The Rubrics of Coffee

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Among friends and family, I’m known for being an amateur barista and coffee aficionado. It’s not that I’m a connoisseur — far from it — but I have high standards when it comes to the quality of my coffee, and I try to stay informed on how to achieve excellence in every sip. Knowing this, my sister-in-law sent me an e-mail not long ago, asking for my advice on how to buy and brew the good stuff.

I sat down and wrote out for her the specific requirements for proper espresso, the type of coffee that is not only the most potent, but the most robust and complex in flavor — the “soul of coffee,” as some like to call it. I detailed some of the essentials regarding the best type of machine; the quality of the water; the required freshness, roast depth, and age of the beans; the best grinder type and grind settings; proper dosage of grounds; the necessary brew temperature; the parameters of shot timing; the way to detect proper color and smell and taste of a good shot; and the technique for foaming milk for those who, like me, don’t usually prefer straight espresso.

As I wrote it all out, I realized that, to the uninitiated, there are a number of steps that require a seemingly ridiculous attention to detail. It was not long ago that I felt the same way, and now I could only imagine how silly and complicated it must sound to someone who was used to throwing coffee grounds into a filter, adding tap water to the machine, and flipping a switch. In my instruction, I was being far more demanding: “do this,” “time that,” “watch this,” “pre-heat that,” — in espresso-making, there’s no such thing as “set it and forget it.”
Good coffee, I realized, has rubrics. Unless they are followed precisely, the coffee will suffer. Improperly prepared, it might still provide a similar amount of caffeine and at least something like the desired flavor, but it will not yield anything like the rich, delightful experience of a meticulously prepared cup.
This is where I begin to wax theological. It seems that God, in His infinite wisdom, ordained for some of the best created things to be fully enjoyed only after they are obtained through a certain kind of labor — the fruit of rules, process, and procedure. These natural rubrics are essential to the very nature of the thing itself, and by disregarding them — for whatever reason — the innate qualities of the thing will elude you.
Like coffee, though certainly in a much more profound way, exquisite liturgy can only be experienced if one follows all of the necessary steps. Accepting a rubrics-optional approach to liturgy is akin to drinking inferior coffee simply to get the caffeine. Bad liturgy is endured by the faithful because they need the Eucharist — but many have never known what it is to really be delighted by it, to savor it, to sample its subtle complexity, to experience worship that is truly excellent and uplifting. Alas, the person who has never experienced good liturgy has no basis upon which to recognize poor liturgy; he just doesn’t know what he’s missing.
I don’t mean to belittle the Mass by comparing it to something profane, but I believe that on a simplistic level the analogy stands. Some of the most striking supernatural lessons are learned in the most ordinary ways. God infused things like the coffee bean, the grape, and the grain of wheat with a hidden nature that can only be experienced through something formulaic, even rigid. Whether roasting and brewing coffee, fermenting wine, or baking bread, man acts as a sort of priest over nature as he carefully oversees their transformation. Thus, if he is properly disposed, he will have an insight into the supernatural role of the ordained priest who consecrates bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord, thereby allowing us to experience and to adore His hidden nature.
God imbues a sacramental order into the things of this world to help us grasp these higher concepts. In writing down the detailed instructions that would help my sister-in-law make good coffee, I became aware of the presence of implicit ritual — ritual that was not the result of desire or personal taste, but of necessity.
I was immediately reminded of watching a priest celebrate the traditional Mass, which is also often accused of having too many steps, too much complexity, and too rigid a ritual. A friend of mine from the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter once told me, quite proudly, “I am a prisoner of the liturgy.” As priest, he is compelled at all times to give his body over to the postures and gestures and actions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, through which his vocation is fulfilled.
God infused the world with order and beauty and goodness, and the paradigmatic expression of these attributes in created things takes place every time a Mass is said inside a church. We know from our kitchens, tables, vineyards, bakeries, art studios, and writer’s desks that all truly good things are to be prepared with care. Once this is accomplished, they are then to be savored and protected and enjoyed.

It is therefore only fitting that we thank God both after meals and after Mass. Maybe even after coffee.

This column originally appeared on April 9, 2008.

By

Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

  • Hilary

    All coffee is bad, no matter what the rite. I

  • Fr. Dennis Gang,TOR

    I am sorry I missed your talk here but when you return I will let you make the coffee but I will buy it. I spent the last 7 years in our campus in Austria and so American coffee is a real shock to my taste buds. But last month I was in Honduras with our students and I had the thrill of drinking coffee picked, roasted and brewed the same day. Next month I get to go to Equedor but I am told they do not drink coffee there. I will say mass but for two weeks I will suffer.
    God bless you and your valuable work in the fight for good government. I graduated from here in political science and now I am back as a priest.

  • Kamilla

    Steve,

    If you ever find yourself in Portland Orgeon you simply must visti Stumptown – THE best place for coffee in the entire country. There is one just a block over from the Shrine (aka Powell’s City of Books), in the lobby of the funky Ace Hotel.

    You will be blessed.

    Being a tea-drinker myself, I actually managed to nearly finish my cappucino (it was an “order” from my surgeon, but that’s a story for another day). When, upon my return, I sadly had to inform him I still was not a coffee drinker, he advised Peet’s Coffees and Teas instead. Just yesterday I had the most divine cup of tea there – Green Peony.

    Kamilla

    P.S. I agree completely on rubrics, rituals and liturgies.

  • Pammie

    In this contest, I’ll have to cast my vote for Hilary. I like coffee, but I love tea. Plain, full leaf, Ceylon black tea.
    Brewed for 4 1/2 minutes with boiling water, one spoonful per cup. Nothing could be more simple or more heartening. I can’t say how it would relate to liturgy, but I’m sure some smart person such as Mr. Skojec could tell us. I’d be interested.

  • Sarah L

    . . . about those coffee rubrics. For years, I’ve made my coffee using a Melitta filter-holder/carafe combo. No machine. I did have a Cuisinart Grind-and-Brew for several months before it died on me. My husband offered me a coffee-maker for Christmas, partly to keep the coffee hotter longer, since our microwave died a couple days ago. We’ll be saving up some money towards a microwave (though I think we’ll survive nicely without it for several months or even longer), but I actually looked at coffee makers today. I didn’t buy one, though. I went home to check the Consumer Reports website to see what brands/models had good reviews, and now I’m even more confused. I saw a Farberware Percolator that looked interesting, but I’m not 100% sold yet. I had thought percolators “cooked” the coffee at too high a temperature, though maybe that problem has been fixed (?).

    Bottom line is I don’t really trust the average drip machine to create good coffee or to last. Do you have any recommendations, though? I hate to spend money on another counter-space hog that won’t really make coffee any better than our Melitta set, and I don’t mind heating up individual cups of coffee in a saucepan on the stove (though that requires greater vigilance; I don’t like boiled coffee).

  • Brandon

    a French priest comment on the Silver Bullet brewed concoction that came out of our pot as I offered it to him.

    “That is not Coffee.”

    this priest was a man of taste, and the best confessor I’ve ever had. He was also quite correct…if you want real coffee (or real anything) when you go abroad or even here in America, you don’t go to Starbucks, you go to the hole in the wall place down the block or nestled in the alleyway.

  • Clinton

    This was really nice and refreshing!

  • Katharine Higgins

    Sarah said: “Bottom line is I don’t really trust the average drip machine to create good coffee or to last. Do you have any recommendations…I don’t like boiled coffee)”
    Yes Sarah. At our family reunions every summer the coffee wars are unending. One person swears by his French Press, another insists that the electric drip is the best. In my opinion, the best method of making excellent coffee is the CHEMEX. It was invented (discovered?) by lab workers who used to brew coffee at work using lab equipment: a glass beaker and filter paper. The key is maintaining a temperature that extracts the best flavor. It was so successful that they went public. The only drawback is that you have to pour the hot water over the beans gradually. My family refers to this as the “Chinese water torture” method. I concede that is is not as fast as other methods, but it is worth it! I take my Chemex wherever I go.

  • Sarah L

    In my opinion, the best method of making excellent coffee is the CHEMEX. It was invented (discovered?) by lab workers who used to brew coffee at work using lab equipment: a glass beaker and filter paper. The key is maintaining a temperature that extracts the best flavor. It was so successful that they went public. The only drawback is that you have to pour the hot water over the beans gradually. My family refers to this as the “Chinese water torture” method. I concede that is is not as fast as other methods, but it is worth it! I take my Chemex wherever I go.

    It reminds me of the Melitta filter-holder/carafe combo I’ve got, though the filter-holder is plastic, and that may affect the flavor of the coffee. I checked out the Chemex online, and it looks similar to what I’ve got, though the top of the carafe holds the filter paper. I’ve made coffee with my Melitta for years, and it works alright, though it doesn’t keep the coffee hot for very long, and heating it up, as I said, requires some vigilance to avoid boiling it. I don’t mind that so much, but I’m still drawn to the percolators (especially the ones with the little glass bulb at the top that allows you to see the water burbling up and changing color). I’m still torn between those and the French press coffeemakers. With the percs, I’m torn between the self-heating models that plug in and switch to warming heat after the percolating is done and the stovetop models that, as with my saucepan-warming method, require greater vigilance so as to avoid boiling the coffee (but which can also be used over a campfire, which is a plus).

    The Chemex might make a superior pot of coffee, but I have to say it looks more at home at a chemistry lab than on a kitchen counter. I guess it’s vanity on my part, but, if I can manage it, I’d like for the coffee maker to look pretty on the kitchen counter (and to not take up too much of it, either). The percs have a more homey look (particularly the stovetop models).

  • Jake-the-Rake

    There’s coffee and then there’s the caf

  • Brian Edward Miles

    Very good analogy Steve.

    For me, the importance of the rubrics of Mass really hit home when I realized how crucial the rubrics were to the first Passover. Quite plainly, these external forms, these liturgical actions, meant the difference between life and death. And this was the ritual which not only delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt, but also serves as the Old Testament archetype that prefigures the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    By way of analogy then, suppose a man were to suddenly find himself walking blindfolded through a desert plagued with deadly and poisonous creatures. And suppose he were to discover that among theses creatures there was a roaring lion who prowled about the wasteland seeking someone to devour. Would he not then despair in his own strength and ingenuity, and truly begin to long–above and beyond everything else–for someone to guide him with wisdom, benevolence, and strength? There can be no doubt. Therefore, given that this is precisely the state in which Israel found herself, her task was to adhere to the instructions of the Most High with all the fidelity she could muster, trusting that His Divine charity would supply where her human weakness failed. But what she could never do was allow her pride to begin niggling with, let alone fundamentally altering, those sacred liturgical actions which the Most High had required of her. For to do so was to risk spurring the salvific gifts of God, whilst welcoming the agents of her own damnation. Her salvation, then, was to be achieved through a posture of humility, gratitude, receptivity, and submission; it was fundamentally not to be an arena of personal liberty, self-assertion, or individual creativity. Thus, when the Most High graciously deigned to grant her this gift–and then painstakingly explained how she ought to receive it–her task was to simply obey.

    Those who didn’t perished.

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