Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Active Time - Essay from Newsletter 114

The time we spend

Morning coffee

Currently my two favorite ways of making coffee are in a Bodum vacuum pot and in a Hario cold brew.

I have a lot of devices for grinding and brewing coffee but currently I grind my coffee by hand in a nice burr grinder and alternate between the Bodum and the Hario.

I used to alternate regularly but last year I decided I have too many things on my limited kitchen counter space so I alternate by the seasons.

Some time in the fall I put the Bodum on the counter. I used to have a glass bottom that went on the stove top but after breaking it I got an electric plastic model that sits on the counter.

The mechanism goes back nearly two hundred years and still feels magical to me. You put a glass globe with an open top and a long stem over the bottom bit and some sort of stopper. The Bodum comes with a plastic stopper and a catch to keep it in place but probably twenty years ago I bought a glass stopper that covers the tube from the top globe to the bottom.

While the water heats up I grind the coffee and put it in the top chamber. When the water is hot enough it moves to the top chamber and mixes with the grinds and bubbles and agitates to make coffee through direct contact. After a minute or so the heat turns off and the water in the bottom cools so the pressure isn’t keeping the coffee in the top chamber and it drains back into the lower chamber.

It’s a whole show, it’s magic, and it’s a great cup of coffee.

I generally make enough coffee for two days. If I have coffee in the pot I gently reheat it - if not I can have coffee in about five minutes.

That’s not the case the rest of the year.

Tomorrow morning’s coffee

I worked for a chef who didn’t serve the soup of the day, he served the soup of yesterday.

The soup changed every day (as did the risotto), but he knew that customers knew how much better soup is if it gets a chance to sit and develop character. Whether it was true or not, if we didn’t make soup yesterday we would have no soup today.

The same is true this time of year when I’m making cold brew coffee.

For each method of coffee making you have to consider what is going on. The temperature of the water, the length of time the water will be in contact with the coffee, and how it is coming into contact (pour over, drip, french press, aeropress, percolator, vacuum, espresso). The fineness of your grind and the type of bean and its roast is influenced by each of these factors.

The characteristics of the coffee will be different as well.

Cold brew brings out different aspects of the bean.

Of course I have more than one cold brew set up but the one I like the best is the simplest.

It is a tall narrow glass container with a deep filter.

I grind the coffee and pour cold water over it. First the grounds absorb the water and none drips into the container. I pour in more water until I’m able to stir and create a bit of a slurry. It takes five to ten minutes to add enough water to fill the container. At this point the color of the coffee is a light caramel. It’s not nearly ready.

I know I could leave the coffee alone for a day and it would come out great, but now and then throughout the day I like to give the grounds a little stir. Often some of the grounds have risen to the top and formed a little crust. I like to break the crust and stir these dried grounds back into the mix.

At some point the slurry will stay together and no crust forms.

The next morning I remove the filter with the grounds and pour the coffee into another container that I keep in my refrigerator. I put the filter back in place and let the rest of the liquid drain. I add that to my serving container and now I have amazing coffee that I serve cold in a glass over ice or that I put in a mug and microwave.

If I don’t start the process a day before my refrigerated container runs out, I don’t have coffee.

Total time

If you cook a lot you’ll understand this difference between active time and total time.

When making bread, for example, it takes me five minutes to measure and mix the pre-ferment. But then I leave it overnight to get bubbly and active. The next morning I mix the final dough - maybe that takes twenty minutes. Over the next few hours I give the dough a fold now and then. Finally, I shape the dough, let it rise one more time, bake the dough, pull the bread out of the oven, and let it cool.

My actual time interacting with the dough and the bread was probably forty-five minutes or so but from start to finish it took nearly a day to make the bread.

It probably takes me five minutes of active attention to use my vacuum brewer and ten minutes to use the cold brew - but the actual time difference is five minutes compared to a day.

There are many people who take ten minutes of active time for both brewing methods but I’m doing something I learned working in kitchens.

It’s going to take the coffee pot a fixed amount of time to heat the water. Instead of grinding the beans and then starting the maker, I can use that heating time to perform another task.

We see this in the cold brew process or the bread baking process. We don’t stop all activities while waiting the day for the cold brew coffee to finish or for the hours it takes the bread to rise. We start a process and leave it to do its thing.

So many times during the day we have time available. Perhaps our next meeting is in fifteen minutes. Maybe our machine is updating and it’s going to take a while.

What do we do in the meantime?

It doesn’t have to be productive but it should be a decision.

I used to have a note on my desk that, “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”

Eugene’s blog post reminded me of that with this Annie Dillard quote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

When we say we don’t have time for something, we mean that there are other things we’d rather do.

When we say it’s not the time for something, we mean we’d rather not.

I think of this with our elected leaders, with the people around us who influence them, and with us.

What is it we take the time for? Are there things we don’t have time for that we should make time for? Why don’t we think it’s the right time.

Like this morning’s cold brew, the right time to make it was yesterday.

The second best time to make it is right now.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 114. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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