The Coffee Theory, or How a Harsh Journey Brings Flavor to Our Life’s Story

Coffee should be as black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love.

Turkish proverb

Coffee, that elixir of life, that magic bean juice which brings the dead back to life each day. Enjoyed the world over for its richness and flavor, there’s something about it that tea – much as I love it – simply doesn’t offer: a redemption story.

We love redemption stories, don’t we? It is nice to think that happy endings should be everywhere but the difference between real life and the universes we escape into and lives we lead outside our own reality when we read a book, watch a movie, or play a video game, regardless of the genre and medium, as well as when we stare into the darkness daydreaming about what we want our life to be is that in the real world, we aren’t in a place that is just right in order to guarantee a happy ending where there is never a time when the main characters don’t ultimately have what just they need, whether it is the ability to control time, to heal endlessly, a pile of money that never runs out, or the ability to go back to the last saved checkpoint to start over having found the cheat codes online.

And with this preponderance of the hope for and false promises of always finding the sweetness in life, I think sometimes we forget that it isn’t the sweet, soft, and magically fleshy fruits that produce the strength to bring people back from the brink of death, but the pleasant, fruity and flowery, sweet, and barely fleshy, hardly juicy ones…

Coffee beans are the two pits of small, surprisingly sweet but nearly fruitless cherries. Like wines and whiskeys, flavor notes can come from the type of soil it’s grown in, how the fruit is processed to extract the seed, as well as how long it is roasted. It takes a single tree an entire year to produce enough cherries for to make only one pound of coffee.

The Sweetness We Are Born With

Some cherries are sweeter than others and the amount of sweetness at the beginning can impact the flavor of the coffee at the end but that will also depend on when and how the pulp is removed. None of us controls the space we are born in and how we are raised. We cannot control whether we are the arabica cherries that are generally believed to be of higher quality or the robusta variety that people assume means lower quality, even though both assumptions aren’t always the case. We don’t get to choose the soil we are grown in and whether we are well fertilized or if we have to fight off the damaging impacts of drought, infestations of insects, or anything else. Regardless of all the variables we have no control over, we bud, bloom, and begin to grow a fruit that in the end will never really be valued for what is outside but rather for what is inside because regardless of whether our fruit looks ripe and plump and pretty, it is never what is on the outside that is the most important but rather what is on the inside.

When We Find Ourselves Stripped Bare

Another thing we never have control over but that will still impact what flavor we have to offer in the end is the time, place, and way our innocence is lost just as the way the fruit is removed from the cherry pit and the “bean” is removed from the pit. For some of us, it is the natural, slow process where our youthful exuberance and naivete are slowly dried up, as we lay in the sunlight, being turned from time to time, with nothing too terribly rough and difficult thrown at us, until the dried up youthful hope can easily be pulled away from the hard nugget of truth we all have deep inside. When we have the chance to let our innocence slowly dry up before it is removed from us completely, there’s a sweetness that is added to our lives that can be missing for others even though the pit of truth is still found in the end. This is a dry wash.

For others there is a violence that strips away some of the flesh, just a little bit of violence, that is then followed by by drying in the sun. A little of that sweetness is preserved and absorbed into the pit but only after some violence is applied first. This is a honey wash.

But for yet others, the loss of innocence is violent in such a way that it is an event that doesn’t let the person step away from the violence easily because when the skin is peeled off to where some of the fruit remains, instead of being dried in the sun it is instead covered in water to be allowed to ferment and steep in it, allowing the once sweet flesh to begin to rot, drowning it to remove it rather than drying it out. It is a complete destruction of innocence that seems unending for a time. This is a wet wash.

And then for a select few, the loss of innocence happens when they are chewed up and swallowed by a beast, left in the darkness, being digested slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly in the dark, fermenting in its guts, only to eventually be shat out of the other end. This is the civet.

Regardless, the end result is the loss of the sweetness of innocence until only the pit of truth, the coffee bean itself, remains, a light yellowish pit. But the story is still not over for us.

When We Find Ourselves Over the Fire

The coffee bean starts out as a light yellowish pit, almost a buttery yellow, and it is when it is roasted that things start to get darker. As it roasts, the pits are heated until the pits begin to crack, sounding a bit like popcorn popping.

For some of us, we only end up going through the fire once in our lives, ending up as a light roasted bean. More of our personality is preserved, we might be more mellow, the flavors of our origins might be a little more present and identifiable, and more bright but also acrid. If we are a light roast, we might crack once in our lives, but if we crack it is only once. It’s a cinnamony pointedness that has experienced some things and isn’t afraid to sting a little.

Sometimes we go through the fire a couple times, though, and end up cracking at least once but perhaps twice, or close to it. We might have a little more darkness, less acidic, slightly acrid but also slightly sweet, balanced, and rounded. What is lacking of brightness is found in the balance. There are still distinct notes of where we came from, but we have a deeper flavor palate and a depth that is lacking in the light roast. It’s more molasses-y and reminiscent of dark berries and guava, so definitely not as pointed as the once broken but not as mellow as the thrice broken.

For others still, the fire seems to scorch us for so long that we crack at least two and probably three times. There’s a heaviness, a darkness that follows the thrice broken, but the trade off is that it is even less acidic. The flavors of the past have largely been burned away but the flavors that take their place are chocolatey, nutty, caramelly, and smokey notes that other roasts miss out on.

When We Find Ourselves Ground Down

After we have had our innocence stripped and we’ve gone through the fires of hell on earth a few times, we still aren’t ready to discover who and what we have become through it all, where our strength lies. We still have to be ground down anywhere from the coarsest grinds that look like the size of rock salt to the finest Turkish grind that is as fine as flour, and all the levels in between. The finer we are ground, the quicker we can brew, and how we are brewed will also impact what the final flavor is. Sometimes we have a choice in the matter of how we are ground down and sometimes we don’t, but regardless, from here we are finally able to be brewed in any number of ways that will begin to reveal the resulting flavors of all our experiences.

When We Choose How We Are Brewed and How We Reveal Our Flavor

I think while every other step in this process happens to us and comes from forces somewhat out of our control at times, this brewing is the place where we choose what to do with what we are given. Some grinds don’t work with some means of brewing. A finer grind is perfect for espresso and Turkish coffee because they are a quicker and distinctive brew but it would overpower a cold brew or french press coffee, and a courser grind would result in watery, nearly flavorless espresso and Turkish coffee. We choose whether we will fight against what we’ve been ground into or whether we allow ourselves to bloom in the way that fits our coarseness:

Will we sit in cold water for a day as a cold brew?

Will we steep for a time in a french press?

Will we be allowed to bloom slowly and drip down from a pour over?

Will we be percolated in a moka pot or slowly brew through a drip filter?

Will we be foamed up over direct heat in a cezve or ibrik or be quickly extracted like an espresso?

The Final Result

In the end, we all come through life looking a lot different from how we started out and we end with a flavor that none could have expected when they looked at the plump little cherry we started out as. Who we are as the result of our loss of innocence doesn’t define our flavor, but it can enrich it and sweeten it at times… If we know how to find that taste. Likewise, who we are as the result of the fires we’ve been through might leave us more pointed or more mellow but those fires also don’t define our depth even if they help measure it and measure the darkness we’ve experienced. And how we have been ground down doesn’t end our flavor story either, whether we have a say in the coarseness or not. All those things combined along with our choice in how we are brewed, steeped, and how we allow our unique flavors to be extracted and enjoyed defines us.

It used to be that people would look down on the darker roasted coffees as a rule because it was thought that it was a way to hide bad quality coffee beans by destroying the flavors as if only those lighter roasted coffees could be high quality but the truth is now there is such a focus on growing and developing delicious, sustainable, flavorful but still affordable coffee, people have shifted their thinking and the enjoyment of the thrice fired beans. It used to be that people looked at specific methods of brewing coffee as more elitist, higher quality, while others were looked down upon, but now there is a recognition that each level of grind when paired with an appropriate brewing method can produce a superior cup of coffee.

I think the same can be true when we look at people. We idealize the perfection and sweetness of innocence whether the loss of innocence is simply the harsh realities of adulthood or something violent and traumatic. We look at the challenges people face with health and wellness, mental illness, abuse, financial loss, broken relationships, and so much more and in the past many of those things would have resulted in someone being shunned from “good society” or even locked away in an asylum, but now we look at the needs people have and the challenges they have and we see those things as separate from the human being; we value the human and do our best to meet their needs in regard to their differences. But when things get really gnarly, really challenging, really uncomfortably uncomfortable for others, we tend to want to look away and ask them to be quiet, be silent, keep the darkness and the truth of their experiences quiet and hidden so that no one else is contaminated by the ick that those experiences make us feel…

The thing about that is that when you deny the stories and the existence of the Other, no matter how dark and twisty, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how heartbreaking or shocking, you also deny the richness and depth of their growth and their change in their journey through those things.

How can you be inspired by my intent to someday be able to dance ballet again if you do not understand the dark and twisty bits of me watching my foot die and becoming an amputee?

How can you begin to understand the strength of my voice in advocating for victims of domestic violence if you do not recognize the difficulty I had in acknowledging it myself and speaking up?

How can you grasp the power of my call to openly listen to friends who are struggling through mental illness if you do not understand the struggle I’ve had in seeking support myself for my own PTSD?

The richness of my story and testimony doesn’t come from just the final piece of my journey in sitting down to brew a cup of coffee, it comes from understanding how my innocence was ripped from me, from hearing my stories about how I’ve gone through the fires again and again, from understanding how pulverized I’ve been by people until I couldn’t be more destroyed and feel more small. Yet none of those things define who I am and the taste I will leave in your mouth if you just sit down for a moment to enjoy what I have to offer.

What’s In Your Cup?

Mine is most likely a wet wash…

A blend of beans from a small variety of environments…

Triple cracked dark roast…

Turkish grind…

Brewed on my stovetop in a cezve…

I may be dark and twisty in my ways but I am strong and if you are brave enough to take a sip, I’m sweet and delicious even though I pack a punch. You’ll never get tired of me.

One thought on “The Coffee Theory, or How a Harsh Journey Brings Flavor to Our Life’s Story

Add yours

  1. Powerful metaphor, Miss Gwen. While the challenges in my life have been nowhere as daunting as yours, I can certainly relate to how they have shaped the outcome so far and the understanding that future trials will continue the process.

    Liked by 1 person

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