Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash
Episode 93—A Tribute to Coffee

**Be sure to scroll to the bottom for links to some of the best coffee brewing advice on the internet**

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“Coffee makes us severe, and grave and philosophical.”

Jonathan Swift

Here’s something to consider: as you drink your cup of coffee this morning, you are participating in a cultural tradition with billions of other people around the world.

Coffee has been part of human culture for hundreds of years, and there are various legends about how humans discovered it. My favorite involves an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi.

Kaldi noticed that his goats, after eating the red berries from a particular bush, danced around wildly and had too much energy to sleep at night. The legend says that Kaldi tried these berries and eventually made them into a drink. After realizing how powerful they were, he gave the knowledge to the local monastery, and from there, the knowledge of these berries began to spread.

Although this explains why many cafes have some variation of the name “dancing goat”, it is unlikely that this legend is true. The origin of the coffee plant is Ethiopia, but the earliest evidence of its use dates back to the 15th-century monasteries in Yemen.

From there it spread to surrounding regions. By the mid 16th century there were coffeehouses in Istanbul. The first coffeehouse in England opened in 1652, and by 1739 there were over 550 coffeehouses in London alone. The British brought coffee to New Amsterdam (New York), but it wouldn’t become popular in American culture until after the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The history is detailed and fascinating, and today coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world. It is estimated that 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. This makes it the second most traded commodity in the world, second only to crude oil.

Coffee Culture

“Coffeehouses were centers of self-education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation, and, in some cases, political fermentation. But above all they were clearinghouses for news and gossip, linked by the circulation of customers, publications, and information from one establishment to the next. Collectively, Europe’s coffeehouses functioned as the Internet of the Age of Reason.”

Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses

It might not be an exaggeration to say that coffee is responsible for the world as we know it today.

What do I mean by this? Well, many historians like Steven Johnson and Tom Standage believe that coffee is directly responsible for the Enlightenment and the culture that gave rise to it.

The Enlightenment—skepticism, individualism, empirical thinking, experimentation, objective truth over blind faith—was developed and spread in the coffeehouse culture of 17th century Europe.

On one level we can understand the chemical contribution of coffee—as a stimulant it helps people wake up and have an excitement to think. But it’s also important to realize that drinking coffee didn’t just replace water. In the 16th and 17th centuries, clean drinking water was hard to find. It was much safer to drink alcoholic water like beer or wine to stay hydrated.

I don’t know about you, but on days where I drink beer all day, I’m usually a lot less productive. So it wasn’t just that coffee helped people think—it also gave people a way to stay hydrated without getting drunk.

Tom Standage, in his book A History of the World in Six Glasses, had this to say about coffee and the Enlightenment:

“The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak ‘small beer’ and wine. … Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved. … Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”

-Tom Standage from A History of the World in Six Glasses

So yes, part of coffee’s contribution to the Enlightenment was literally sobering people up.

But coffeehouses were also a place where people could come for free-thinking and thought-provoking discussions. They were the hubs for information exchange. In England, the coffeehouses became known as “penny universities” because people could hang out and learn all day for just one penny.

As a musician, one of my favorite examples of a European coffeehouse was Café Zimmermann in Leipzig Germany. It hosted the Collegium Musicum, a musical society founded by composer Georg Philipp Telemann and later directed by Johann Sebastian Bach. These public concerts were free, as all expenses were paid through the sale of coffee.

Bach even wrote a piece about coffee. His cantata 211, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, is known as the coffee cantata (watch a performance by the Netherlands Bach Society here). It is basically a comic opera about a woman’s addiction to coffee.

“If I couldn’t, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat”

-translation from Bach Cantata 211

But of course, coffeehouses were commonplace in the Middle East a century before Europe. It was the imperial ambitions of the Ottoman Empire that began spreading coffee into Europe.

Turkish coffee is quite unique. It uses an extremely fine grind (even finer than espresso), and it is consumed unfiltered. The process essentially involves boiling the coffee in the water and pouring the whole mixture into a small cup as pictured here.

One tradition with Turkish coffee is fortune telling. After you finish drinking the liquid, you flip the cup upside down onto the saucer. After cooling, it leaves shapes on the side of the cup—shapes that have various “meanings”.

This picture is the pot—cezve in Turkish— in which one makes Turkish coffee. While the previous picture was made at home with a machine, putting the cezve over hot coals is even more traditional. This photograph—from my 2018 trip to Turkey— was taken after cooking kebab in the Belgrad Forest outside of Istanbul.

Although my main relationship with coffee is specialty coffee—more specifically the third wave coffee movement of the 21st century— I have also grown to enjoy a cup of Turkish coffee every day.

Kodawari and Pursuing Craft

I drank coffee for years because of the caffeine, but I didn’t appreciate the craft of coffee until 2013. That year began my spiraling descent into the rabbit hole that is specialty coffee.

I first bought a Chemex. Next was a nicer Hario hand grinder. Then I started ordering beans online from places like Verve Coffee Roasters—your beans were roasted to order and sent with free two-day shipping. Next, I bought an expensive burr grinder, the Baratza Virtuoso.

On top of the equipment, I was also obsessed with educating myself. I learned about the chemistry, the brewing methods, and the different roast levels. While getting my masters in music, some friends and I even began selling pour-over coffees from the lounge in our music school.

As a musician, it didn’t surprise me that I became consumed with coffee. To successfully pursue music, one must become obsessed with pursuing an ideal. One must also have the discipline to pursue this ideal for long periods of time, with many failures along the way.

Perhaps this long term discipline is exactly what distinguishes a hobby from a craft.

As a musician, I already knew the amount of work that goes into something like a symphony orchestra concert. But I now knew how much work went into a delicious cup of coffee. At each stage of specialty coffee—the growing, the picking, the roasting, and the brewing—skills and careful human energy are required. Watching a skilled barista work became like watching a musician play a concert.

You might not know it, but there are worldwide barista competitions every year. Do yourself a favor and check out this video of Matthew Perger, one of my favorite baristas, from the World Barista Championship in 2013. It’s inspiring.

Perhaps the best thing I learned from the world of specialty coffee was kodawari. I forget the barista that introduced me to this Japanese term, but it stuck with me. And it became the framework that I use for pursuing anything of value these days.

Kodawari is one of those concept words that brings with it a whole paragraph of meaning. It essentially means that one should pursue perfection even while knowing that perfection can’t be reached. It is the noble pursuit itself that gives life meaning.

I love how Sunny Bindra described kodawari in her article about appreciating perfectionists:

“To those who do not understand it, kodawari might be interpreted as a serious obsession; a mental disorder; a ridiculous obstinacy.

It is no such thing. Wherever you encounter kodawari in the world, applaud it and appreciate it. Kodawari is what maintains quality in this life. Because some people are willing to devote their lives to the singleminded pursuit of an ideal, the rest of the world enjoys a better average standard. If no one was pointing out the pinnacle, we would all languish in the valleys of insignificance.”

from Sunny Bindra’s Appreciate the Perfectionist in your Midst

So consider pursuing specialty coffee. You might find like I did, that the kodawari energy spreads into other areas of your life. Doing our best gives meaning to life, and it makes you proud to be alive. It doesn’t have to be coffee, but trust me, specialty coffee is a fun rabbit hole to fall into!

Don’t Be An Asshole

Although I love specialty coffee for all the reasons above, it’s important to keep a check on your ego. You’re not better than anyone just because you make coffee differently. It’s not worth forcing specialty coffee on anyone, and you’ll gain nothing by critiquing how people make or consume coffee.

At the end of the day, remember that we are sharing in a tradition that dates back hundreds of years and may have led to the modern world as we know it. Whether it’s a perfectly pulled shot of single-origin espresso or a rancid cup of gas station coffee, in a zoomed out way, it’s part of the same cultural link to our ancestors.

So go ahead and jump down the rabbit hole of specialty coffee, but stay humble. It’s nice to be thoughtful about coffee, but it’s not worth the price of being an asshole. Whatever you’re drinking, just enjoy it.


Links

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