I made a cup of tea this morning using a very fancy kettle. This is not a kettle with that boring single option of 'boiled water'. This kettle allows you to choose the temperature of your water: 40C, 60C, 80C, or the classic good old 100C. I grumble to myself each time I use it.
You see, being British my tea culture is something like this: boil water, drop water over teabag, add milk. Very little mental and physical effort, it's a tried and tested process which produces consistently average, mostly acceptable tea.
My sister-in-law however is not British and likes tea a lot. She's serious about it. When you are serious about tea, you start exploring different leaves and you begin to learn about the science of tea. Science, in turns out, says water for tea shouldn't be hotter than 60C, otherwise you're pulverising the leaves.
Her passion for tea has now impacted my life because my wife decided to get in on the party and ordered the fancy kettle. I'm happy she gets her 60C water now but I've decided I'm sticking to my classic 100C water because, well, sometimes in life you just need to choose a simpler path.
This made me think back to one of my favourite writers, Christopher Hitchens. An enthusiastic drinker of booze, Hitchens would have a large glass of 'Mr Walker's amber restorative' (Johnnie Walker) with a dash of Perrier before lunch most days, before tucking into wine and other spirits throughout the day.
In his memoir Hitch 22, he shares some advice on drinking and one line in particular stuck with me:
"Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available."
This caught my attention right away. At the time of reading I began to collect finer whiskies, turning my nose up at Johnnie Walker and other big brand mass producers of the amber restorative.
This choice made for an enjoyable time. I had a new hobby, one which made me feel refined, and a hobby which allowed me to get tipsy in a very socially acceptable way. Win-win, as they say.
However, this new hobby also added a layer of complexity to my life.
I was living and working in Laos at the time, regularly travelling into villages and towns far off the beaten track. If I ever wanted a little tipple after a long day in the field there would be one choice, or at least one choice that wouldn't instantly put me in hospital: Johnnie Walker. The McDonalds of whisky.
I never drank Johnnie Walker at the time, for which my liver thanks me I'm sure. But this layer of complexity I had chosen to add to my life meant I had to work a bit harder to find whisky which suited my tastes, which meant more expense and more logistics.
The question is, to what end?
Today I know that many of the big brand whiskies are in fact perfectly drinkable. Not amazing, but good enough. Yet I decided to jump over them, creating an arbitrary red line based on a decision I decided to take one evening (I assume it wasn't morning).
I took Hitchens' advice on board.
I still love the single malts from tiny Scottish islands and collect them from time to time, but I will no longer turn my nose up at cheaper, big brand varieties like Johnnie Walker. This is something I try to apply in many corners of my life.
I don't drink coffee but if I did, I'd like to think I would never order an Ethiopian-East-Timor blended double ristretto venti half-soy nonfat decaf organic chocolate brownie iced double-shot espresso frappuccino. Just a black coffee please.
I don't begrudge people having specific tastes of course, it's natural. My sister-in-law loves the craft of tea making and drinking, and that is great. But one should also be careful not to strictly apply this in all corners of life. I see people doing it with food, films, travel, books and so on - decisions made which arbitrarily close off options.
Choices that appear to open new horizons today can sometimes remove options and opportunities in the future, not to mention cost more money. You can find yourself building processes that become so refined that they become impossible to change or adapt to the changing world around them.
It's perfectly fine to enjoy fancy tea and whisky but it's useful to keep your palate open to the more ubiquitous offerings on the market, just in case you're ever stuck in a Lao village.