Our oldest son, Ian, works as a Starbucks barista and trained as a Coffee Master.
“Coffee Master?” you ask. “What’s that?”
Coffee Masters are the Starbucks equivalent of the geniuses in the Apple Stores. They’re the ones who know exactly what makes a blonde roast different from a dark roast and why sun dried Sumatra tastes so much better than it’s more mundane cousins. They’re distinguished from other Starbucks partners with a black apron. The Starbucks Melody blog explains it this way:
If you are a customer, and you have a question about coffee, look for the Starbucks baristas in black aprons: They can talk to you about the four fundamentals of great coffee (water, proportion, grind, freshness), or if you want a low acidity coffee, a black apron Starbucks barista might steer you in the direction of Italian Roast, or if you want to try something fun and new as an espresso shot, again the barista can help answer those questions. (The new Yirgacheffe works beautifully as a shot of espresso!).
Earning the apron was no easy task and, along the way, Ian taught me a lot about coffee. I learned (for example) that coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity. (Oil takes the top spot.) I also learned to identify the various component flavors of individual blends and to articulate what I like and dislike about each.
As part of the training, Ian hosted a series of coffee tastings in his store. These involved selecting and pairing different coffees with different foods to explore the ways in which flavors interact and strengthen one another. In one surprising match, Ian paired a blonde roast (which I find a bit bitter) with some smoked gouda. To my delighted, the cheese smoothed out the coffee and improved the flavor of both.
I’ve also learned to sound a bit snobbish when I say (in all sincerity) that the new Ethiopia blend has a smooth flavor that lingers on the back of the the tongue and has a chocolaty aftertaste.
I bring all of this up for three reasons;
1) I’m proud of Ian and how hard he worked to earn this distinction
2) It reminds me that the created world is good and God meant for us to enjoy it
3) There’s a link between this and the importance of catechesis
I’ve been a fan of coffee for since I took up the habit in college more than a quarter century ago. And, for most of that time, I drank whatever was available. I’d occasionally say something like, “That was a good cup of coffee.” Except, I only said that because it tasted good to me.
I had no real understanding of coffee. No appreciation for what it took to go from raw coffee cherries (they’re not really beans, I learned) to the dark liquid in my cup. The language to describe the coffee in any meaningful way — to be able to communicate with others what I was experiencing — was beyond me.
Once I started to learn, though, a whole new universe of appreciation opened up for me. The coffee hadn’t changed, I had.
I think the same is true for catechesis. Cathy and I have been taking a catechist preparation course this year based on the Echoes of Faith series. At the start, I assumed that teaching religious education was more-or-less like teaching any other subject. It was about getting the students to understand the content. They needed to be able to answer the questions appropriately and demonstrate some knowledge of the material.
As the class goes on, I’m rethinking that. Certainly the knowledge is important. Understanding is the basis of appreciation. More importantly, though, my students need to have the experience that comes of out that knowledge. If Ian had simply described different roast profiles to me, I’d still be stuck at the “Gee, that’s good coffee” stage of development. By coupling the knowledge with the experience of tasting and giving me the opportunity to articulate what I was experiencing, Ian helped me to expand my appreciation of coffee.
That’s not to say that the knowledge is unimportant, but it’s too shallow a way to share the Faith. The Catholic church isn’t a series of rules or historical anecdotes. It is a living faith which should be experienced and integrated into daily life. It is a way of being which fundamentally alters the believer. Perhaps we’ve overlooked that in the past.
My “coffee formation” (if I can use that phrase respectfully) has brought me to a place of deeper understanding of and appreciation for coffee. Bad coffee (which is sadly abundant in Utah) has become nearly intolerable and I’m willing to expend time, energy and money to get good coffee. Imagine what would happen if our catechism programs made people turn away from lukewarm faith and made them willing to work hard at what they believe.