Skinny decaff vanilla lager, to go.

There was a change involved in my normal routine this morning – always a bit destabilising after a long weekend.  I arrived into Euston as normal but then needed to head up the Northern Line to Brent Cross, not to shop thank goodness, rather to meet a client.  I had an hour to prepare so worked at the station before tubing out to the ‘burbs.

A much-needed coffee and spot of breakfast was on the cards at Caffè Nero after an early start and whilst this particular eatery would not be on my normal list of caffeine pushers (it’s a tad pricey), needs must.

Being something of a passive-aggressive eaves-dropper, I half actively, half absent-mindedly tuned in to the World around me whilst tapping away on the laptop.

“Decaff soya latte please, regular”

“Regular skinny latte to go, please”

“Can I get a small soy latte to take away please”

“Ristretto, please”

“A large cappuccino please”

“Hi, can I have a double Machiatto to drink in?”

“A white Americano please”

“A grande cappuccino to take away please”

“Skinny vanilla latte, please”.

“A large Mocha to take away, please”

So little time; so many coffee choices – and this a distilled list of the ‘traffic’ this morning.  It got me wondering about the vocabulary around beer. In particular the ire that seems to be caused amongst brewers and beer writers if a drinker, foolishly, mistakenly, ill-informedly, orders a “beer” or a “lager” at a bar.

Typically in the UK, this would lead to the default barstaff setting: pourers.  If someone orders a ‘lager’ then they get a Carlsberg or a Stella; if someone orders a bitter, they get a John Smiths.  Perhaps this is a little harsh – more typical today perhaps is to be offered a choice: “Is that Carling or Fosters, sir?”  Or you could suffer the ‘up-sell’, “We have Tetley’s sir, but perhaps you would like to try Greene King IPA instead”.

Yet compare this with that small sample of orders taken in a coffee shop on Euston Station concourse on a Tuesday morning. And note, no one had to be helped or prompted. No one had to ask the difference between a ristretto and a machiatto. And no one came in and ordered “A coffee please”.  Yet, I remember when I was younger, you could do that. Now, I grant you, I didn’t spend my formative years in a cosmopolitan metropolis.  Wilmslow was only an occasional visit.  No, Tiko on Alsager high street was as luxe as it got (Sandbach – get this – didn’t have a cafe – imagine that today where after tourism it is the second biggest employer in the service sector*).  I’d wait for my Mum to have her normal shampoo and set in Salon Esther next door whilst reading the Beano.  The choice was simple, if you wanted a coffee, it came from a pot on top of a filter.  Bear in mind, I was a nipper observing this. My order of choice was a fluorescent yellow banana milkshake and a Cadbury’s Rumba.  But I was old enough to remember the next big coffee innovation: Rombouts mini filters – you know, the ones that you sat on top of the cup and then you poured the water through. i.e. a filter on your cup, not on the machine. It was like magic.

But what’s really changed? The coffee hasn’t – a tad more fair-trade and organic perhaps; a few more brands on the supermarket shelves that’s for sure; but not a fundamental change in the product.  No I think two things have changed: two things which perhaps should now be on beer’s agenda:  Education & awareness of choice.

Education is a funny one. I don’t perceive that coffee roasters or merchants have made a specific effort to teach potential coffee drinkers about coffee. I think it’s more a process of temporal percolation, if you will. Over time we have been drip, drip, drip fed snippets – and basic ones at that. The difference between Robusta and Arabica; a little more awareness of provenance; a little more awareness of the trials and tribulations of coffee planters and their lot.  The foundations are there though; now rather like wine, there is a bit of one-upmanship in knowing your ristrettos from your machiattos; from asking for a glass of water with your Espresso; from dissing Tassimo and Nespresso for having the touch of mass manufacture and convenience.

And choice: I’m not actually one for gimmicks. I’m not offering up a manifesto to strain beer through filters into your glass.  But I do think that bars could offer greater choice; and in that choice drip, drip, drip a little knowledge about the beers.  Why does any bar need 6 lagers?  Why does any bar need six cask beers for that matter (by this I mean where the sales can’t justify it).

The answer for me is twofold: we need to push a manifesto to get customers to stock more beer styles and push an agenda for bars to pull out the differences between their beers too.  It might be slight, and you may be sniffy about this, but there is a difference between Carling and Carlsberg, between Kronenbourg and Grolsch.  It may be relatively slight, but it’s not so unnoticeable that only the trained palate can spot it.  And of course, there is enormous difference between our cask beers, but that difference is only any good if the beer is in fine nick.

Unlike coffee and coffee shops, beer doesn’t need fancy serves to stand out; but just like coffee, drinkers will only stay interested if we keep the offer new and fresh – and surely beer has enough raw ingredients to do that?

 * NB, a complete fabrication, in case you hadn’t spotted.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012

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