Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Crack The Surface

I love a good cup of coffee.

Heck, I'll settle for a mediocre cup. Just ask the waitress at Denny's.

I've been drinking coffee since I was about ten years old. They say it stunts your growth. If so, it's a good thing in my case. At 6'5", 250 lbs, can you imagine how big I'd be if my growth hadn't been stunted??

I remember feeling grown up as a teenager, when my mother first started letting me stay up late with her. We'd drink International Coffees Instant French Vanilla Cappuccinos and watch The Late Show with David Letterman. It was a great time of bonding for us, the rest of the family asleep, us watching late night TV and laughing together, me feeling respected and accepted as a budding adult.

I also used to love gas station coffees - the instant stuff that came out of the machines. I would get the French Vanilla Cappuccinos and a candy bar - always Hershey's, either a Cookies and Creme or Cookies and Mint bar. I'd take one or two squares of the chocolate and drop them into the coffee, giving it a nice white chocolate or mint chocolate flavoring, a barista in the making.

I had my first real cappuccino when I was around 17. I was at a punk rock concert and the venue doubled as an indie coffee shop. They sold espresso beverages, root beer and blue creme sodas with the Jolly Roger on the label. There were colored lights, cargo nets and old wine barrels decorating the place. It all felt very underground and badass. I'd never ordered coffee at a real coffee shop before. I didn't see "French Vanilla Cappuccino" on the menu anywhere, and I found myself really wishing there was a Texaco nearby, so I could get an instant coffee and a Hershey bar. I stared at the chalk-board menu like a lost kid in a new math class. Out of desperation, I eventually ordered a cappuccino, feigning familiarity like a boss. In a couple of minutes my coffee was ready, I walked away and took my first sip... it tasted like dirt. No, I'd had better dirt. This tasted like a battery acid milkshake with dirt sprinkles. There was nothing sweet or frothy about it. I went back into the shop and added enough sugar to send me into a diabetic coma, but nothing would blunt the bite. It still tasted horrible. So, I walked back toward the concert, with my very first $3 coffee, and threw it into the first trash can I passed...like a boss.

After that, I thought I didn't like drinks from real coffee shops. I liked coffee at home, where there was plenty of evaporated milk and sugar. I liked it from a can, and I liked it from a gas station, but not coffee shops. Also, my mom would always talk about the idiots of the world out there, paying $5 a cup for fancy coffee.

I always wanted to like coffee, though. I pictured myself as a coffee shop person, whatever that means. I've always been pretty pretentious. So, I would go to the local Barnes & Noble, and order what I'd discovered was not only palatable, but made me look knowledgable - flavored steamed milk, or Steamers. I'd order an amoretto steamer, sit down to read a book and feel pretty good about myself.

Over the years, I learned more and more about coffee. I learned how to order drinks I'd like, and became addicted to Starbucks, just like most of the rest of the country. (My mother still refuses to pay the man $5 for a cup of coffee.)

I even once paid $10 for a small cup of coffee in Tokyo. I'm glad I did, too, because it turned out to be one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had. My wife and I were on vacation there, and we'd made a rule for ourselves. We were going to eat anywhere we pleased, judging only by the looks of the place - never allowing price to be a factor. It was a great experience. We had some unbelievably good food. And some good coffee. This cup was 100% Hawaiian Kona, freshly roasted and ground in house. The atmosphere - the late afternoon sunlight pouring in through the stained glass windows, washing the wooden walls, floors and booths with a warm amber glow, the light jazz playing from an old fashioned record player in the corner, the jade and cream colored coffee cup and saucer set my perfect cup of Kona was served in - made it all worth the price. Not only that, but the coffee was incredible.

I've had coffee in six different countries, countless different shops, many varieties and blends, and most importantly, I've learned to make a wonderful cup at home. Early in our marriage, I predominately used a drip coffee maker. We received a really nice one as a wedding present. I used to think it made a great cup of coffee. While we were living in Korea, I didn't have a drip maker (ok...I did, but I kept forgetting to clean it and my wife forced me to get rid of it, in favor of something more suited to one person). I ended up with a French Press. I had resisted the idea of a press for quite a while, because when I was in college, a friend had given one to my roommates and I. Perhaps it was that we didn't know how to properly use it, or that we were using bad beans, but I hated the bitter, acidic, overly strong coffee that poured from its spout, and decided that the French Press was not for me.

I was so wrong.

Now, after years of doing so, I press coffee almost every day. I grind the beans by hand, allow the coffee to steep and then ritualistically prepare it for drinking. After moving back to the US, I have used my drip machine two or three times. Each time, I've been sorely disappointed in the coffee it makes. It's weak and bland compared to the rich, earthy goodness my press produces.

I was making coffee a couple of weeks ago, when a thought occurred to me - a fantastic spiritual metaphor I'd like to share with you.

Making a good pot of French pressed coffee is much more than simply combining coffee grounds with hot water and pressing the plunger down. If this method is utilized, coffee will be bland and tasteless at best, but most probably bitter and unenjoyable. A good French press starts with two things, freshly ground coffee beans and pure hot water. Ideally your coffee should be no more than 10 days old from the time the bag was opened. If not, great care must be taken to preserve the beans, an air-tight container in a dark place or in the freezer will do just fine. Just wrapping the beans back up in the bag and placing them in the pantry will leave them stale. The beans should be ground to a medium consistency - too fine and they'll clog the plunger, too coarse and you won't get enough flavor. In addition, the water should be pure and hot - around 200° Fahrenheit. If it's too hot, you'll scald the grounds, giving off a burnt flavor. It's also important to use the right amount of coffee grounds - use about two heaping tablespoons / cup (a mid-sized press usually makes 3-4 cups). 

Once you've got the right amount of coffee into the press, and your water is up to the right temperature, slowly pour the water into the press, making sure that all of the grounds get wet in the process. Fill the press about 7/8 full, and let it "steep" for about 5 minutes (7-8 minutes for a nice strong flavor). 

This next step may be one of the most important. It's also the least practiced. So pay close attention. After your coffee has finished steeping, you'll notice all the coffee grounds have floated to the top. Now, you need to crack the surface. Using a spoon, gently break up the floating coffee grounds. Most of them will sink to the bottom of the press. However, you'll notice that some of the grounds along with a lot of small tan bubbles remain, floating atop the water. Those bubbles are full of sediment and impurities. They make the coffee more bitter, acidic and dirty tasting. Now, using your spoon, scoop as many of the bubbles away as you can, washing them down the drain. You'll also be scooping away a few coffee grounds. That's ok. Most of the steeping has already been done. You won't lose any flavor by disposing of a few grounds. 

Once you've scooped away those impure bubbles, you're left with the purest truest coffee possible. It's now time to press. Place the plunger into the caraffe and press. You can now pour and drink your coffee however you like it. My flavor preference hasn't really changed since I was a teenager. I like to use about a teaspoon of French Vanilla Creamer in mine. 

Here's the metaphor. You are the coffee, the delicious beverage that is being prepared. The coffee grounds are your natural character traits, your personality, all the flavorings that make you, you. The water is the Gospel. It's poured into our lives in order to fulfill us, to make us into what we're supposed to be. Without the gospel, you're just a roasted bean. It's the gospel that gives us life and purpose. By accepting it, we're re-born. The old is gone, something new has come. If the presentation of the Gospel is watered-down (too cold) or overly agressive (too hot) it will either be ineffective or it will burn you. As you grow in Christ (steeping), your personality begins to become alive in a new way, when brought forth and refined by the Gospel. However, there are still impurities in your life (Sin, the Flesh, old habits - bitterness and impurity). These need to be removed from your life (Christians call this sanctification, the process of being made holy). Those impurities need to be separated from your true self, your personality. And so, God allows things into our lives to crack the surface, if you will - trials, sufferings, hardships, discipline - through these things, the Holy Spirit is removing many of the impurities from your life. Once the process is completed, you'll be as you were meant to be, the purest, truest version of yourself possible. 

Many people think that Christianity hampers adherents, that the goal of Christian discipline is to limit and change who you are. However, the truth of the matter is that the transformative power of the Gospel is the only way to truly become who you were meant to be. Having the surface cracked isn't easy. It's intrusive, uncomfortable and difficult. However, it's vitally necessary. 


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