Thursday, 30 August 2018

Normal beer

Gordon Ramsay's horrified reaction to Timothy Taylor's Landlord

A middle-aged man stares in disbelief at the tiny cup of coffee in front of him. A bewildered young woman stands before a cluttered chalkboard menu, ignored by a disinterested barista. “I just want a coffee”, says a frustrated fellow, sparking an increasingly absurd montage. One moment shows a man being served hot water, coffee grounds and milk in three separate glass containers.

The above are scenes from a McDonald’s advert, advertising their coffee offering as a refreshingly simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious escape from the confusion of hipster coffee shops. I find it irritating, and perhaps I should – after all, it’s poking fun at people like me who care somewhat about the coffee they drink.

Another of these ads, though, pushes me past irritation and into the realm of indignation. Here, a stream of exhausted punters try in vain to discover the secret of that most mysterious of drinks, the flat white. “You don’t know what a flat white is?”, asks a self-satisfied barista with a well-kept beard and immaculate canvas apron. Looking away in pity, he guffaws, “oh dear!” In the final sequence, a dutifully smiley McDonalds employee finally unwraps the enigma, explaining that a flat white is “like a stronger latte, just with less milk.”

“Why couldn’t those attractive young coffee shop people just say that in the first place!?”, I suppose we’re supposed to scream at the telly. But my response to this advert, especially having just watched it several times in a row to write this, is hot-faced anger.

Yes, it’s just a McDonald’s advert. McDonald’s adverts are patently absurd at the best of times; try this one, in which a fictional food quality inspector assures us that they only use top quality chicken in their nuggets. Or this, which plays on the timeless stock character of the young punk who absolutely loves working in a fast food restaurant. And actually, aside from anything else, coffee culture genuinely can be a bit wanky and being reminded of that from time to time is probably healthy.

But the impulse behind it is more sinister. This advert plays on people’s insecurities, their fears of looking thick by asking questions, their assumptions that they’ll be ridiculed if they dare admit that they’re lost. It asks them to stay safe, accept an inferior product from an unethical corporation, rather than risk the embarrassment of exposing themselves by asking a perfectly reasonable question that any barista worth their salt would be delighted to answer.

Deeper still, the notion of “just wanting a coffee” or, even worse, just wanting a “normal” coffee disturbs me because it summons an image of a dystopian world in which everyone drinks the same watery brown-grey slop. When people say normal coffee, they're really saying, "the kind I like" and, by implication, "if you don’t, then maybe there’s something weird about you."

Anyway, there’s a point to be made about beer here, somewhere. In a recent article in The Sun, which I won’t link to because they don’t deserve the clicks, a collection of baffled drinkers sample a range of craft beers, pulling exaggerated grossed-out faces for the camera and grasping for poetic ways to express their distaste.

Never mind that they drank them straight from the bottle or can. Never mind that the very fact of being asked to take part would have prodded them towards rejecting these beers in the first place. What nags me about this piece is that it demonstrates the same kind of safe rejection as the aforementioned McDonald’s adverts.

This attitude is sometimes called reverse snobbery. Reverse snobbery is certainly at play when simple things like a pale ale are dismissed as ‘poncey’. And reverse snobbery towards beer can be frustrating for those of us who love the stuff. It’s an inferiority complex that, we might think, denies people the pleasure we get from great beer.

How, then, do we deal with this attitude? I’m not sure. It probably involves making beer accessible, open, easy to digest. But I’m quite sure we should avoid anything that further divides craft beer from those who have decided, however arbitrarily, that it’s not for them. Delighting in reverse snobbery by, say, composing Tweets wearing negative reviews from the Sun article as a badge of pride seems, to me, a little smug (craft beer already looks pretty smug from the outside). At worst, it could be interpreted as ridiculing less ‘enlightened’ tastes.

So, to clumsily return to blasted advert that set me off in the first place, I guess I’m saying that craft beer should be less like the conceited hipster barista and more like the approachable McDonald’s employee. I’ll reformulate that into a catchier slogan at a later date.

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