Dammit, I just want a coffee

3rd March 2017

I have still not got the hang of coffee parlance. Between flat whites and skinny cappuccinos and double shot Americanos, I often experience hesitation at the counter. So what is it I want, exactly?

A coffee, actually.

And by that, I don’t mean a crappy one that tastes rancid and disorderly. No, I want a nice simple coffee.

I am hearing this desire for simplicity echoed throughout many categories of food and drink. It should not be construed as a backlash against quality, but rather a resistance to artifice and unwieldy complexity. The things which get in the way of my making a good choice, for me.

In food, I frequently come across menus which are better than me. That is to say, they use terminology and prose which confuse and patronise, rather than inform me. Oscar Wilde famously captured the bondage in being subdued by the very thing which is meant to prop one up:

“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”

And it’s not just in coffee. There is an established counter insurgency to the trumped up precociousness of craft beer for example. This can be seen by brands which present themselves as parodies of the craft wizards (McGargles, or Cute Hoor) or brands which go some ways to dial it all back (anything from Hop House 13 to Lagunitas). Implicit in these responses is a desire to grab back the geek pendulum, lest it swing too high. No category should get beyond itself, beyond its consumers, nor bring novelty which does not deliver benefit. The consumer will end up in control, at the end.

Restaurants will dial back from serving food on slate and wooden blocks pretty quickly. There’s reason why the #wewantplates movement is having its moment.

McCafé is now leveraging this revolt in favour of simplicity in its latest coffee ad. A litany of familiar hipster coffee scenarios are teed up and gently skewered. This is dangerous ground, of course, coming from a brand famous for its lack of interest in food culture and, indeed, in quality food. Where the McCafé ad hits the nail is in sending up the tone of pretence which accompanies much good coffee. It is a paean not for poor quality coffee, but for simpler great quality coffee.

I’m not sure that McCafé is the most worthy proponent of such a finely tuned insight, but they are first to dramatise it with such relish. After all, McDonald’s business model is unable to deliver anything but a simple solution, so this is their best foot forward. It’s for us to decide whether we think they are capable of delivering quality at the same time.

And so, the pendulum swings ever on.

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