Can We Keep It Simple?

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Gloucester cathedral. Like so many other cathedrals, there is a cafe attached. There, the sounds of shuffling tourists, organ rehearsal, and choristers warming up, combine with the sounds of coffee being ground, machines performing Heaven knows what tasks to produce hot chocolate, and the gentle chink of spoon on cup.

When it came to my turn to order, I kept it simple. I wanted a black coffee. The lady behind the counter – I’m not sure whether she should actually be referred to as “the lady behind the counter”, or instead, as “the server”, “waitress”, “cashier”, “consumption facilitation operative”, “percolator jockey”, or something completely different – complicated things. “Do you want cold or hot milk with that?” She asked. I replied that I wanted neither, as I desired black coffee. “Oh right,” quoth she, “so, do you want milk or not?”

Having finally acquired a cup of coffee that was both black, and wholly devoid of milk, I reflected on the general difficulty of ordering a hot drink. Leaving aside the intellectual deficiencies of the lady behind the counter, or the server, or waitress, or cashier, or consumption facilitation operative, or percolator jockey, or whatever she prefers to be called, why, in the name of all that is holy, and of a good deal that is unholy, has society allowed it to become so difficult to order a simple cup of coffee?

When I was but a lad, learning about what passes for cafe culture in this country, one could either order a black, or a white coffee. Some adventurous perveyors of hospitality would try to sell us a cappuccino, or possibly even an espresso, but they were so few and far between that most people didn’t take any notice. Now, there is a bewildering choice of beverages.

As far as coffee is concerned, once you have chosen the nationality of the beans, and whether to have caffeinated or decaffeinated (a substance with no known merit), there is black, white, cappuccino, espresso, latte, ristretto, lungo (or café serré if you prefer French to Italian), mocha, and who knows what else? It’s all rather terrifying.

Then, one must consider, at least for some of these brews, not only the temperature, but the type of milk – cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soya milk, coconut milk, oat milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, and, for all I know, sheep’s milk, camel’s milk, and human milk. Then, having chosen the species of milk, one must choose the process – full fat milk, which seems to be known as “normal”, and what we used to call “low fat” or “skimmed”, which is now known, at least when in coffee, as “skinny”. Why skinny? Why not light? Or diet? Or pointless?

Anyway, having finally, and hopefully without injury, navigated the minefield of coffee and milk, there is yet more to decide – additional flavouring. A few years ago, some barbarian came to the truly bizarre conclusion that coffee would be immeasurably improved by the addition of flavoured syrup. The multitude of flavours includes: chocolate, gingerbread, hazelnut, caramel, and the ubiquitous abomination that is salted caramel. There should probably be a coffee one, but there doesn’t seem to be. However, the aforementioned barbarian was wrong. They don’t improve the flavour. Quite the opposite. If people don’t like the taste of coffee, they should drink something else, rather than profaning it with these perverse creations.

But, dear reader, there is yet more torture. There is one more necessary decision that must be made before the ambrosial fluid can be imbibed. Sugar (white or brown), sweetener, or nothing? For the record, I have neither sugar nor sweetener. I’d like to tell you that I’m sweet enough, but I shan’t, for two reasons. Firstly, it isn’t remotely true, and secondly, I try not to use cliches.

We need to rid ourselves of this collective, coffee-inspired neurosis. This quasi-bureaucratic Mount Everest is turning what should be a relaxing cuppa into a massive source of needless stress, for young and old alike. We need to return to a simpler age, when one could ask for a cup of coffee, and the lady (or gentleman) behind the counter, or the server, or waitress (or waiter), or cashier, or consumption facilitation operative, or percolator jockey, or whatever she (or he) prefers to be called, would only ask, “do you want milk and sugar with that?”

And don’t get me started on tea!

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