Why is everyone so scared of being seen as a wanker or douchebag? I've certainly been guilty of this. There's far too much self-consciousness in coffee culture. People jump to snap conclusions about what others are, or are afraid people will jump to snap conclusions about them. Newsflash: Nobody cares, and if they do, nobody SHOULD care. I feel sad for all the great coffee not had and all the great people not met as a result of this cyclone of introspection.
Seems there are three levels extremes of coffee lovers right now. Most of them lose.
- The Stoic Tough Guy: 'I'll just have a coffee' (or alternately 'I'll just have a #*($ing coffee, thanks!'). I feel sad for the STG. He or she (usually a he) secretly loves coffee, and never goes a morning without. He loves waking up to the smell, but would never say so, usually probably grunting something about 'getting started'. The Tough Guy would never deign to recognise flavour notes, texture or mouthfeel, except perhaps when actually getting punched in the mouth. Not that The Tough Guy ever gets punched. It's him doing the punching! Unfortunately, where The Tough Guy loses out is actually in getting good coffee. If you can't describe it, you can't ask for it, and you'll never get it. You lose.
- The Morbidly Self-Conscious: 'I'll um... have a latte. Make it skinny.' The MSC actually does have taste buds, but is too scared to admit it, or of being judged by the people around or by (heaven forbid) the barista. There are all these other things on the menu that the MSC wants to try, like the Kona or the Yirg Grade A or whatever a 'Chemex' is. But the MSC is afraid to ask, because the MSC wants people to assume he/she already knows. He/she doesn't. The MSC thus loses as well.
- The Pretentious &%$*ing Wanker: The PFW isn't scared of seeming like what he/she is, but in the process of ordering manages to alienate everyone, including the server. "When was this roasted? Two weeks ago? No thanks. I'll have a chai with agave. You don't have agave either?" Seriously, I know people will say 'glass houses' at me for this, but if an establishment doesn't have what you want, you move on. The PFW is constantly unhappy, always overpaying for something that the PFW doesn't even appear to enjoy. The PFW probably loses the most.
Part of the above ring true? Think you lie somewhere in between, but aren't sure? Looking for a solution?
Answer: Ask what's special
Here's what you do for a guaranteed good drink: ASK WHAT'S SPECIAL. Literally say 'So... what do you do here that's special or different? Or what do you do that people like?' There are lots of ways of doing it, do whatever's natural.
Something amazing happens when you ask what's special. The barista opens up.
Firstly, someone who asks is someone who acknowledges they don't know everything (and in a field of infinite knowledge, NOBODY knows everything), and invites the barista, someone who's almost definitely been doing this for longer, to share some knowledge.
Secondly someone who asks is someone who's open-minded. The barista tells them about some weird thing like a shlong, a cascara tea or a gibraltar, and the customer takes it to see what's going on. They might like it, they might not. They're here for fun.
Finally, someone who asks is actually interested in more than a transactional relationship (money in, coffee out). You'd be surprised the number of times this has resulted in free drinks or testers of new beans or brew methods.
Give it a shot... let us know how it goes.