When it comes to coffee, I’m a late adopter. While my college fraternity brothers tossed back Herculean quantities during late-night study sessions, I didn’t touch the stuff. As an army officer, while members of my platoon sucked down coffee with reckless abandon, I remained an outlier. When I managed political campaigns, and coffee was the jet fuel of marathon strategy sessions, I passed. At post-church coffee hour, while everyone drank coffee and critiqued the pastor’s sermon, I drank lemonade.
Miraculously, I also endured a coffee-drinking wife, seminary, and one child without drinking coffee. The combination of two children under the age of 2 and full-time work in parish ministry, however, put me over the edge. And once I slipped down the rabbit hole of coffee consumption, a journey of discovery emerged that continues to unfold.
Coffee often evokes the power of connection through personal narrative. Ask anyone when they first discovered the joys of coffee and prepare to be regaled with glimpses into their life story. Coffee can serve as an entry point into interpersonal relationships and shed light upon a person’s values and most deeply held beliefs. In answering the simple question “When did you become a coffee drinker?” a person shares much of their life journey.
My parents began every day with freshly brewed coffee. While most Americans still scooped ground coffee out of giant tin cans, they sought out whole-bean coffee from rare specialty shops. The sound of the grinder and the irresistible aroma of coffee in my own kitchen always remind me of the comfort and simplicity of childhood.
One of my earliest memories of coffee revolves around my late father, a symphony orchestra conductor. He had a special relationship with the owner of the local coffee shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. I often accompanied him on his excursions to what was then a rather seedy side of town and is now one of Baltimore’s hippest areas, chock full of trendy restaurants and coffeehouses.
At the Coffee Mill, a dazzling variety of whole-bean coffees sat in plastic bins with big scoops while the aroma overwhelmed the senses. Customers shoveled beans into bags, then brought them to the counter for weighing. The regulars, mostly men, were a mix of Baltimore’s intelligentsia, artists and urban pioneers. It wasn’t a café – you couldn’t actually buy a cup of coffee – but no one seemed hurried as they browsed the bins and chatted with fellow patrons.
One year, the owner, seeking a catchy, evocative name for a new blend, gave some beans to my dad to sample, asking him to help christen the roast. Which, I recall with great pride, he did. For many years afterwards, you could still show up at the Coffee Mill and pick up a bag of Allegro con Brio.
Allegro, an Italian word, indicates a brisk or lively tempo in musical scores. Con brio is another musical direction meaning with vigor. So I can only imagine the newly christened coffee was bright, lively and strong. Too bad I never got to taste it before the Coffee Mill closed down in 2003, after nearly three decades.
My first taste of coffee came after a fancy dinner at a neighbor’s house. The Steinschneiders, an older couple with grown children, occasionally invited our young family over to sit in the dining room for a meal. Mrs. Steinschneider made a big fuss over the after-dinner coffee, and I remember drinking a bit, loaded with milk and sugar, in a china cup.
I didn’t drink coffee again until I sidled up to the coffee pot one morning as a desperate, newly ordained cleric, dumping in an embarrassing amount of sugar and cream. Basically, my first foray into regular coffee drinking was an experience in warm coffee ice cream. As someone who now drinks his coffee the way he wears his clergy shirts – black – this admission is embarrassing.
The point is, when we share coffee stories, we offer something of ourselves in the process. Ask people you’ve known for a long time or people you’ve just met about their relationship with coffee. You may be surprised by revelations and insights into their life journey.
The Rev. Tim Schenck is an Episcopal priest at St. John’s Church in Hingham, MA. This article is excerpted from his newly released book “Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection between Coffee and Faith — From Dancing Goats to Satan’s Drink” (Fortress Press). Follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.