My addiction to it compelled me to drink a pot and a half of it a day. I have abstained from it for weeks with the help of a steady intake of strong tea. I have dressed it up with foamed milk, beaten cream, and thick drizzles of caramel; I have dressed it down to draw near to its scalding essence. I have drunk it spiced with pepper, made succulent with butter, and soured with chicory root. I have a cousin who powdered his family’s fishbowl with instant brew because their fish “had a headache.” Like that manic fish, I have grimaced through many headaches of my own.
Among non-alcoholic drinks, only water has a greater claim to ubiquity than coffee. The National Coffee Association USA claims, “After crude oil, coffee is the most sought commodity in the world.” Americans import their beans, raw or pre-roasted, from nations all over the earth, and prepare drinks from those beans using all manner of devices: from humble coffee pots to systems festooned with dials and knobs, capable of manufacturing multiple atmospheres of pressure in order for the home brewer to pull a café-quality espresso. The gilded pipes and fittings of this $2,495 apparatus evoke an age of steam power and glass arcades.
Ostensibly a tool for keeping one’s focus sharp in the present, coffee is at the center of a culture that inclines backwards and forwards at once. Its aroma can evoke 19th-century marble-topped café tables and chamber music—at the same time, the caffeine acclimates the brain to the endless interfaces of the Internet.
That aroma is discernible in the air this morning, wafting out of the door being held open for me as I enter my Toronto church. Of course there will be coffee here: I can imagine few better accouterments for ancient-future faith than this drink of coincidental historicity and futurity.
If Jesus Were a Coffee Guy
“The age of crappy church coffee is at an end!” my associate pastor tells me when I ask him about what we’re drinking. He sees the church’s refreshments table as a gesture of goodwill towards its guests. “I’d much rather we spend money on hospitality, if we can.”
Grace Toronto Church’s primary demographic is young urban professionals; to cater to them, it is necessary to provide something on the order of café quality drinks. On the fixings table, squat steel carafes contain boxes of 2% milk as well as “5% Milk (Light Cream!).” During the summer, the church even sets out great brown containers of cold brew.
According to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, coffee’s potable origins can be traced back to the 15th century, in the Yemeni region of the Arabian Peninsula. Purportedly, a scholar and Sufi mystic named Muhammad al-Dhabhani was the first to try boiling the berries his compatriots chewed for stimulation, and the resulting drink was adopted by many Sufis for use in late-night religious ceremonies. By 1510, people were drinking coffee in Mecca and Cairo; soon after, the practice spread throughout the Arab world.
Travelers from the West initially associated coffee with Islam, which caused some suspicion and confusion in the early days of European exposure to the new drink. This potential barrier to widespread Western adoption was dismantled in 1605, when, as Standage writes, “Pope Clement VIII was asked to state the Catholic church’s position on coffee.” After tasting a sample provided by a Venetian merchant, “[t]he story goes that he was so enchanted by its taste and aroma that he approved its consumption by Christians.” By the mid-17th century, coffeehouses could be found in London, Amsterdam, Paris, and in cities all over Western Europe.