately what I’m tasting. Here’s an example of our written dial-in below:
From top to bottom, these numbers represent: the Dose (grams of coffee grounds used in the shot), the Weight yielded (grams of espresso extracted from that dose), the Time it should take for the shot to pull, at what number both the time and weight intersect, or cross each other (in this case, at 20 seconds I had pulled 20 grams, about half, of my espresso), and the time at which the espresso first drops into the cup (AKA how long the preinfusion is). This is the combination of variables I found to be tasting the best for our Sumatra espresso bean that morning.
Whew. If it seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. And we watch for these numbers for every espresso drink. Every. Single. Time. It helps us keep track of consistency and how each cup is probably going to taste. If it’s too far off what we dialed in, we throw it out and try again. Why? The aforementioned “sweet spot” is what we want the customer to taste every time. If the shot pulls too quickly (shorter time), it will under-extract and taste bitter or sour. If it takes too long, the espresso over-extracts, leaving your palate with a dry, ashy finish. Neither situation is yummy (read more about extraction here).
This process and these numbers look different every day, and because it’s human beings brewing your coffee, they’ll even vary slightly from shot to shot and from person to person. There are things we can do to try and keep things as consistent as possible, but coffee is an organic material, responding to its surroundings and the passage of time and the ways we choose to manipulate it. There are guidelines baristas follow to get what is usually the best out of it, but depending on the “mood” the coffee is in on any given day, we eventually learn how to bend our own rules and adjust ourselves to what the coffee is actually giving us. Relying on numbers only takes us so far…ultimately if our palate doesn’t agree, neither does the coffee. You can’t always force it into the box of what “usually” works. So, we make changes in order to make the best of what it is.
Kinda like life, yeah?
Of course there’s nothing like seeing the look on people’s faces when you present them with some pretty latte art. A lot of work goes into this too. Steaming milk can be tricky…you don’t want it too thin or too foamy. There’s a different kind of “sweet spot” for milk, where just enough air has been added to stretch it and create that shiny microfoam on top. This is achieved differently for whole milk, skim milk, almond milk, etc because the fat content affects how the steam will interact with it. Typically, the lower the fat content, the trickier it is to get perfectly steamed milk.
And of course, pouring is another art form in and of itself. Depending on how fast or slow the milk is poured, you’ll get more or less of that white microfoam to rest on top of the espresso, versus sinking to the bottom. There’s some neat YouTube videos out there that explain all this nicely. Manipulating the speed and direction of the pour is what creates those lovely lines and hearts on your coffee.
But it’s not all just espresso and milk. One of my favorite ways to brew coffee is the pour-over method, specifically, the Chemex. With pour-over, your dealing with a MUCH coarser grind size than with espresso and much more water, so it’s not nearly as concentrated. Aside from that, extraction of flavor happens in a similar way:
There’s a specific dose assigned (for us, usually around 30-33g), as well as a yielded weight (we usually aim for around 500g). There’s a similar preinfusion time, called the bloom, where the grounds are all soaked evenly for about 30 seconds, quickly releasing trapped gases and creating those lovely first aromas. Flavor is also impacted by the speed of our pour…with the Chemex, a slow process is the key. We’re usually pouring water over the coffee so that we reach that 500g mark right around 2 minutes 30 seconds, give or take. Yes, your arm starts to hurt after awhile, BUT hopefully what is achieved is a light-bodied black coffee with bright flavor. Not to mention clean-up is no muss, no fuss. There’s a good step-by-step tutorial here. Yummy yummy!
There’s a book I read recently called Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate by John J. Thompson. I had the pleasure of meeting him and purchasing his book when he was invited to speak at one of our church events (which was actually hosted at the cafe where I work). It’s a fascinating read…this guy takes the simple, artisanal things in life that we all enjoy (coffee, beer, bread, chocolate…) and illustrates through his many stories how, if we develop a taste for it, they all connect creative humans to our creative God. The tag-line on the cover reads, “Crafting a handmade faith in a mass-market world.” He believes, and I agree, that there is something sacred in making stuff with our own two hands out of the stuff of the earth.
In his chapter on coffee, he describes his complete conversion to coffee-obsession, his experience meeting coffee farmers on the very ground from which the beans are harvested, roasting his own coffee…he even lectures a little on coffee culture today and the intricacies of producing it in a way that respects what it is. He also loves the Chemex, so you know, we get along (See pages 123 to 126 of his book).
What I love is his tie-in at the end of the chapter. He associates brewing coffee with many other art forms, such as wood working, music, painting, etc. The point he makes is that there is a cost to cultivating these things. It takes time, yes, but it is usually better for that. He likens this to being in authentic community as Christ-followers:
“The more I dive into the messy process of cultivating deep and sustained relationships based on the timeless mystery of the gospel, the more rich and rewarding my spiritual journey becomes. When my neighbors catch a whiff of God’s presence in my life, I sure hope it smells like a cup of freshly roasted, recently ground, home-brewed coffee…” (Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; John J. Thompson; pg. 145).
Good coffee is a messy process. So is living this life authentically for God’s glory. That’s what The Messy Coffee Table is about. That’s what I’m about. I’m about diving into the mess and inviting people in and creating something beautiful out of it. Because that’s what God does, and after all, He made us to be like Him (Genesis 1:27).
So I choose, every day I walk into that cafe, to make a good cup of coffee. I know this pleases my Father in heaven even if it seems like menial work to some. It’s crafting from the stuff of the earth, accepting His invitation into this creative process, and recognizing that it is all His.
For God’s glory,
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