A DoubleShot Q&A

A DoubleShot Q&A
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We’re starting a new occasional feature with this week’s newsletter. It’s a Q & A in which I drink coffee with someone and answer questions they have about that coffee and other coffee-related topics.

This week, longtime regular Kelly Brown and I sat down and drank a pourover of our new Nepal coffee and talked about taste. Coffee is one of the most complex flavor and aromatic compounds on the planet, way more complex than even wine. So even a simple question like ‘What do you taste?’ can get tricky fast. But it’s a good question and one that a lot of people want to ask but don’t.

So let us know if you have a coffee-related topic you would like to discuss and we’ll sit down over a cup of coffee and talk. You can catch the audio of this discussion at:  http://tinyurl.com/y7khkmoh


Q: (slurping) Okay, so Brian, tell me about this coffee we’re drinking.

Brian: It’s from Nepal. (slurping)

Q: Where in Nepal?

Brian: I don’t know. I’ve never been to Nepal. It’s from the center of the country near the Himalayan mountains.

Q: So when you drink this coffee, what do you taste?

Brian: I taste bitter (slurp). But not very bitter (slurp); some sweetness. Were you asking for the taste that I taste on my tongue?

Q: Yes, uh … are you tasting someplace else?

Brian: Well, taste and aromas are different.

Q: Okay, explain that to me because I just don’t get it.

Brian: Tastes are simple feelings on the tongue – sensations like sour, sweet, salty, umami, bitter. Everything else that you taste specifically like strawberries (slurp), or in this case, cocoa (slurp, smack), peach.  Those are aromatics. When you drink something like this out of a cup, it goes up through your nose and you smell aromatics and then there’s also a retro nasal aroma you get when you swallow the coffee.

Q: So when you talk about tasting notes in coffee are you actually talking not about taste but about aroma?

Brian: Yes. When I make the notes for the coffee, I try to pick out the prominent aromatics that are coming out of the coffee so people can know what to expect to experience when they drink it.

Q: Does everyone taste the same thing in a coffee?

Brian: No. Chemistry is tricky in that probably when you taste a peach or some cocoa it tastes different to you than it does to me. When we’re talking about aromatics in coffee being equivalent to those, it’s not those things being in the coffee at all. It’s a combination of amino acids and other chemicals that make up these aromatics. And so the way you sense them and the way I sense them are going to be different.  It’s possible that we’re going to experience the coffee differently. I think, in general, I can say that  a lot of people experience the same thing or similar things. I may say, ‘This tastes like orange,’ and you may say, ‘Well, it  tastes more like orange rind or lemon.’  But I think that there are some general areas that are stimulated in our brains that we sense as a type of aromatic.

Q: What can roasting do or not do for a coffee? Like if somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing, what can go wrong with the aromatics?

Brian: Everything. Roasting is such a touchy thing that I may bring a coffee up to 415 degrees but 416 degrees tastes dramatically different.  Or 414 degrees tastes dramatically  different – to me. And so that’s a quarter of a percent change in the end result of the coffee, but the results are dramatic. So you can imagine how using a different type of roaster or a different roasting process or a different roast curve can change the outcome of what the coffee is. I think that everybody has their own style of roasting coffee and I have my own style that I like and that I’ve developed over 20 years. And it lends itself towards certain coffees and those are the ones I enjoy drinking.

Q: Tell me about the first cup of coffee you ever had and what it tasted like.

Brian: The very first cup of coffee?

Q: Yeah. The first taste of coffee you ever had.

Brian: I’m sure it was Folgers or Maxwell House or something.

Q: Where was it?

Brian: I was a little child. I don’t know how old I was. Five or something? I would walk around the table after dinner and my grandpa or somebody else would give me the last sip of their coffee because it had cooled down. So I’d walk around the table and drink the last sip of everyone’s coffee.

Q: Do you remember what it was like to go from thinking what coffee tasted like,  which was _ I think a lot of us our first taste was something like Folgers _ to learning what coffee could taste like; what you serve here?

Brian: Do I remember it? Yes.  Dramatically. It was very vivid. It was the first time I roasted coffee really. I mean, there are these incremental experiences that I had throughout my coffee education. Like I bought a burr grinder, and I made a French press and then I went, ‘Wow, so you have to have a burr grinder in order to make good French press coffee. Now I understand why French press coffee can be good.’ There are a lot of these. But the main one that influenced me was the first time I roasted coffee at my house. I’m sure it was terrible, but it was the first time I ever had coffee that wasn’t stale. The experience of roasting the coffee and then putting it straight into the grinder and brewing it and drinking that coffee as fresh as anyone who has ever drunk coffee, just changed my life. Really. It was just an explosion of flavors in my mouth that I had never known existed in coffee.

Q: Getting back to this Nepal coffee we’re drinking _ Oh, you just finished yours _ what is so special about it?

Brian: It is grown in a place that is outside the tropics. All of the coffees that I have ever known of are grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and high in the mountains. This coffee is grown outside of the tropics which is unheard of really. When I found out that Nepal was growing coffee, I assumed that  it was going to be terrible. Generally if something is grown where it’s not supposed to be grown, it’s not good. But I was really curious because I have always been fascinated by Nepal and want to go to Nepal and so I started scouring the Internet trying to find a good coffee from Nepal. And I came across  this one and they sent me samples and I cupped it and was shocked. Like I said, I did not expect the coffee to be good at all and it actually is outstanding. And the problem after that was that there is no one importing coffee from Nepal in the United States. So I had to go through all the hoops of importing the coffee myself and taking the risk of getting something that I didn’t expect. But it worked out. 
I’m excited because it’s a new origin for us and an outstanding one and I think that people should come in and experience it and see that coffee can be so interesting and and have different flavors. This is mostly a Bourbon variety.  But the fact that it was grown in a place that is not typical for Bourbons to be grown, or for any coffee to be grown, influenced the taste of the cup to bring out some things I’ve never had. I love it.

Q: Does it take practice drinking to coffee to start recognizing all these different aromas?

Brian: Yes. That’s one of the reasons I think that you should pay attention to the tasting notes I put on the coffee. I think if you read what may be experienced in the coffee and then pay attention while you’re drinking the coffee you’ll start to find those notes in the cup and then you can start making your own determinations, like ‘maybe this tastes a little bit like grapefruit.’ It’s fun to pull out things like that. It’s fun to look at the nuances of an object and find interesting things you didn’t expect.

Q: So if I taste things in the coffee that you don’t, that’s okay?

Brian: It’s okay with me. You may be wrong, but …

I’m just kidding!

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