Coffee variables and packing meaning into one word

(Click the image for a large version.)

This a cross post of sorts from my other blog. A while back, I came up with this chart to display all the different variables that go into producing coffee. Using just the combinations listed here and assuming about 20 growing regions, you get 2 x 5 x 20 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 5 x 5, or 135,000 combinations! That’s a lot of variety in flavors. It really is just like wine. Maybe even more than wine.

Even if you are a veteran coffee drinker though, you may have never heard of some of the things on this list. Can you tell me what varietal is in the cup you are drinking right now? Typica? SL28? Do you know if it was dry processed? What grade of bean was used? OK. So you look on the package and see it’s called “House Blend”. What does that mean? Coffee nerds might know some of these terms. If you buy your beans from someone that charges $15 a pound or more (Stumptown for instance) some of these things might be printed on the label. At the grocery store or your local coffee shop though, what are you going to see? Most likely, the number one thing you are going to see on a label, even more than the roast, is the ORIGIN. Yes, the country of origin. Why? Well, because over the years, of all the things on the above list, this one has come to take on the most meaning. In fact, many of the other things on this list are actually implied from this one piece of information. There really aren’t 135,000 combinations. Not in the real world any way. Revealing the origin narrows things down the MOST.

Here are some examples (at least in the U.S.)

Ethiopia = Arabica species, Heirloom variety, wet processing, medium-dark roasting, single origin (loose), preferable brewed in a press pot, served black

Columbia = Arabica species, Typica variety, wet processing, dark roasting, blended with other stuff, drip, served with cream and sugar

Panama = Arabica, Geisha variety, wet processing, light roast, single origin (strict), pour-over brew, served black

India = Robusta, dry process, dark roast, blended 1/6, espresso (Italian style)

Sumatra = Arabica, Mandheling variety, wet processing, medium-dark roast, blended 1/3, espresso

These are generalizations of course, and there are plenty of exceptions. What I find fascinating is how much is rolled up into just ONE of these variables.

Naming the origin immediately introduces a bunch of constraints. Places with easy access to a lot of water will use wet process instead of dry. Places like Ethiopia that have been producing coffee for centuries have all kinds of crazy varieties growing there. Places that only began to be cultivated in the 20th century (El Salvador for example) will have farms growing entirely high-yield varieties put together by agriculture engineers in the 1950s. The soil of Indonesia is so radically different from other regions, it largely determines the flavor of the coffee AND it’s use as the sub woofer component in espresso blends. I could go on and on. The origin tells a story. The other variables do too, but the origin tells the longest tale.

It makes me think about the other words we pack full of meaning and implications. It’s what “stereotypes” are really. It’s too bad the word (and the idea itself) has so much stigma attached to it. It is just a natural outworking of our minds trying to categorize things in the most  efficient way possible.

Thoughts on what leads to our own mediocrity

Reading bad scholarship from Christians is infuriating. I guess it’s like listening to bad music. I have a lot of practice tuning that out and turning it off though. Forcing myself to read something with bad argumentation is just painful. Agony! Why are we so stupid AND so self-congratulatory at the same time? The book I was thinking of was covered with gushing blurbs and a couple “action” shots of the author in some public debate. The book is OK, but it’s not great. How come we have to be so mediocre? (People have been asking this about Christian pop music for some time now.)

Someone said that an evangelical can be defined as someone who says to a liberal, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.”

What causes this sort of thing I wonder?

When our received feedback is to be hailed and congratulated in our own cultural ghetto, then we begin to believe our own immature position is sufficient and we have little to no need of refinement or growth. “Growth” is redefined as simply the achievement of a larger stage from which to shout the same thing we are already shouting now rather than always thinking about how we could be saying it better, smarter and wiser. This is why youthful success is so dangerous. We are highly susceptible to thinking that our foundations are established and we can now turn to cultivating our ambition for influence. In fact, we need to be learning something new EVERY day and continue to exercise our fundamentals.

Good musicians know this. A professional in an orchestra will spend half her practice time on scales. A high school student will likely spend the entire time on the piece itself, top to bottom. The former will define success as playing a passage with very accurate pitch and smooth bowing. The latter will satisfy herself with simply getting through the piece without getting lost. This is all well and natural. The problem is if the young student is rewarded and showered with praise for her modest springtime accomplishment. What is the next step she may ask? Spread my (already existing) awesomeness to a larger audience! Let’s take this show on the road! No no no no no. Have a show for sure, but keep it at the proper level. Then make yourself aware of what it COULD sound like by listening to older and wiser people play it. Then go back and work on the tricky spots and wood-shed the bowing in the fugue and hammer scales so the position shifts in the second movement always land in the right spot. Later you may, like the professional, have the opportunity to move up a notch. And when you are up there, you keep doing the same things that got you there – working patiently and steadily on the slow hard things.

The chief problem with celebrity pastors comes when they get surrounded by yes men at a young age. Seriously, men can’t HANDLE being surrounded by yes men until they are at least 40. Even then the praisers are dangerous, but at least could be mitigated by a wise and self-reflective leader. At 26? Terrible! You see this in the gossip columns with young Hollywood actors. The former teen sensations usually have by far the worst time adjusting to an adulthood that isn’t all roses – even if they retain their popularity and financial success (many do not). The actors that seem to have the most stable lives are the ones who worked their way up playing modest roles in television or on stage and finally were noticed as having a lot of chops. So now at 40 when everyone is fawning over them on the red carpet, they don’t lose their head after the award show and drive around town drunk (Lindsey Lohan), run around downtown with no clothes on (Britney Spears), sleep with their director (Kristen Stewart). Geesh, how come I can only come up with actresses? Guys do this stuff all the time too. Apparently they just get away with it more often. Or maybe it doesn’t get reported on as often? Unknown.

Now I’m not saying these guys don’t grow up or get better. Often they are very talented and have plenty of potential to increase in knowledge and leadership skill. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they just stay 26, but now at 50 they are in charge of a million-dollar organization and have a platform from which to pontificate about national politics. That’s bad. We need really wise people doing that, not talented 26 year-olds disguised as wise old men.

At the end of the day though, who am I criticizing? Most of the fingers are pointing back at myself. Going back to the two violin players, I have to honestly say that I never learned how to practice. Sure, I got it in my head. I’ve woodshedded (nice verb) enough things to know I CAN do it, but the WILL do it is truly uncommon. Mostly I just wing it on whatever skills I developed in junior high singing along with a lot of pop radio. That will get you somewhere, but if you want to go farther you have to put your nose to the grindstone and that I have been largely unwilling to do. Not just in practicing music, but in EVERYTHING. Relationships, parenting, work, learning, writing, car maintenance. You name it. Slowly I am learning. I don’t know if I can say each year is “better”. It doesn’t feel better, it feels awful. But I think it feels a little more normal. I still continue to let others down – my wife, my kids, sometimes my friends, etc. Ugg. It’s a good thing God hasn’t allowed me to become surrounded by yes men -what a walking disaster I would be. Still, I could sure use someone who believed in me regardless.

The Cathedral

Every once in a while, I hear a piece of music that I forgot existed. Maybe it’s been many years, maybe just one year, but I hear it and I suddenly remember how great it is. This sometimes happens on my way to the grocery store late at night while channel surfing on the radio. Most recently it was The Cathedral, by Augustine Barrios. Here is a good version.

On the radio though, they played the John Williams recording. (This is John Williams the Australian guitarist, no relation to the more famous movie composer.) Despite the big celebrity name, I’ve never liked his playing much. Tonight it figured out why. It’s not his technique, which is clearly very good. Rather, it is the recording technique. They must have put a ribbon mic about 2 inches away from the bridge and stuck him in a dead room. It’s SOOOOO dry. No reverb and you can hear every tiny little fret scrape and fingernail noise. It’s raw and pure and… completely distracting and sparse. Sure, having too much reverb (or even effects!) can quickly get you into syrupy New Age territory, but I think you have to have SOME. A little bit of acoustic sustain goes a LONG way to making music beautiful and connected, and a nylon string guitar playing a lot of notes quickly needs it desperately. Dry is bad and this particular recording on NPR was just so. Fortunately, the piece is pretty popular so there are lots of alternative versions to listen to, like the one in the video above.

Everyone always wants to play the fast third movement, but I think the slow prelude is really the best part.