June 06, 2005


by peterb

I don't know a lot about coffee.

This surprises people who know how much coffee I drink (a lot) and who know how obsessive-compulsive I can get about other things I drink, such as tea or wine. With those drinks, I'm always branching out to try new styles, while simultaneously deeply exploring the styles I know I like, trying to discern and describe small differences in taste.

With coffee, though, I more or less just walk into a good coffee shop and drink whatever they hand me. The reason I think they're a good coffee shop is that I can do that, and get a good cup of coffee.

This posed an interesting problem for me the other day when I went into Coffee Tree in Squirrel Hill. On their board for brewed coffees were three that I'd never heard of. How should I decide which one to get? Do I pick the country that I want to support the most? Do I ask the server to describe their tastes and bodies in detail? Presented for your amusement is the entirety of my internal monologue and decision-making progress.

"Hmmm, I've never tasted any of these. Nothing in the names tell me anything about what they might taste like. Hey, one of them is named Sumatra Iskandar. Iskandar was the name of the planet the crew of the Argo was trying to reach in Star Blazers, that cartoon I watched in Junior High. OK, I'll get that one."

The Iskandar turned out to be really enjoyable — it had an earthy taste, and a very musky (but not unpleasant) aroma — but that's not really my point. This is the Axiom of Choice in action: presented with an array of choices first thing in the morning, I applied a nonsensical heuristic to just make a choice and get the decision out of my way. It would have been better, for that transaction, if someone had just handed me a cup of coffee that they picked, and said "Here. You're drinking this."

I'm not saying that choice in a coffee shop is bad, by the way, any more than I'd say such a ridiculous thing about choice in a liquor store. Surely, if I'd just said "house coffee, please" at Coffee Tree, they would have handed me a cup of joe instead of arguing with me about it. I'm just musing over this class of transactions, and wondering how one can maximize the customer experience for both the person who just wants "coffee" (or "tea" or, potentially, "booze") and for the person who knows very specifically that they simply must have Tanzanian Peaberry (or Keemun Hao Ya "A", or the Hetszolo 3-star Tokaji Aszu).

Perhaps I can turn "choose food products based solely on the TV shows you watched in Junior High" into some sort of nightmarish general principal. I wonder what I'd end up spending my money on.

Additional Resources

  • It turns out that Star Blazers is available on DVD.
  • If you feel the same way about alcohol that I do about coffee, you should keep a copy of the Tea Leaves "What To Drink" guide handy.
  • If you think I'm not aware of the irony of vaguely complaining about being given too many choices just a few days after I ranted about not being given enough choices, you're wrong. I claim that both points of view are true. I want to not have to think about choice when I don't care, but I want to have it when I do care.
  • Despite not knowing anything about coffee, I'm strangely compelled to read Fortune Elkins' weblog on the subject. I think she's witty, and I appreciate her ardor, although I am considering starting a grass-roots lobbying campaign for the proletariat to demand that she start using capital letters.

Posted by peterb at June 6, 2005 07:59 AM | Bookmark This

Ya, I too have to disagree with you about not needing gin in a minimal bar collection, especially during the summer time. Although, I am a rye fan as well.

Doing a search by ingredient on iDrink.com (http://www.idrink.com/drink_by_ing.html), I turn up 1584 recipes with gin, 493 with bourbon, and 681 with rye/whiskey.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at June 7, 2005 02:10 PM

Those 3 choices at Coffee Tree are the usual 3 category choices available at most coffee shops. A darker, a lighter, and a decaf choice. That usually is enough information to drive my choice. 0% chance of decaf. 66% chance of daker, unless I have been drinking much more than the average amount of coffee already for the day.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at June 7, 2005 02:14 PM

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