Magic, Ceremony, and Alchemical Mysticism in Coffee

In the middle of the journey of my life, I have found myself in a dark-ish wood. After about 12 years in the coffee industry, with only a few sporadic and ill-advised attempts at non-coffee gigs to speak of, I’ve left a great roasting job to pursue opening my own cafe/bar. That I would eventually have my own retail space is something I’ve taken for granted from a young age, though only recently has that free-floating desire coalesced into a solid form. Tackling the nitty gritty of a buildout, licensing, and all the fun stuff that comes with a capital enterprise has forced me to form abstract notions into a workable plan. Similarly, approaching how I want to operate has made me take a solid look at what coffee actually means to me.

The following are thoughts that have sprung up over the past year as I’ve confronted my own past with coffee in preparation for setting out on my own, and as I’ve simultaneously taken an interest in the history of esoteric belief, the occult, and religious mysticism. Some of the ideas ahead are pretty reasonable, some are more far-out. In general, however, they all work to examine an under-explored truth of the drink we all know and love: that coffee is magic.

The Clear Reality

Most people in the coffee industry know that Coffea arabica originated and was first consumed by humans in Ethiopia; those with a bit more historical knowledge might be aware that Yemen was the first country in which coffee was cultivated as a crop, where it eventually was sold and exported from the port of Moca. What many don’t know, however, is the initial reason for coffee’s spread into Yemen, or who was responsible for it: Sufi mystics.

Sufism, for those unfamiliar, can generally be defined as the esoteric dimension of Islam. The devotional exercises of Sufis aim to achieve direct connection with the divine though song, dance, and chanting. Sufism is considered an integral thread in the tapestry of the Islamic faith, even as its philosophy and poetry have often stood in sharp contrast to the religion’s more orthodox, conservative incarnations; to understand the relationship between the two is to gain a more complex picture of Islam than many in the West are inclined toward. For example, the 14th century Sufi poet Hafez, who’s poems promote a visceral divine connection through casual sex, alcohol consumption, gender fluidity, and the rejection of authority figures has remained hugely popular in the Muslim world throughout the centuries and is still one of the most widely owned, read and quoted poets in modern-day, religiously conservative Iran. Sufism is interconnected with the history of religious mysticism, and some Sufis teachers claim that their “way” existed even before Muhammed within traditions such as in the Pythagorean and Platonic schools of Greece, or the Essenes and Gnostics who practiced during the time of Jesus.

It was a Sufi sect that brought coffee from Ethiopia to Yemen, and began cultivating it as a crop sometime between the 14th and 15th centuries. Their immediate love of the plant was due to its psychoactive effects, as it helped them stay awake for their evening “dhikr” — the devotional practice of rhythmically chanting the name of God late into the night. The drink was given the name “qahwa,” formerly meaning “wine,” and which later served as the origin of the English terms “coffee” and “cafe.” 16th century historian Abd Al-Qadir al-Jaziri wrote an account of coffee’s early religious use: “They drank it every Monday and Friday eve, putting it in a large vessel made of red clay. Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right, while they recited one of their usual formulas, ‘There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.’” Sufi mystics claimed that coffee, when consumed with proper devotional intent, could lead to the experience of “qahwat al-Sufiyya,” translated as “the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful disclosures and the great revelations.”

Coffee’s use spread throughout the Muslim world, and in the early 16th century coffeehouses began to spring up in Cairo near the religious University of Azhar, followed by cafes in Aleppo and Istanbul. Coffee’s increasing secular consumption engendered controversy. Orthodox Muslims felt that the intoxication derived from coffee too closely resembled that of alcohol (explicitly forbidden by the Quran), while political leaders were uneasy with the free discourse and openly rebellious political discussion that was happening within coffeehouses. Several attempts were made to ban coffee throughout the 16th century by both religious and political authorities, but all proved unsuccessful. By the 17th century, a somewhat uneasy balance had been struck between the secular and spiritual aspects of coffee consumption; French traveler Jean Chardin gave the following description of the scene at a Persian coffeehouse:

“People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful, since the government does not heed what the people say. Innocent games… resembling checkers, hopscotch, and chess, are played. In addition, mollas, dervishes, and poets take turns telling stories in verse or in prose. The narrations by the mollas and the dervishes are moral lessons, like our sermons, but it is not considered scandalous not to pay attention to them. No one is forced to give up his game or his conversation because of it. A molla will stand up in the middle, or at one end of the qahveh-khaneh, and begin to preach in a loud voice, or a dervish enters all of a sudden, and chastises the assembled on the vanity of the world and its material goods. It often happens that two or three people talk at the same time, one on one side, the other on the opposite, and sometimes one will be a preacher and the other a storyteller.”

When we think of the historical spread of coffee and coffeehouses, many in the West are inclined to view it as an outgrowth of the European enlightenment; if we look at coffee’s early history, however, we see that it was the beverage’s effect on the spirit and not the intellect that drove its initial cultivation throughout the Muslim world. In this respect, coffee’s history very closely resembles that of the tea plant’s early usage among Buddhist monks as an aid for focus and meditation. Indeed, coffee can be considered as belonging at least partly among the pantheon of psychoactive substances (tobacco, cannabis, various hallucinogens) that have been initially used in sacred or ritualized contexts, only to be removed from those contexts and embraced within commercial consumption.

The Quintessence

In looking to further explore the nature of coffee’s effect on the spirit, I’ll now veer away from historical fact toward some fanciful metaphysical musing as I discuss coffee within the context of alchemy. Alchemy is another term that deserves a brief synopsis, though a full summary is impossible; the word refers to intellectual and spiritual traditions that span many centuries and cultures. My discussion here will be limited to European alchemy, which has origins in Greek philosophy, Hellenistic Egypt, and Christian mythology.

Alchemy is most popularly known as an early pseudoscience: the attempt to transmute matter into gold. In true alchemical tradition however, the production of gold is as much an elaborate metaphor outlining spiritual development as it is literal intent. Indeed, in many alchemical texts these spiritual and earthly aims are intertwined, reflected through the classic alchemical maxim “as above, so below” — the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. The production of gold was not sought after in pursuit of wealth, but because its physical properties were themselves thought to be as close to divine as existed on earth. To transmute matter into gold would therefore be a physical manifestation of bringing the soul into perfect union with God. Alchemy was born of a time where our modern divisions between science, religion, and scholarship didn’t exist. Thus, the term can historically refer to several different spiritual or proto-scientific paths. Pythagoras and Isaac Newton both considered themselves alchemists in their times, while alchemy also served as the basis of many occult and mystical Christian beliefs. Centuries later, Carl Jung would use alchemy as the central metaphor in his concept of individuation; “I had very soon seen that analytical psychology coincided in a most curious way with alchemy,” Jung wrote. “The experiences of the alchemists, were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world. This was, of course, a momentous discovery. I had stumbled upon the historical counterpart of my psychology of the unconscious.”

I promise, we’ll be getting back to coffee soon.

Generally understood, alchemy is a process of death and rebirth — “Solve et Coagula” — in the service of purification and eternal life or union with the divine. This belief evolved directly from early metallurgy, in which humans learned to break down ore and refine extracted raw metals into ever-purer forms. The tradition of European alchemy began even earlier, however, with Aristotle and his study of the four classical elements. To these, he ascribed the following properties: Fire (hot and dry), Air (hot and wet), Water (cold and wet), Earth (cold and dry). Aristotle believed that all matter was composed of these elements, and that through properly transforming their properties all physical substances could be transmuted. He also proposed a fifth esoteric element known as “aether,” a substance of which heavenly bodies were composed; alchemists later came to know this as “The Quintessence” or “Spiritus Mundi” — an essence or spirit that permeates all things. Alchemists believed that by properly cycling matter through the four elements, the level of quintessence could be increased in a given substance (in the Christian alchemical tradition, this process is mythologically rooted in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus). Alchemical texts often picture the classical elements as situated upon a spinning circle, similar to the zodiac wheel or the Tarot’s “Wheel of Fortune” card. The ultimate quintessence was known “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a substance that would transmute metal into gold and serve as an elixir of life.

I believe that, within the alchemical metaphor, coffee can be understood as a sort of Quintessence or Philosopher’s Stone, and that doing so lends us a clearer perspective on its symbolic significance to humanity. To begin on a broad level, coffee is one of the few items we regularly consume that cycles through all four of the classical elements by the time it reaches its us. Coffee is grown in the earth; it is then dried and fermented for a time in the air; it is roasted by fire; and it is then extracted into water for consumption. Few other foods or beverages can be said to undergo literal physical transformation through the entire wheel of elements before they’re ingested into our bodies. Furthermore, the alchemists put much significance in color change — again, a belief drawn from the transformations that occur in refining metals. Particularly significant to alchemists are the colors of black, white, and red; and in coffee, we see a cycle of transformation from the red of the cherry, to the pale color of the raw bean, to the darker color of roasted coffee as it undergoes myriad chemical reactions in the roaster, to the black of a brewed cup.

Coffee also undergoes several metaphorical deaths and rebirths throughout its processing. The most dramatic of these happens during roasting, in a rearrangement of the bean’s cellular state known as “first crack.” As coffee absorbs heat during the first part of the roast, steam builds up in the center of the beans exerting a growing pressure against their outer walls. At first crack, that pressure becomes great enough that the moisture is finally released in an exothermic flash of heat. Upon this release the bean physically opens and its former structure breaks down, rendering it much more sensitive to heat application. Chaff is jettisoned. Only when this transformation occurs does the full caramelization of sugars begin; in addition, the formerly dense bean is rendered soft enough to be ground and its components extracted. Allegorically, first crack resembles the patient of psychoanalysis who’s Ego must be broken down and released before they can “open up” and the psyche can be healed, or the spiritual seeker who must give themselves over completely before the Holy Ghost may enter. To the modern coffee consumer, the death and rebirth that occurs during first crack remains hidden, its transformation only borne witness to by the roaster (The Hermit). Other non-western coffee traditions, however, display the roasting process as a part of the overall coffee ceremony — more on that later.

Once consumed, coffee has two notable effects. The first is its caffeine high, which I would claim is synonymous with what the alchemists knew as The Quintessence. As Isaac Newton once wrote, “The Quintessence is a thing that is spiritual, penetrating, tingeing, and incorruptible, which emerges anew from the Four Elements when they are bound together.” Other words used to describe quintessence throughout history have been “vigor” and “life force.” In Taoist alchemy (to briefly look at another alchemical tradition), the parallel of quintessence is their concept “Chi” — a vital energy that animates the body internally. Our consumption of coffee in the modern day is so routine that we barely question the possible magical implications of its effects. But what if we are to examine it not within the profane context of a cheap high, but the sacred context of the Sufis? The caffeine rush is in many ways an injection of life-force itself; if consciousness is believed to be a sacred gift, coffee’s effects are thus a direct communion with the divine.

The second consequence of consuming coffee is one that is less often discussed, yet that affects a large percentage of its consumers: coffee acts as a both a mild diuretic and laxative. Surprisingly, experts are still unsure why this happens. While some believe that caffeine plays a role, other researcher believe it must be yet some other unidentified substance present. Researchers know that coffee simulates the intestinal tract, but aren’t sure why; the fact of the matter remains, however, that coffee makes people need to go to the bathroom. While this may not be a mystery many of us feel the need to spend much time pondering, it’s worth considering in the present context. If one of the aims of alchemical transformation is purification, then what more literal purification could occur than the physical release of waste from the body? Coffee not only activates our spirits, but rids our bodies of impurities.

In summary, coffee is a substance that undergoes several alchemical transformations in order to produce a beverage that both purifies our physical forms and gives us a gift of energy and consciousness. While these are effects most of us experience daily and don’t think much about, it’s again worth remembering that — consumed in a sacred context — these same effects are the ones that helped the Sufis to experience their “qahwat al-Sufiyya,” the thrill of holy revelation. The fact that the same substance we use for an easy boost of energy could produce a divine state in the Sufis illustrates the importance of set and setting in coffee consumption — the ceremonial context.

Communion

At the forefront of alchemy is the importance of the practitioner’s subjective reality. The alchemist must purify themselves spiritually before being able to effect transformation, an idea at the heart of occultism and esoteric practice. In such belief systems, physical transformation can only take place when the “magician” has situated themselves in a proper mental/spiritual framework; in contrast to objective scientific truth, magic is a thing that only works when one is in the proper state of mind. If this sounds like an overly esoteric claim, consider the act of sitting and listening to a great symphony. If you’re invested in the performance and follow it mentally, it can make your heart rate rise, make you swoon, bring you to tears. And yet, if you’re tired or distracted, or lose focus, the entire thing can wash over you without notice. That the exact same person in the exact set of circumstances could experience such different effects based on their subjective state of mind is a profoundly strange reality that we rarely consider, and one that sits at the heart of much occult belief. All true ceremony, properly understood, is a series of actions designed to put its recipients in a proper, shared reality where they can give or receive magical revelation. Though this is generally a mystical concept, as we learn more about quantum physics and the importance of an observer’s subjective reality in determining certain physical states, such ideas have re-entered the realm of modern scientific inquiry.

While today’s consumption of coffee is generally based on a “grab and go” mentality inherited from the Italian espresso bar, other cultures have used it toward various ceremonial ends. We’ve explored how the Sufis embedded coffee in a religious framework. The oldest and most well-known coffee ritual, however, is the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a custom which remains an integral part of Ethiopian culture. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony can last from one to several hours; it’s often offered when receiving guests, and an invitation to attend one is a sign of friendship and respect. In this ceremony, an extended process of roasting and serving coffee acts as a catalyst for hospitality and socializing. The magical effects of coffee are employed in a ritual context to achieve a social union, and bring that union into communion with the divine.

The Ethiopian ceremony begins with raw coffee, which is first washed and then roasted in a pan. Directly after the roasting process, each attendee is approached with the beans and invited to waft their aromatic smoke while incense is also burned. This shared act becomes the first point of unity within the participating group; by each inhaling the same vapors, all have accepted the same “spirit” into their bodies. A subtle shift of reality begins to occur, in the same way that the incense burned in a Buddhist temple or Catholic church immediately demarcates the space as separate from the everyday and mundane. In addition, if one is willing to go deeper and consider the previously discussed alchemical metaphor, all present are party to the subtle death and rebirth that the coffee beans undergo, and pay homage to the them in their newly transfigured state.

Following this act, the coffee is ground with a mortar and pestle. The same coffee grounds are then brewed and served three times to each guest, a tradition unique to the Ethiopian ceremony. There are some pragmatic reasons that can be given for the three extractions: they extend the social aspect of the ceremony, and extract all possible coffee from the ground beans. There is, however, a clear allegorical component at play as well. The third serving of coffee is known as “Baraka,” which means “blessing” and which is considered to consecrate those who drink it. Ethiopia is an historically Christian nation, and here we see clear symbolism derived from the concept of the holy trinity: from the One (the coffee grounds) comes three individual cups of coffee. On consuming the third cup, the receiver is “blessed.” In all receiving the same blessing, both the group and space itself are elevated from the mundane to the divine. The coffee thus acts as casual communion wafer. And again, if one is willing to consider first crack as a metaphorical “death and resurrection,” the parallel to the communion wafer becomes even more profound.

Whether a participant is conscious of this symbolism or accepts its spiritual component is irrelevant; the ceremony works within what Carl Jung termed “archetypes,” symbols that are embedded so deep within a culture (sometimes within all humans) as to be fundamentally present in the subconscious. Coffee’s magical, energy-giving effects are here used within a ritualized series of archetypal actions to socially and spiritually bond the ceremony’s participants. This ceremony points us toward one of the ways that the spirit-giving magic inherent in coffee can be combined with a shared subjective group state to elevate an otherwise common social experience.

Lifting the Veil

My own interaction with coffee began as a high schooler in Portland, OR. At that time, Stumptown was but a glimmer in Duane Sorenson’s eye, and the proliferation of third-wave coffee was still a little ways off. The most prominent local chain was a company called Coffee People, with their awkward yet memorable slogan “good coffee, no back talk.” My personal consumption of coffee started not as a a regular morning ritual, but — like the Sufis — as a late-night beverage to drink after shows or at a stop-off on the way home from parties. The two places in which I spent the most time and that established my sense of magic around coffee were Rimsky Korsakoffeehouse and Coffee Time.

Rimsky’s is the oldest surviving coffeehouse/desert spot in Portland, and remains one of my favorite places in the world. It exists in an unmarked old victorian house, and in my memory entering always felt like stepping into some new, strange reality. An old woman would often be sitting at the piano playing Bach fugues, while the host (usually some Edward Gorey-esque character) took you to your seats. Depending on where you sat, you might eventually realize your table was gradually moving up and down until your plate reached the level of your chin, or was turning imperceptibly slowly until your cup of coffee had traveled over to your neighbor. The longer you sat in Rimsky’s the more strange details began to emerge, as though the house itself were alive. Apart from the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, it’s the closest I’ve ever witnessed an establishment come to embracing surrealism without descending into kitsch. I usually wound up there with friends after attending a concert at one of the DIY venues in the area, and the atmosphere combined with the consumption of coffee and sugar encouraged wild conversation and speculation — seemingly brilliant revelations scribbled on notepads that emerged as gibberish the next day, or plans for ambitious projects we’d likely never attempt.

Coffee Time was across town; it still exists, but at that point was open 24-hours, 7 days a week. As a result of never closing, the late-night crew tended to be a motley collection of portland punks, ravers, homeless youth, poets, chess players, and general weirdos. After a certain amount of time hanging out there, you’d learn that the place had a series of two secret rooms in back accessed through panels in the walls . While this may sound like a precursor to the modern “speakasy” bar, these were no delightful bourgeois parlors but rather windowless, unventilated bunkers where smoking was strongly encouraged. I had a friend I’d go to Coffee Time with to play chess, but also often found an excuse to sit there and drink a coffee alone if I was out late. While Rimsky’s engendered a sense of magic by creating an idealized world, Coffee Time’s magic worked through alienation by showing me a collection of people who’s lives seemed — at that time — more colorful, interesting and strange than my own. I’d sit alone and write, never feeling quite cool enough to be there, but with the sense I was nevertheless participating in something slightly transgressive.

“Lifting the veil” is a metaphor often used by both spiritual seekers and psychonauts to connote seeing behind everyday reality to something more real and unchanging. Drinking coffee in those setting gave me the sensation of lifting the veil to glimpse a world that was exciting and magical. This is was no doubt a function of my age as well as the places themselves; I imagine if you were to transport me at my present age back to Coffee Time at 1AM in 1999, I’d likely be more irritated than mystified by my surroundings. Nevertheless, the feeling I hold from those early times continues to affect my view of what a cafe can and should be. While the coffee itself was, in retrospect, probably not very good, it is my opinion that those experiences hold the most direct parallel in my own life to coffee’s history as an alchemical catalyst for spiritual awakening and consciousness expansion.

The collected thoughts expressed in this essay sprang from a general feeling I’ve had working in the specialty coffee industry that, even amongst the huge strides that have been made in coffee quality over the past few decades, something important has been ignored. Third-wave coffee has played a fundamental role in my adult life, yet I’ve come to confront the reality that the average third wave cafe is a place that I find aesthetically bland and uninspiring. In its desperation to be taken “seriously” as a beverage, specialty coffee has also jettisoned much of the culture that makes it a unique item to begin with. The coffeehouse that goes to great pains to compare coffee to wine or beer has it, in my mind, wrong. Wine and beer have their own universes, borne not from the relative complexity of their flavor profiles, but from they way they get people drunk. Coffee is its own thing, with its own rich culture and psychoactive effects. Attempts to pay homage to that culture can and do come off as juvenile or campy — overt gestures toward “bohemianism,” or exaggerated uses of words like “Java.” Nevertheless, to jettison it completely in favor of an uninventive stab at the tasteful and accessible is equally misguided.

All delicious food and drink should be, in my opinion, not an end in and of itself but a catalyst for the experience of deep conversation, ecstatic performance, and human connection or inward mental and spiritual journeying. Coffee has that capacity, and in understanding its esoteric history and magical properties we can all understand our archetypal roles around the beverage a little bit better. Effective baristas are really the Priests and Priestesses of the tarot, offering momentary communion and benediction to a line of people seeking sacrament. Producers are the Sun, Moon, and Star cards, harnessing the natural elements to coax something transmuted and magical out of the ground. And all of us are equally the Magician — setting off on an unknown journey with our tools at the ready, hoping to reach something greater and more eternal than ourselves.

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