I don’t know a lot about coffee.

This surprises people who know how much coffee I drink (a lot) and who know how obsessive-compulsive I can get about other things I drink, such as tea or wine. With those drinks, I’m always branching out to try new styles, while simultaneously deeply exploring the styles I know I like, trying to discern and describe small differences in taste. With coffee, though, I more or less just walk into a good coffee shop and drink whatever they hand me. The reason I think they’re a good coffee shop is that I can do that, and get a good cup of coffee.

This posed an interesting problem for me the other day when I went into Coffee Tree in Squirrel Hill. On their board for brewed coffees were three that I’d never heard of. How should I decide which one to get? Do I pick the country that I want to support the most? Do I ask the server to describe their tastes and bodies in detail? Presented for your amusement is the entirety of my internal monologue and decision-making progress.

“Hmmm, I’ve never tasted any of these. Nothing in the names tell me anything about what they might taste like. Hey, one of them is named Sumatra Iskandar. Iskandar was the name of the planet the crew of the Argo was trying to reach in Star Blazers, that cartoon I watched in Junior High. OK, I’ll get that one.”

The Iskandar turned out to be really enjoyable – it had an earthy taste, and a very musky (but not unpleasant) aroma – but that’s not really my point. This is the Axiom of Choice in action: presented with an array of choices first thing in the morning, I applied a nonsensical heuristic to just make a choice and get the decision out of my way. It would have been better, for that transaction, if someone had just handed me a cup of coffee that they picked, and said “Here. You’re drinking this.”

I’m not saying that choice in a coffee shop is bad, by the way, any more than I’d say such a ridiculous thing about choice in a liquor store. Surely, if I’d just said “house coffee, please” at Coffee Tree, they would have handed me a cup of joe instead of arguing with me about it. I’m just musing over this class of transactions, and wondering how one can maximize the customer experience for both the person who just wants “coffee” (or “tea” or, potentially, “booze”) and for the person who knows very specifically that they simply must have Tanzanian Peaberry (or Keemun Hao Ya “A”, or the Hetszolo 3-star Tokaji Aszu).

Perhaps I can turn “choose food products based solely on the TV shows you watched in Junior High” into some sort of nightmarish general principal. I wonder what I’d end up spending my money on.

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