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How Christianity Shapes Louisville's Coffee Culture


A woman walks into Sunergos Coffee on Preston Street in Louisville. She orders a drink and begins looking around, through the mixture of cafe settings and living room couches. She's looking for something. She doesn’t find it. She returns to the counter, upset.

“Where are your bibles?” she asks.

“I…I have one,” says the woman working at the shop.

“Where are your bibles here?” asks the customer.

“Well there aren’t any,” says the barista.

The customer replies, “I thought you were a Christian coffee shop.”

This story comes from Matthew Huested, the co-founder of Sunergos. He tells the story when someone says a church, not Huested, owns Sunergos, or when they say his employees are all Baptists bent on converting customers. It’s a persistent rumor, largely unique to this city.

It might be inspired by the prayer meetings customers frequently hold on Sundays. Or by the fact that Huested is a Christian, and some of his employees are Baptists.  They’re not the only Christians in coffee, and Sunergos isn’t the only shop that faces these rumors. The same whispers have surrounded Quills Coffee for years.

Neither shop is a front, but Louisville's coffee scene has an undeniable undercurrent of Christianity that isn’t the case nationally.

It may not have converted anyone, but nearly every serious coffee drinker in Louisville has been affected in some way by the actions of Christians behind the counter. Many of the early purveyors of pourover brewing, latte art and various techniques of the so-called Third Wave of coffee have been either devout Christians or employed by devout Christians. And the attraction to coffee isn’t driven by scripture. Rather, it’s scripture that inspires the quality of the drinks.

The coffee isn't meant to bring customers to another faith; it’s brewed with a higher power in mind.

Third Wave
At first, the fact that Christians permeate an industry in Louisville seems more a matter of numbers than of conspiracy. Louisville, with its churches and seminaries. Louisville, so close to—or in, by some maps—the Bible Belt. Louisville, ranked the 17th most Bible-minded city by the American Bible Society. Louisville, where a coffee shop stands on the corner where Thomas Merton had his epiphany. Louisville, adjacent to—or in, by some attitudes—old Dixie. Louisville, in Jefferson County, where 120,000 of the 750,000 residents are Catholic, 105,000 are Southern Baptist, and tens of thousands of others identify religiously as Mormon, Jewish, Presbyterian or one of over a dozen other beliefs. The odds of finding a Baptist in a coffee shop are as good as the odds on a safe bet at the Derby. But there’s something more influential about Christians in the coffee scene.

Coffee comes in waves. In the beginning, there was Conti. John Conti coffee brought wholesale locally roasted beans to Louisville in the 1960s. The explosion of espresso bars and shops came three decades later, with Heine Brothers. The now-pervasive local chain was founded by Gary Heine and Mays in 1994. Mays’ idea for the shop came from his frequent visits to a micro roaster and espresso bar in California, where he decamped to after working as a lawyer in Louisville. When he returned with his plans, there were no Starbucks locations in town, and there wouldn’t be until later in the decade. Mays says "Louisville was ready” for the next level of espresso bars and coffee shops in the early '90s. The city was ready for the second wave.

This was a time when the second wave—previously more regionalized and nascent—was rising quickly. Food critic Jonathan Gold traces its start to San Francisco, though it soon shifted north "moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee.” When discussing Heine Brothers, many local baristas use the phrase “Seattle style.” It’s in reference to the feel of the shops. The hipness that 20 years ago moved the concept of a three or four dollar cup of coffee from Leno monologue to morning necessity. The style made no whip common parlance among commuters. The movement introduced, then legitimized the word and the job barista.

Second wave coffee makes the daily cup better, and it introduces a certain level of awareness about origins and trade. Mays saw it in California and brought it to Louisville. Almost everyone I talked to for this article credits Heine Brothers with making Louisville a coffee town.

It was Christians who made Louisville a coffee haven.

In the early 2000s church acquaintances Matthew Huested and Brian Miller, both devout Christians, would borrow the roaster from Day’s Coffee on Bardstown Road. After the shop closed, they experimented with different techniques. They eventually moved into their own shop—Sunergos.

“One thing that set us apart was we were hobbyists trying to take that passion for a geeked-out hobby and bringing it to a storefront,” says Huested. The geeked-out hobby was the first sign of the third wave of coffee. The wave, according to Gold, "where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”

Third wave shops have signifiers, many of them glass or ceramic and elegantly curved. There are pots of Chemex made to order, and individual V-60s if you’re alone. These are pourover techniques, but the espresso extraction is fine-tuned as well. Scales are commonplace, and drinks are served with designs drawn in the milk and foam, an expression of both the quality of the drink and the skill of the barista.

The third wave grew bigger in 2007, when Quills opened. Co-founder Nathan Quillo and Huested were friendly competitors—they knew each other, and Quills originally used Sunergos-roasted beans in its drinks. But they share more than an interest in coffee. Quillo is also a devout Christian. So is Matthew Argo, co-founder of craft roasters Argo Sons Coffee, whose beans can be found across the city, in shops including Please and Thank You in Nulu. It’s happenstance that the first third wave purveyors in Louisville were Christian—Huested knew Quillo. Huested went into coffee. Then Quillo went into coffee—but the influence of faith in the development afterward is clear.

Third Place
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. -Acts 2:42 (NIV)

A church can be a social group, especially a small congregation like Sojourn or Huested’s church. If a parishioner, neighbor or friend pursues an enterprise, the other parishioners, neighbors or friends help out.

“Early on, I do think the community at Sojourn helped get [Quills] off the ground, because there were so many people who were like, ‘Yeah, we want to support this new business that opened up,” says Michael Butterworth, a barista at Quills who attends Sojourn Community Church.

"I would say there's an attraction to come here through affinity,” says Quillo. "One guy starts coming here and hanging out, then, by the numbers…”

It didn’t take long for Sunergos and Quills get get reputations as Christian hangouts. Heine Brothers co-owner Mike Mays says the Vint Brewing Company on Frankfort Avenue (which Heine Brothers also owns), due to its proximity to the Southern Baptist Seminary, draws a large number of students. As does the Frankfort Avenue Heine Brothers. But the label sticks more closely to Sunergos and Quills, even though neither Quillo nor Huested has done anything to make their shops appealing to Christians, apart from being Christians themselves.

Huested attributes this to the historic place of the coffee shop in society—it’s a third place, "between work and home”, where people gather to talk, sometimes about their homes and their jobs, sometimes about their faith.

"If you're interested in raising chickens in your backyard, the people you're going to most influence are going to be the people you have connections with,” says Huested. "A coffee shop is a third place. The people who come in and the people who work in a coffee shop generally consider themselves to be there for engagement. Coffee, by its nature, invites open dialogue.”

It also invites young people in search of jobs. Huested estimates about half of his staff is Christian. Quillo puts his at a third. (Both shops now have multiple locations, and these numbers apply to all locations.) And while they share a kinship with their bosses, there’s something more that keeps Christian baristas working. Butterworth knew Quillo was a Christian when he went to work at the shop. But he valued the vision of a true, high-level specialty coffee shop more than he did Quillo’s faith. "If tomorrow Nathan woke up and said, 'I'm not a Christian anymore,' it wouldn't change my view of Quills,” says Butterworth. And his faith tells him it’s not just coffee, it’s work. And work is something more than a job.

With the quest for perfection and the desire to provide an all-encompassing experience that is pleasant and unique, third wave coffee is an ideal field for devout Christians.

Higher Powers
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might -Ecclesiastes 9:10 NIV

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. -Psalm 104, NIV

Citing Psalm 104, Butterworth says "I think that if God gave us wine for our enjoyment and our pleasure, it's certainly true for coffee as well…God put those flavors there for us to find and enjoy. It's part of our role as humans to cultivate the earth, take care of it."

And according to this view, it’s also part of our role as humans to work. In Genesis, God tells Adam to name the animals and cultivate the Garden of Eden. Huested and other devout Christians read this as a mandate; those made in the image of God must work, and they must work well, and they must work for the Glory of God.

“As a Christian, I don't just think of work as a thing that I do to get a paycheck to buy food I want or the things I need. I think of it more along the lines of, 'This is somehow an essential part of my being. This is something given to me as a creature and as a human and as an image-bearer.' So that shapes the way I think about work and what I believe about work,” Huested says.

"One of the interesting things about work is it's been kind of demeaned over the years, even in Christian circles, people say work is the result of sin in the world,” says Sojourn elder Mark Franco. Then he cites Genesis 3:17 and 3:18:

To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat from it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. (NIV)

Franco says this means the toil of work is the result of the fall of man, so while work may be unpleasant, it's still an essential function and responsibility of all who bear the image of God. After a redemption, in a return to paradise, there will still be work, but not toil. There will not be thorns and thistles to prick working arms. So for a Christian working as a barista, you must work to the best possible ends. Butterworth cites Ecclesiastes’ order to do your work with all your might. That means not only unlocking all the flavors God put into the coffee, but utilizing them to their best potential, and then providing an exceptional level of service. It’s all the trademarks of third wave coffee in Louisville—special treatment for specialty drinks, serving customers and serving God.

The immediate question that arises, then, is Why coffee? If all work is for the glory of God, why not do work directly with those most in need? Quillo was a social worker for a period of time, but he says his current work is also helpful, even if it’s not directly working with the neediest cases.

"That itself is a God-honoring thing, to be a good employer…Owning your own business and employing people and being involved in the community is God-honoring." he says, adding that in addition to creating jobs and providing an in-demand service, he can help farmers across the world. "The farmers and how they are treated all along the supply chain has been horribly abused."

But you don’t have to be doing it for God to help the farmers. Heine Brothers is a founding member of the fair trade organization Cooperative Coffees, which seeks better treatment for farmers. Co-owner Mike Mays says he’s proud of his staff for organizing Habitat for Humanity participation and other volunteer activities. He says it’s part of doing business.

"There's never been a real conscious, 'This is because of my Christian faith,' but as I remember it, it is a Christian way of thinking. It's about more than me. There is something there for me, but if we do this right, hopefully we can do this in a way that benefits others, too,” he says.

"It's about making money. I have a wife, four children, a home. I like to travel, go to restaurants. I'm in this to make some money. But if it were just about money, I could have kept practicing law in the late '80s.”

And not all third wave coffee shops are run by Christians. Huested says he will occasionally encounter people of similar faith at conventions, but for Quillo, it’s slightly more rare. "Across the country, from my experience, at the upper-end, specialty coffee stuff I've been at, Christians would be the minority,” he says.

One of those conventions was the national barista championship earlier this year in Seattle. Butterworth competed. He was the first Louisvillian to do so [1]. And while he and Quillo may have been in a minority as Christians, they were also in the minority as Louisvillians. Louisville’s coffee scene was locally strong for years before Sunergos and Quills came along, but it’s the work of their baristas and roasters—many, but not all, driven by a Biblical need to work for the glory of God—who put Louisville’s coffee scene on many larger maps. (This itself follows another of Sojourn’s true passions, from their church constitution: “Loving Louisville - Because the Gospel changes our attitude towards our city and our world. ‘The love of Christ compels us.’ 2 Corinthians 5:14”)

As the national reputation for Quills and Sunergos grows, the local reputation simmers, as customers and Internet commenters whisper that these are Christian coffee shops—wings of churches and tools to proselytize. And many of those (untrue) rumors are driven by the particular church that Quillo, Butterworth and several other baristas go to—Sojourn.

Even the parishioners know the nickname: The hipster church.

Though the new campuses in Jeffersontown, New Albany and Eastern Jefferson County have changed the image slightly, the label (often used pejoratively) comes from the original Sojourn congregation, a small gathering that began meeting in Germantown in 2000. Many of the 2,000-4,000 current Sojourners are young, tattooed, plaid-adorned and pierced. They like indie rock. They work in coffee and graphic design and generally like and do things associated with young, liberal people.

“It's a very nontraditional Baptist church,” says Quillo, who has been with Sojourn since the beginning and who himself is tattooed (he also used to work for a record label). "It’s a church that's focused on engaging people where they are with love and grace and kindness. It's definitely a younger church. It's pretty much made up folks primarily under the age of 35. Just because of the age demographic, it's a theologically conservative church but socially liberal."

But in this case “socially liberal" doesn’t mean politically progressive. Sojourn is a Southern Baptist church—the same denomination as the noted Louisville conservative social warrior Albert Mohler. Quillo describes it as “Bible-believing.” The church constitution says “we believe God wrote the Bible through men without error.” It outlines how only men can be elders, and says of gender roles "In creating humans as male and female, God communicated His image in harmonious interpersonal relationships, equality of personhood and importance and a distinction in role and authority.” The Sojourn website advertises classes to treat "Sexual Addiction (from lust to homosexuality).” But there’s also rock music in the church (which has its own record label) and there's lots of discussion on the website about art, both visual and performance.

"A lot of times it gets tied to the Young Republicans Club. And it's definitely not what we are,” says Quillo. "So it's trying to move away from that and let people be who they are. That's where the culturally liberal side comes out.”

Sojourn elder Mark Franco (who says he does not speak for the church) says they "just don't make a big deal” of the Southern Baptist tradition. "We appreciate the Southern Baptist heritage, but we don't wave the Baptist flag. It can be divisive and that's not what we want to be.”

The Sojourn members I talked to all gave similar reasons for joining the church—they called it authentic or genuine with an indescribable appeal that spoke to them in ways other churches didn’t.

"What drew me to Sojourn was it combined truth with realness of life,” says Sojourner and Sunergos barista Molly Waters. "It was the fact that I could show up in the worst state of mind, incredibly depressed, hating all organized religion and hating all people, essentially, and coming in and seeing a bunch of people who looked like me and who didn't have anything to prove but had smiles on their faces and wanted me to be there.”

All the things that makes Sojourn appealing to a younger crowd—the embrace of youth culture, the hosting of concerts, the prevalence of ink and spacers among followers, the decision to not constantly trumpet Baptist views—also make it an anomaly to outsiders. Through much of the Sojourn criticism, there’s thehint that maybe it’s all a ruse, with undercover hipsters on a mission to recruit their peers at concerts, coffee shops and craft beer bars (Sojourn does not ask members to abstain from alcohol). There are comments and questions, hinting that the coolness is, at best, a mask for disagreeable views on homosexuality and women in leadership, and, at worst, a smokescreen for attempts to convert.

These interests and the culture that Sojourners take part in are largely the provenance of the areligious, of the humanist progressives. Although it lacks any explicit declaration of faith or the lack thereof, indie music comes from a tradition started by artists who rejected traditions and conventions of style, authority and faith. Yo La Tengo had plenty to say against Sojourn when the band played a show at the church’s now-closed 930 Club, with the common refrain that, by not explicitly advertising the club as owned by a conservative church, Sojourn was attempting to dupe and possibly convert attendees to a belief system the performers found objectionable. But shared tastes do not always indicate shared beliefs. Spend enough time at Quills or Sunergos, and you’ll inevitably hear a band with a gay member on the stereo. Skeptics and outsiders find this sneaky, but Sojourners say there’s nothing in scripture that says they can’t share in the experience of listening to cool bands and hanging out in rock clubs (even ones the church doesn’t own). And besides, it’s more authentic to listen to Yo La Tengo than to a Christian recreation, they say.

"There's this one perspective of, 'We have to take the word Christian and stick it as an adjective on everything we do,’” says Butterworth, referring to a type of separate-but-equal culture where for every Backstreet Boys there’s a Plus One). Butterworth says he once played a board game called Settlers of Canaan, a Christian-licensed version of the popular "Settlers of Cataan," in which the original board is replaced by a map of Israel and the players control various Old Testament tribes. "I don't feel that's how Christians are called to play a role in society,” he says.

Christian as an adjective (as in Christian rock) bifurcates entertainment, and Butterworth has seen people in and out of the church who want it that way, from evangelicals who want their own board games and bands to people who aren’t religious who aren’t as comfortable with strong Christians enjoying board games and bands that aren’t explicitly Christian.

Quillo uses the phrase “God will stir.” It’s not on him to convince someone to follow Christ, but if they feel a need, or a curiosity, he’ll be there. The presence of the faithful is constant, so those in need will have a path. And if there isn’t a path, well, coffee is still important to people, and providing it has its rewards, spiritually.

"If it came to pass that I worked at a coffee shop for the greater majority of my life, I'd be okay with that,” says Molly Waters, the Sunergos barista who, like Butterworth, attends Sojourn. "It's not like I'm trying to make the most money. I've found that I enjoy making each drink the best for that person, and the amount of influence you have on someone's day when they come in at 6 a.m. on their way to work, it could be they talk to you like a machine, or you could have a profound impact on their day."

“[Christians are] not just at churches and soup kitchens, they're lawyers and businessmen and powerhouse women and coffee shop people,” she adds. "I haven't had anyone say to me, 'What are you trying to do?' but I think my response to that would be, 'What else would I be doing'? If I say I believe these things, I think it'd be a lot weirder for me to go lock myself in my room and stay there and sing hymns to myself than for me to work at a coffee shop. I think that's good. I think that's exactly what people should be doing. Living life in a way that makes people question, 'Why are you doing that?' Why tattoos? Why coffee?”

Butterworth has heard the rumors that he and his Sojourn coworkers at Quills are bent on converting caffeine-craving heathens. And he laughs.

"As a Christian, I'm always eager to share my beliefs with anyone who is interested,” he admits, before unequivocally stating "I certainly would not want to proselytize from one side of the counter to another. People are coming in for a cup of coffee, they're not coming in for a sermon. Even if I did think that would be a good idea, I don't think it would be very effective."

"I don't feel a burden to share my beliefs with anyone who isn't interested in hearing about them.”

Growing in Power
But there is something Quills and Sunergos are spreading.

Heine Brothers will soon start serving Chemex and V-60 pourovers at its stores. But it’s not solely driven by competition. Third wave is becoming the norm. "We've got a group of young managers, a core group of six, seven, eight people…and they as a group are really leading the charge internally. We're not going to abandon what we're doing. But there's a real push to stretch and stay relevant,” Mays says.

That stretch is seen in new branding at Heine Brothers (new cups, new signs) and remodeling. The Longest Avenue Heine Brothers is sleek, open and painted white. The drinks sometimes come decorated. Its design cues come more from the third wave than the second.

It’s unlikely the third wave of coffee would have skipped Louisville. Had Sunergos and Quills not brought it here, someone would have. Just like with Heine Brothers. Had Mays not brought better coffee to Louisville in 1994, Starbucks would have in 1999. But the market is driven by those who act first and act well. In the case of Louisville, with third wave coffee, it was devout Christians, driven by an interest in coffee and mandated by their faith to work as hard as possible.

Christians and beverages have a long history. After hundreds of years, an order of monks have developed a global monopoly on Trappist-style beer, but not on all beer. Louisville’s coffee scene may become the same way, as it is in other cities, where strong Christians are a minority influence. But now, the work ethic is there. It brings whispers and rumors and reluctance, but it also brings increasingly intricate new roasts and latte art. And as Louisville’s reputation as a good coffee city grows, the influence will remain, and Louisvillians, day by day, visiting the shops, will receive their coffee in complex ways, regardless of whether it was done for the glory of God.

[1]: Butterworth was the first Louisville barista to compete in the national barista championships. Another Louisvillian, James Tooill placed in another competition at the same event. Tooill is not a member of Sojourn.