When Having a Choice Isn’t About Having a Choice

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Mm, coffee.
Mm, coffee.

I’m in Bean and Bud, one of my favourite coffee shops, staring at a blackboard with the description of two types of coffee. Both descriptions make them sound delicious. I have to choose which bean I want my coffee made from. This is not a decision I can make, and I’m about to be paralysed with terror.

Paralysed with terror in a good way.

I like coffee a lot. I have a grinder, three cafetieres and two stovetop pots. I can tell good from bad. But I don’t have a refined palate, and unless someone gave me a cup of each type of coffee, then left me for ages to contrast and compare, I wouldn’t notice the distinction between those two options in Bean and Bud. I’d just know the coffee was good.

The first time I had to make that choice I was frozen. How the hell was I meant to decide? Rich and smooth sounds good, right? Except the other one’s peppery with hints of chocolate, and who doesn’t like hints of chocolate? At least if I decide once I’ll never have to do it again. Except those are today’s coffees – this is going to keep changing! How can I live with this elite consumerist madness? Argh! Biggest cliché joke first-world middle-class white guy writer problem in the world ever! Do I not really love coffee enough? Am I even good enough to be in this place?!?!?!

Deep breaths. I can do this. Just pick a coffee, order my sandwich and cake (also great, and with choices I can understand), go and sit down. My coffee arrives. It’s delicious. A splendid lunch is had.

Next time I go there I stay calm. I read the boards carefully. I make my choice. It arrives. It’s delicious. I try to remember – is this the coffee I had before? I don’t recall. I can’t tell. I am a failure at coffee drinking. Woe is me. Still, that was a delicious lunch, so I’ll live with my shame.

Finally, this week, I made peace with the choice. I went in, resigned to asking the barista’s opinion. Except she didn’t even ask me. She either forgot or saw the hint of panic twisting my face as the coffee menu loomed over me like a disappointed parent. When my coffee arrived she told me what she’d chosen and that it was good. I was happy with that. Relieved even.

She was right. It was delicious coffee.

That evening, I was telling someone about Bean and Bud. In trying to describe why it was so good, I said you had a choice of coffee beans. Because even though that choice is meaningless to me, it is a sign of quality. The people making my coffee there are passionate enough to distinguish between beans and excited enough to want to share that choice and that passion. Even if I can’t make the most of that choice, it’s a sign that I’m going to get something excellent.

I want to turn this into a writing lesson, but I guess it’s more of a reading lesson. Drinking coffee in Bean and Bud is like raiding my brother’s jazz collection or listening David Tallerman’s opinions on films – the distinctions they draw are based on aspects of music or film that affect my enjoyment without my understanding them. I don’t need to follow the distinctions to make the most of their recommendations. Sometimes it’s good, whether you’re picking books, films, music or coffee, to have someone around who’ll offer you sophisticated choices, and then relieve you of that choice when the panic sets in.

Now excuse me, I’m off to make two cups of coffee and try to tell the difference.

The difference will be that I’m over-caffeinated.

2 thoughts on “When Having a Choice Isn’t About Having a Choice”

  1. Sometimes you just gotta make an arbitrary decision to avoid paralysis. But documentation of the results helps.

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