Thursday, 22 September 2011

How to buy coffee beans — the Intellectual Hooligan guide

Image courtesy of visualpanic

I've noticed something. I've noticed that whenever I decide I'm going to embark upon a new project, the internet turns me into a quivering, failure-averse coward.

See, I have this stupid fixation with getting things right and experiencing them at their best.

So I turn to Google. And Google — as is Google's wont — delivers me like a helpless newborn into the jackal-like jaws of a pack of MASSIVE GEEKS. Plonks me down at the skinny end of the long tail amongst the obsessives and the zealots.

So when I googled 'how to make good coffee', you can perhaps imagine the evangelical fervour and fanatical devotion to detail I encountered. The slathering insistence upon specific techniques, the crosshatched debates conducted in jargon with which I was utterly unfamiliar.

'No, Google,' I cried. 'You don't seem to understand. This is not what I want. This is like giving a PhD thesis on AA Milne to a child who asks what Whinnie the Pooh is about.'

(This is the internet's big problem, really, isn't it? The unnatural weight it gives to extremes.)

Anyhow. Google was no real help. So I was forced to consider an absolute last resort: talking to a human being. In real life. Face to face.

So I went into a shop that sells coffee beans.

'What would you recommend,' I asked, 'to a person who's new to coffee and struggles a bit with bitter flavours?'

'Let me think,' replied the pleasant woman to whom I had directed my question. 'Does this person like strong flavours in general?'

Here, o readers, we see the peril of referring to oneself in the hypothetical third person. I had two options at this stage. I could very well (it struck me) prolong the conceit that we were discussing the coffee-induction of this imaginary individual (a little as one might request agony aunt advice, 'for a friend').

'Hmmm…' I might have replied. 'That's a good question. As it happens, I was at the pub the other night with the individual we are discussing and I do recall him mentioning that, yes, despite an aversion to bitterness he otherwise possessed what he considers to be an adventurous palate.'

On balance, though, I decided that I'd do best to quit while I was only slightly behind.

'Um, sorry — I was actually talking about me. Er, I'm not really sure why I put it like that.'

To the woman's great credit, she laughed in a way that contained (as far as I could discern) no scorn whatsoever. If I'd been her, I'd've been thinking, 'Who the hell is this guy? Some kind of diffident, well-educated Gollum? Is he about to start into a disturbing schizophrenic dialogue with his alter ego, then whip a raw fish out of his bag and start munching on it like a carrot? Can I legitimately press the panic button yet?'

But no. The saintly woman just laughed. And then let me sniff a bunch of beans.

Fortunately, handcore wino that I am, I'm used to sticking my nose into things in high pressure social situations. So I coped with this bit, I like to think, with something approaching aplomb.

So much so, indeed, that I elected to reward myself by snatching one of the 'Try one!' chocolate balls that sat innocuously on the counter beside us, and tossing it jauntily into my gob.

About five seconds later, the chilli hit me.

Now, to be honest, it wasn't really that hot. But the thing is, in these situations, expectation counts for a massive great deal. I mean, haven't you ever taken a swig of what you expected to be (say) water, yet accidentally picked up your wineglass instead? The resulting mouthful is deplorably horrible, is it not? Because your tastebuds were primed for water.

I think I just about concealed my sensory horror from the poor woman. Perhaps she merely thought I'd had a minor stroke. She wrapped up my beans; I wrapped up the conversation, with what shreds of dignity and self-possession remained at my disposal.

And left — with a newfound affection for Google's world of geeks and obsessives. And one 125g bag of coffee beans.

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