I brewed my first cup of coffee shortly after graduating college, more out of necessity than a willingness to learn. I put some roughly ground beans in the bottom of a French Press, dumped hot water on top, stirred it three times, waited, pressed, and drank the resulting sludge.
It was okay.
From such humble begins, I found my way to one of the busiest coffee shops in San Francisco, pulling shots of espresso for the likes of David Beckham and James Murphy.
But despite the fame and fortune (by my standards), what I’ve loved most about learning how to brew coffee is what it’s done for me as a human.
I grew up a nervous child, lonely, anxious, plagued by weird stomach bugs and ear bugs and asthma. I found solace in the grassy acre behind the house, hiding out with the red-winged blackbirds, the smell of cows wafting over from the farm next door. Although I’ve matured as I’ve grown, there still remains a certain deep-rooted nervousness.
So how could coffee possibly help? you may ask, sipping on your third quad-espresso of the day and trying to keep the words from bouncing off the page.
My first week at the Ferry Building, I know I was dead-weight. Never having worked in a coffee shop before, let alone at such a high-profile location, I was absolutely overwhelmed. The hundreds, thousands of faces, saying words I had no idea the meaning of, everything was stored in a specific place and I had to shout every time I turned a corner. I was lost. Spinning out at the end of a shift with no idea where the intervening hours had gone.
My only solace I found, was pouring drip coffees.
And what a process that was. First, moistening the filter, settling it down into the dripper. Then, dumping in the ground coffee, exact to the gram. The pre-infuse, a precise amount of freshly boiled water to open the grounds to a more even extraction. Then, the first pour, beginning at the outside edge and working in slow spirals inwards. The second pour, the third. Finally, serving the perfectly brewed coffee to one of three thousand customers that I would see that day.
The thing about pouring a drip coffee, was that it couldn’t be rushed. It happened when it happened. There was a certain balanced infinity, an absolute necessity for concentration and, yes, zen.
It didn’t matter how many coffee orders there were, thirty-five or one, I could only pour one coffee at a time. True, as I got better at the job, I would often have four coffees dripping simultaneously, but still the fact remained that I had to concentrate on each coffee as it developed.
This became a sort of mantra for me as I continued working at the Ferry Building: one coffee at a time, it will happen when it happens. It got me through the busiest rushes and most exhausting days. One coffee at a time, one pour at a time.
And then I began to see it in other aspects of my life. As I submitted writing to different places: one story at a time, one paragraph, one sentence. The amount of concentration required to write a novel, I discovered, was similar to the concentration necessary to brew a good cup of joe.
It led me further, as I was planning and executing a solo trek through Europe. One city, one day, one train at a time. What was the point in worrying about the next stage in my journey when I could only ever be present here?
I don’t think I need to over-extract this point, but it remains true. By practicing daily, often hundreds of times, I built my concentrating muscles. And as time went on, even after I departed from the world of the Ferry Building, I found my anxiety not fading exactly, but certainly easing.
Now when I have days off, I brew myself coffee, sometimes even dusting off the old French Press. I dump in the roughly ground beans, the hot water, and I wait. But while I am waiting I breathe. I pour energy into myself, preparing for the day. I breathe out.
When the coffee is done brewing, I pour myself a cup.
It is okay.
Written by Laura Freymiller for Rhetoric Coffee