the blogwife drops the smack

February 5, 2008 – 11:26 am


the newly published blogwife, knowing a thing or two about epic old english poetry and the kind of brew this blog is wont to pursue, decides to intertwine the two.

this is either comparative brilliance or the result of extreme fixation on two aesthetic qualities over a term of months — after months in a caffeinated pressure cooker, any two things could look alike! this blog reports, you decide.

Heroic Coffee: How a Good Cappuccino Conjures Beowulf

Most good cups of coffee begin for me like most epics: in medias res (“in the middle of things”). Odysseus’s voyage begins within the gyre of “long years and seasons/ wheeling”; we meet the Red Crosse Knight en route to the dragon; and, I confess, I savor the subtle notes of most coffees without much thought of their history—rosetta on top, no less. How refreshing, then, to familiarize myself more with the epic Beowulf, which begins with a prologue. I find that a good cappuccino relates to this Anglo-Saxon poem on a number of levels.

Beowulf opens with royal death and birth. We see the dead king’s ship ablaze, sinking with its treasure into the sea before we hear the story of another ship which brought the Danes this mysterious baby-to-be-king. The heat and water pertain poignantly to the coffee metaphor as well. The seed must be buried, watered, and lighted by the sun before the new plant grows. It unfolds to maturation, when the wet-processed bean will again be flooded and fermented. And before we can taste it, it undergoes extreme heat beneath the roaster’s careful gaze.

Omniscient narrator.
Fast forward a bit. An omniscient narrator generally tells the epic’s tale. He is omniscient in the sense that he knows the plot and characters completely and can feed the reader private bits of information that the characters may not know themselves. Beowulf’s narrator reveals to us secret emotions of the hero, lets us see Danish celebrations from the evil monster’s perspective, and even hints at the outcome of the story. The narrator reminds me of a good barista. I enjoy my coffee house experience more when the one fixing my drink knows his coffee and speaks its story. What kind of bean am I imbibing? Where did it come from? What is the roasting/blending theory? How long do you like to let it rest? I appreciate what lies inside the cup more when it’s not completely about me — when I understand my place in the story.

Divine intervention.
Next, the epic’s story is generally influenced by divinities. Whether Zeus or the biblical God, some sort of higher power intervenes to shape the drama. The most obvious example in Beowulf: The hero’s strength and victories come directly from the hand of God. How does this relate to coffee? A great deal of the flavor depends on influences outside of our control. We can micromanage compost, fermentation, shipping, roasting, and brewing, but what about rainfall, late frosts, and the length of seasons?

After Finca el Puente’s presentation in Atlanta’s Counter Culture Training Center, M’lissa from Octane and I were chatting with Marysabel Caballero. M’lissa asked her what makes Los Cipreses such a consistently exceptional coffee. Marysabel responded, “It could be the elevation. It grows on the highest part of our farm [over 5,000 ft]. It could be the coldness of our spring water. [The fermentation process for Los Cipreses takes over twice as long as the same process for other farms’ beans.] But, of course,” said Marysabel, “we know, it’s really God.” You may not believe in Zeus, but something quiet and mysterious seems to breathe variables into our cup. And we benefit from the variety and the mystery.

Culture forms the backbone of epics, including Beowulf. The Danes bend under the shame and despair of their monster-curse. It takes the Geatish Beowulf, a prince from across the seas with fresh perspective and courage, to best Grendel and free the hall. Each Scandinavian tribe in the poem fights for and delights in its ethnicity. Isn’t this socially oriented approach similar to how we view coffee?

I remember wanting to introduce friends to the art of cupping in a particularly bleak part of the U. S. coffee map. We found four kinds of beans—each roasted to a smoky full city +++ —and yet I could still identify them by their aromas. The Yirgacheffe smelled and tasted more strongly of blood orange than any I had ever experienced; the Sumatra gave off its characteristically musty notes; the Guatemala proved my favorite of the bunch (as Central Americans often do) with the subtle floral profile holding up beneath the fireplace-like singes; and the Harrar managed to retain some currenty charm. We celebrated the places of origin as we sniffed and sipped — over-roasting and all.

Stock phrases.
Oral poetry uses repetition to engage the listener. Beowulf proves no exception. Phrases like “haven for warriors,” “son of Egtheow,” and “hall of rings” permeate it. We coffee-lovers have our own vocabulary as well. If this blog and I want to know the quality of a café before we taste our espresso, we ask a few simple questions. “How are you dosing this blend?” “Do you dial in differently when it’s humid?” “What are your thoughts about the Clover?” We don’t even have to wait for the answers. The looks on the faces reveal all we need to know, and at least around here, they usually provide fodder for our amusement. We’ve learned to order our drinks “to go” so that our first-sip grimaces don’t offend.

An exceptional hero.
Odysseus outsmarts the Cyclops. Red Crosse’s victories culminate with the dragon. Beowulf’s courage in the face of evil contrasts to the Danes’ despair. Most would be a bit afraid of Grendel — a monster who goes around killing thirty warriors at a time with his mandibles can be daunting. Not Beowulf. This hero, whose grip wields the power of thirty fighters’, looms larger than life in both strength and virtue.

So where’s the hero of the cappuccino? What is the climax of this epic metaphor? Believe it or not, I hesitated. Is it the coffee community: all the hands who touch the bean from crop to cup? Is it the rare, mind-blowing varietal like the mystifying Esmeralda Gesha? Is it all those informational advances the third-wavers have concocted within their echo chambers? Then, I realized: Quite simply, it’s coffee’s potentials.

Coffee’s strengths are its virtues. As one of the world’s most important commodities, it sustains third-world economies. It unites diverse personalities from the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda to nerdy food scientists and tattoo-covered punksters in the West. It offers unique aesthetic potentials, opening contemplation on universal truths. In short, coffee breaks down barriers.

To conclude, then, both Beowulf and coffee offer aesthetic experiences that highlight overarching ideals. They illuminate human tendencies and promote cultural contemplation. They provide unique joys and satisfactions while leaving room for further study and conclusions. In a surprising number of subtle nuances, the well-crafted cappuccino parallels the well-crafted epic. What could be better than enjoying them together?

p.s. not all the blogwife’s writings are this introspective! for proof, you know, buy the book. or at least snag a free, brooding poster for your coffee joint of choice