“Brewing the Faith”: An Interview with Steven Alspach
In the St. Josemaria Institute’s search for a coffee roaster to bring our idea of The Heroic Minute Blend to fruition, we came across St. Mary’s Coffee, a Catholic coffee roastery local to Chicago, Illinois that seeks to transform the culture by creating spaces for men and women to encounter truth, beauty and goodness. The Heroic Minute Blend is a custom roast craft coffee exclusively for the St. Josemaria Institute and is now available in our online shop.
We are grateful to Steven Alspach, owner of St. Mary’s Coffee, for taking the time for this interview in which we discuss the importance of community, faith, and evangelization.
Q: Can you share with us a little bit of your background and what led you to the business of coffee?
Steven: Well, originally, I was pursuing a career in academia. But once I had completed my Master’s Degree and had gotten married, my wife and I were pregnant almost right away, and that forced me to make a fast career pivot for practical reasons—and that unexpectedly led me to the Coffee Industry! I landed a great job with one of the largest craft coffee and tea distributors in the US, and I continue working there to this day. With my experience in the past brewing beer at home, I instantly became interested in the craft of roasting coffee, and the rest is history.
Q: What inspired you to launch St. Mary’s Coffee? What is the mission that drives the initiative and how are you continuing to expand these days?
Steven: There were two major motivators, actually. I initially launched SMC as a fundraising project for our parish’s Building Preservation Fund. I had already been roasting my own coffee and selling locally as a hobby, but when I joined St Mary of Perpetual Help parish in Bridgeport, IL, I wanted to use my talents and equipment for God’s purposes. This remarkably beautiful church building is over one hundred years old and is in constant need of repair. In an age when brutalist church architecture and corporate glass boxes on stone stilts abound and human isolation is rampant, it is of utmost importance to me that the Church continues to preserve her culture of divine art and architecture as means of attracting people to the Faith. “Palaces for the poor” is how St John Chrysostom described Christianity’s beautiful temples, and I think it is time that we, as Catholics, fully reclaim Beauty as a means of spreading the Gospel. So at SMC, we currently allocate the net proceeds to the parish Preservation Fund and we always seek partnerships with other Catholic entities, like the St. Josemaria Institute.
But, even more than that, we need young Catholic artisans and Catholic owned businesses to thrive. Working for a corporation grants a veneer of stability—believe me, I know!— but there is a certain level of dignity that comes with producing something with your own hands for the glory of God, and this coffee project gives all involved with SMC a sense of the dignity, and ultimate purpose, of labor.
Q: Gathering over a cup of coffee is a favorite pastime for many. How has coffee brought a sense of community to your life? Why is growing in community an important and necessary part of our life of faith?
Steven: What a great question. In a word, to me, Coffee is Catholic. Just as our practice of the faith is universal, Coffee is truly the world’s universal drink. It is second only to oil as the world’s most traded commodity. From Africa to Asia, Europe to South America, the Middle East to the Pacific Islands,—whether it is being grown, roasted, and/or brewed—Coffee spans all cultures, nationalities, and demographics. This is why, in our bag designs, we make sure that the Christian art work corresponds to the culture of the coffee’s origin. So, on the macro level, coffee belongs to the world community; but even on the micro level, coffee is highly inculturated with literally thousands of indigenous methods of brewing it. Amazing how a simple cherry seed from a bush can bring the human family together, though it is not surprising!
Community and communion is what we are made for. From the moment that God said “Let us make man in our image,” he welcomed us to share in the communal life of the Trinity. And again, “It is not good for man to be alone.” St Augustine’s famous definition of hell was for a soul to be “incurvatus in se,” or, “turned inward on oneself.” Growing in community, then, is growing toward heaven. Whether we find community in the small things, like a good cup of coffee with friends, or in the big things, like in the sacramental life of the Church; when we move towards community, we are becoming more human.
Q: You explain that coffee can help create a space for men and women to encounter truth, beauty and goodness. Do you have a special memory or memories that lead you to this personal encounter?
Steven: Not to sound cliché, but I really do feel that a small experience of all three of those “transcendentals” happens with every bag we sell. With the proceeds going towards preserving beautiful worship spaces, we make the Beauty of God a little more accessible. With the iconography and Scripture quotes on our bag labels, we are making the Truth of God more discernable. And when each customer shares a cup of our coffee with friends, family, or acquaintances, that occasion of community inevitably leads to some experience of the Goodness of God. That’s our hope, anyway!
Q: St. Mary’s Coffee is a great example of evangelization in the world today as it takes something ordinary – coffee – and uses it to lead men and women to the extraordinary – God. In addition to your work, what helps and motivates you to seek God in the ordinary moments of everyday life?
Steven: If I do not spend at least some time, daily, either reading the bible or some other spiritual, literary reflection, I will quickly go off the rails. Morning and Evening Prayer is also essential to make spiritual progress, but when time is not on my side, I opt for reciting the “Jesus Prayer.” This Eastern practice of silently and constantly praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” is a mainstay for me, precisely because it can accompany me in every moment of every day—even while I’m working. These practices can be the difference between encountering the ordinary as if it were a constant nuisance or approaching it as if it were another miraculous extension of your life where spiritual growth is on offer.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Where can our readers learn more about St. Mary’s Coffee?
Steven: Behind every small business is a support structure. There are ‘sacrifices behind the scenes,’ as it were, of spouses and children. Time is a precious and sparse commodity, so I can’t thank my wife and kids enough for their willingness to sacrifice as I use so many after-work hours to help operate St Mary’s Coffee. My wife, Stacy, and my boys, Elias, Maximus, and—our brand new!—Quintus, put up with a lot from me! So a big shout out to them.
Finally, if you would like to follow additional Catholic content that SMC helps to support, they can check out mine and my brother’s new channel, “The Catholic Brothers,” on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram; where we hold thoughtful dialogues, interviews, film reviews, and sacred travels within the context of the ancient, Catholic Faith.