Yesterday may have been shitty, and today very well could be. Maybe I woke up too early. It may be cold or rainy or extremely windy out there today, and I may have to ride my bike in it. I don’t know what kind of day I have ahead of me, and I can’t even control the mood that I wake up in, let alone those of everyone I will come across today. And who knows how many of them will be mood-neutral assholes?
Peppering this daily sea of uncertainty, thankfully, are brief, controllable moments. Our days are unknown and potentially lethal ponds in life’s Pitfall game. These steady moments, though, are the flat, sturdy, and reliably safe crocodile heads on which we can stand while we survey the landscape and plot our next leap.
It could be ten minutes of mindful meditation, or thirty minutes of peace and acupuncture. It might be a cigarette on the porch or a ten-minute shower before we dive into whatever we know- and whatever we don’t know- we’ve got to deal with that day.
My day has two phases, and it reads like a suburban cliché. The first one we can refer to as Before Coffee. I don’t mean this in a grumpy, Dilberty, get-me-my-caffeine-and-nobody-gets-hurt kind of way- I am not talking about chemical dependence here. In fact, when I was undergoing chemotherapy, I kicked every “vice” that I had. Coffee tasted terrible. I was indifferent to alcohol (the substance itself), but the metallic dumbness of my mouth made drinking wine a wasteful act, so I abstained out of pure reverence for the libation. I knew if would be there for me when I got back.
With coffee out of my life, caffeine was not administered to me in any kind of regular or predictable way; it was taken intermittently, whenever I felt like having a Coke- which was pretty regularly, as fizzy, sugared beverages were often the only liquid I could bear. I was clean; I went all day without coffee, and I was fine.
I was “fine” in the way an old lady is “fine” when she sips on the steps and has to grab the bannister to keep from falling. Everyone rushes over to make sure there were no hips broken, no sholders dislocated, and no heads severed. She’s fine- none of the major things that could have happened have happened. Nothing to see here.
I was also “fine” in the way you might like your obnoxious cousin “fine.” In the way you might tell a waiter that your underwhelming meal is “fine;” you’re not sending it back, you’re not making a stink, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it has exceeded your expectations or pleased you in any way. It’s good enough to keep you from complaining, and that's the best you can say for it.
Now that coffee tastes good to me again, I am spared those bland, coffeeless days. Sure, some days are still shitty, and some days are still great. But at least these days all have coffee in them, which is, both at the moment of drinking and the moment of brewing, something to look forward to.
I don’t mind saying that I am at the top of my coffee game right now. I look forward to it every day, and it never disappoints. During my recent nauseous yet leisure-abundant illness, I even went to a class on brewing at home. The drinking is great, yes, but the act of preparing it is just as satisfying. As I grind and measure and pour, as I glance at my watch, I know that, no matter what the day brings, I am making myself the best goddamned cup of coffee possible. There is deep control, and deep pleasure in this simple act.
I fill my electric kettle with filtered water, and as it comes to a boil I choose my beans and grind them. Our house usually has only one choice of coffee at a time, but right now we have four. If we have zero, it constitutes an Ebola-level emergency.
I grind the beans to the size of kosher salt. All the gear I use for my coffee is pretty cheap, with the notable exception of the grinder, which is the one tool that you can’t really get away with skimping on or rigging. I have the Baratza Virtuoso. I grind 21 grams if I want one cup, 26 grams if I want one cup and a small refill, and 40 grams if I am making coffee for two. The grinder has a hopper which can store beans, but I don’t use it- I weigh the beans before they go in there to minimize waste and maximize accuracy. These measurements will yield 300ml, 400ml, and 600ml of coffee.
I flush a paper filter with off-the-boil water, which will rid the filter of much of its papery flavor. This also heats the vessel into which the coffee will be brewed. We could be talking about a sexy, dedicated Japanese coffee pitcher here, but I am talking about a wide-mouthed Ball jar. I think I paid $8 for six of them. They don’t look as good, and they lack a pour spout and a handle- but they work. The cone through which I brew was is a Kalita. I have another plastic one which cost me $4 and works the same as the shiny one.
After the hot water has flushed the filter, I dump that water and put the ground coffee in the filter, atop the jar. This whole rig is on top of my digital scale, which I zero out. I make a little dimple in the mound of grounds, and carefully distribute a thin stream of water, totaling about twice the weight of the grounds. I do my best to wet all of the grounds. This “blooming” of the grounds releases some of their pent-up carbon dioxide, effectively waking them for brewing. After letting them sit for thirty seconds, they are ready. Most of that water has been absorbed by the beans, but there's is a tiny pool of dark, rich coffee at the bottom of the jar.
Now, I brew. I add enough water to half-fill the cone, pouring to make sure no grounds are dry and neglected. I am looking at my watch now; the whole process, including the blooming, should take about three and a half minutes. The coffee drips, and the slurry falls. It rises again when I add more water. I look at my watch. I look at the scale. I add my 300, 400, or 600g of water. Say what you want about this un-American system of measurement, but don’t say it doesn’t make sense. 300g of water is 300ml, and so on. My scale’s on metric.
I am not brushing my teeth or texting or getting ready for work- I am brewing coffee. I don’t walk away from the cooktop when I am poaching eggs, and I don’t walk away from this. This is the only thing I am doing right now.
My watch beeps. A few laggards drip slowly into the jar. My cup, which I have warmed with water from the kettle, is ready. I empty it of water, and fill it with hot coffee, and the best part of my day begins. The Day Itself begins. Bring it on.