“You’re tasting for three things,” he reminds the group as they set to work slurping and jotting notes. “Brightness, body, and aftertaste.”
Brightness is acidity in disguise. Brown knows that any talk of acidity conjures up images of stomach ulcers and reflux. Brightness is a happier word. In coffee, it’s the top note, the fruity bite, the first thing that hits your palate.
“To describe a coffee’s brightness, think of citrus,” he instructs the group. “Is it as bright as a lemon? As an orange? Or as subtle as an apple?”
The second element of tasting, body, is typically linked to brightness. Body is tactile—it’s a coffee’s mouthfeel and viscosity. “Think of types of motor oil. Is it scummy, oily, silky, grainy, watery, heavy? Or, milk: Is it skim, two-percent, or whole?” Conventional wisdom holds that as you roast in brightness, you roast out body. Coffee One is interesting, Brown says, because it retains a heavy body and strong brightness.
What follows is a boisterous discussion of what bodied coffee is best at which time in the day. For mornings, the group is divided: Half want a thin-bodied, bright coffee—something that kicks them in the face with acidity first thing after rolling out of bed. The other half argues in defense of heavy-bodied, viscous coffee—closer to high-test jet fuel.
Brown steers the group to aftertaste. “Does it linger, or disappear quickly?” Coffee One’s aftertaste is short-lived. Two’s, someone offers, “is like 3 AM badness.” It’s an apt description. “That’s because caffeine and nicotine are both alkaloids,” says Brown. “That’s the bitterness you’re getting. A lingering burnt, smoky taste.” And Three’s? It’s still holding your tongue’s attention five minutes later. He points out that, in ordering the coffees on the counter, he put the one with longest aftertaste last, so as not to interfere with the next cup.
Outside, it begins to sleet sideways. Any excuse not to leave is a good one. Brown and Tolosa hold forth on the intersection of coffee and culture. They trade remembrances of exceptionally good and bad cups of coffee. The group lingers and listens, as if having slipped back stage after a show at the Blue Note to hear a jazz quartet talk improvisation. And, maybe for the same reason we get lost in jazz without being able to describe modal theory, we drink coffee even when we can’t give name to all the things crossing our palates. Shower skin and forest floor may be enough.