Monday, January 29, 2007

Reviving the Trade of Coffee

Bethany, our faithful employees, and I are working on latte art, both for our customers and for ourselves. We are trying, in our own little corner of the world, to revive the trade of coffee. In many European countries, being a barista is a life-long profession, with all the attendant mastery of skill and passion. In America, it is most often an entry-level job (and it shows). I do not yet consider myself a barista: I am no where near the quality level that I could be. But I am working on it...and I'm in it for the long haul.

The goal, I think, is to establish coffee craftsmanship as a legitimate trade, much like carpentry and masonry. Obviously, just pouring a great latte or cappucino is not much of a trade. Consider, though, that just hammering a board or putting up a stone facade doesn't necessarily make one a great tradesman either. With a trade comes business acumen, versatility, and mentoring. In that sense, if a barista was an independent owner or franchisee (or store manager), they could reasonable call that a trade.

I can imagine, if my dream comes true, that there will be people who do want to devote their professional energies to this sort of hospitality and conviviality work. I would love to see it. The nice thing about a coffee tradesmanship, also, is that it is necessarily interdisciplinary. You must be a skilled technician, but also a people person. You must understand the mechanics of your brewing, grinding, etc., but also understand the sociology of neighborhoods and third places. Add to this the traditional, somewhat subversive, role that coffeeshops have played in human history and all of the sudden a good background in literature, art, and politics comes into play. A barista could (and arguably should) be a well-rounded individual: a wholistic agent of shalom.

I agree with TJ

Small-batch roasting is a necessity if you are serious about being in the coffee business. This weekend, when I was working behind the bar, I had my decaf espresso tank on me. Instead of the golden crema coming out of the portafilter, a rancid blackness brewed (but still tasted better than the big boys). After adjusting and cleaning and what not, I had to conclude that the beans themselves had turned. Since decaf is such a small part of our overall sales, we don't get beans very often. Thankfully, I had recently gotten a much fresher bag and was able to switch them out. But, I have three (yes, three) old bags that are worthless--but I've already made the capital investment in them. Sigh.

I love the espresso that The Commonplace roasts for us. They are an inspirationg to us, including the concept of small-batch roasting. Now I need to make the long odyssey of learning how to master this art/science so that I can take care of all my bean needs in house. What a great business this is.

Also, if you haven't caught it, please read TJ's article about Arabica beans, which even the worst gas stations are "proudly" offering. As always, Caveat Emptor.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Hospitality and the Cafe

I have had a long standing interest in hospitality. I've even had the opportunity to help folks in need, even though it is one of the most terrifying and elating experiences to have. One of the things that interests me is hospitality through the shop. While researching something completely different, I came across an article about a Naples, Italy tradition of hospitality called Caffe Sospeso, or "Coffee in Suspense". Basically, a patron buys two cups of coffee but only receives one. The extra one is held in trust by the proprietors until a homeless, or similarly afflicted, person comes to the cafe needing assistance. The nice part about it is that no one is negatively affected: the proprietor does not lose his shirt to "mooches", the downtrodden one received some small amount of comfort, and the customer receives satisfaction from the exchange. What a wonderful way to extend God's love to someone else: not exactly a "cup of cold water", but sometimes coffee suits better.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

If I had my druthers...

...I would have every recent graduate, graduate schooler, college schooler, or "going-to-go-to-college-in-the-near-future"er read this article. The idea of long-term planning has recently become especially important to me, as I consider what it is exactly that I want to do 5-10-20 years in the future. The way my thoughts are shaping up right now leads me to believe that it is nothing like I thought...

Espresso That Bytes

There are a number of things wrong with the shot of espresso itself, but the concept is a mixture of interesting and absolutely nerdy. Maybe it would be better if run from a platform such as Microsoft eXPresso?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Standing by Words

Wendell Berry, in his book, Standing By Words, argues that we need to reestablish the connection between the signified and the signifiers. He uses the medium of poetry criticism to do so, in his wonderful winsome way (although it must be said that this book is the hardest to read that I've yet found). The consequences of not "standing by words" is collapse of meaning, with all the attendant social and personal consequences.

What about religious language? If there is one thing that the evangelical community (myself included) is guilty of, it is of making our specific language into a joke. One just has to watch the movie Saved to see that. This may be a reason why Christianity is dying a slow and painful death in America: the Word means nothing to us. Since Christianity is based on both the written word and the incarnate Word, language should be of utmost important to us.

For example, have you ever had someone tell you that some Old Testament promise has been fulfilled "spiritually" in Christ? Stop for a minute and think what exactly "spiritual" means. After years of being disturbished by this term, I still don't have a grasp on its meaning other than "ethereal", "unexplainable", "mystical". In other words, it is a worthless term. If, perhaps, we were to recourse to the Bible's use of the term, which is solely speaking about the work of the Holy Spirit, then we have at least a place to start: it is not ethereal or unexplainable or mystical, but rather the concrete work of God in the actual historical world. Jesus says that he cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead by the Spirit of God--if that is the meaning being used for "spiritual" then I am all for it. However, mostly it seems to be used to perpetuate a psychological Christianity (even in stolid Reformed circles) where it concretely means "we feel that these things must be true, so it makes us feel good." What does it mean that the promise of the land of Canaan was "spiritually" fulfilled in Christ? Matthew 5 would lead us to believe that it means that Christians, if they follow in the footsteps of Jesus, hold rightful title to the entire, actual, tangible Creation of God. The implications of this, though, might lead us to be mature individuals working together as the mature body of Christ, continuing his work in this time in our places. Mostly, though, it signifies little more that an implied Marcionism--"spiritual" means the promise is no more, since it was before Christ. It allows those in "spiritual" power to set the terms for themselves, freed from any meaningful and normative relationship to Scripture.

It is time, for myself and I hope the Church, to reclaim its language and the power that comes with it.

Friday, January 19, 2007

On Criticism

For many years now, I've considered myself somewhat of a critic. I do not believe that the world is the way it should be, so I speak out against/for whatever I see to be the problem. Lately, however, I've noticed that my criticism--even the non-perjorative kind--has left me with a feeling of alienation and despondency. I've seen this in friends who are critics, whether socially or culturally or intellectually. Anyone who's ever read anything by Gary North knows how critics can sometimes act (the word you are looking for is "snarky"). Critics can be quite Hobbesian: short, nasty, and brutish. I've found myself often falling into that very mode.

The concept that is hardest for critics to grasp is that found in the Gospels: take the log out of your own eye before you worry about the sawdust in your brother's eye. The depression of criticism comes from the fact that you are always pointing out speck after speck of sawdust, without taking the necessary time to make sure you are sufficiently humble for the task. Many critics end up being ***holes because they don't do that, especially religious critics.

The desire to be a prophet, to apply God's Law to everyday situations, is strong amongst Christians: we see that the world is going the wrong way and want to head it off. The prophetic books seem like a reasonable model. But the disconnect between them and us is so strong. The prophets gave up everything dear to them, including life, to bring their inspired criticisms: we continue to live as comfortable Americans, content with our civil religion to rule over our real religion. It makes me a hypocrite and, in many ways, a scoundrel.

I've often believed and said that the only way that the government is going to change is if we start to govern ourselves. If we take care of our local poor, our elderly, our young, the defenseless in our midst. True enough, but if you were to ask me what I've done to make my criticism come true, I couldn't answer. It is easy to speak, but hard to work.

Lord have mercy.

Friday, January 12, 2007


There are two questions I get frequently at the shop that always delight and confuse me:

1) Do you have tea?
2) Do you have anything other than coffee?

I always get a kick out of these for the simple reason that the shop is called Beaver Falls Coffee and Tea Company. The "tea" part, for some reason, never really registers on people's radar. The question I don't like getting is:

Do you have X flavor of tea?

I've gotten that a couple of times and, for whatever reason, we don't have that variety of tea. Some folks have gotten quite snarky because of our lack of space, even though we have a better variety than 9/10 coffeeshops. Such is life.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Further Thoughts

"You will never get me to believe in a redeemer until you act redeemed."--Friedrich Nietzsche

Full article here.

Hat tip

Friday, January 05, 2007

On Blaming God

I have been praying for years for various things. Some of these involve the cessation of certain sins and shortcomings in my life. I pray to God for his Spirit, or for his power, or for his grace, or whatever. Many times I am blessed to have my requests met, others there is a strange silence or waiting period. It is during those times, especially if whatever it is I am praying about, that it is tempting to blame God. Being that I am a Calvinist, I believe that God is sovereign, that is, he has absolute say in the workings of the world he created and continually sustains. How is it, then, that my moral shortcomings should be so prevalent, pervasive, and perpetual?

At one point in time, one scholar said that the genius of the Calvinist system is that it avoids the two horns of the Arminian-Fatalist dilemma: because of God's sovereignty, the classic Calvinist has always felt called to a life of high moral purity and social action. Somehow in the system this works, no matter how paradoxical it sounds. The question that I wrestle with, then, is not so much, "where is God?" but, "where am I?" To be quite truthful, my desire to blame God is more of a projection on him of my own unwise decisions. Luther said that we must believe in God's sovereignty but act as if everything is contingent. My own wrong decisions, which I have seen a lot of in the last week, have been main deterrent to my prayers being answered. What good does it do me to pray against such-and-such a deed if I full well intend to do that very thing later on?

One of the most helpful political principles I have ever learned is the "consent of the governed". Every governmental authority ultimately derives their power from the power over whom they "rule". If enough of the people decide that they do not like the ruler, they can depose him. That is the neglected (oh so sorely neglected) genius of the US Constitution. If I believe that in many ways I am a slave to sin, why do I not apply this principle, instead of blaming God for not releasing me from slavery? He has already done that, once and for all, on the cross of his Son. I already have the writ of release, yet I keep my shackles on. However, God has told all that we do not have to languish in sin, it is our choice. No blame can be foisted on God for our shortcomings, especially mine. I have none to blame but myself.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Manage au trois

A special thanks goes out to Jason for working extra hours today as Bethany and I are both really sick. If you see him in the cyberworld or the real world, give him a laurel and hardy handshake. Thanks dude.