Coffee and Sugar -- Friends or Foes?

People take their coffee very seriously, or at least take their coffee ritual very seriously. For me, coffee is a part of the rhythm of my life. Drinking coffee is my first order of business every morning without exception. I begin looking forward to that first sip of coffee in my dark kitchen before I even get out of bed.

How an individual takes their coffee is an important part of their ritual. Milk options these days include half and half, whole and skim milk as well as soy, almond, and coconut for the dairy averse. And then there is the subject of sweeteners, which based on the feedback we received about Davis Street Espresso and their sugar cubes, is a little bit of a touchy subject. Some coffee shops, like Handsome Coffee in L.A., serve no sugar options at all. You heard me, zero.

One of the benefits of the recent coffee boom has been the opportunity to try so many different types of coffee, roasted by so many different people, and served in so many different ways. Until I started drinking my coffee black, I had no idea coffee could taste like anything besides burnt ash and soymilk. It began mostly as desperation while employed at The Pearl Cup on Henderson (may it rest in peace). Too tired to function without caffeine but with no time to spare, I began drinking it black. Eventually I learned that good coffee can have many layers of complexity and now I prefer to enjoy the taste of the bean without milk or sugar getting in the way.

Like most issues, there is a continuum of thought, with extremes on both ends. On one end, you have a customer that wants what they want when they want it and will probably drink their coffee that way until they die. And in a world full of orange mocha frappuccinos and nonfat sugar-free lattes that means shops should probably stock eight kinds of milk and eight kinds of syrup, sugar and sugar alternatives each just to begin to make people happy. On the other side you have the absolute purist, who would suggest putting sugar in coffee is akin to spitting in it, and that if you need sugar in your coffee, perhaps you don't actually like coffee.

Many coffee professionals find themselves trying to balance the preservation of a craft and passion they hold very dear with serving people a drink that they want and will enjoy. No one likes to be told something as subjective as they way they drink their coffee is wrong, but in the end sweetening coffee masks the flavors the grower, roaster and barista worked so hard to develop and maintain.

We asked a few local roasters, shop owners, and baristas their thoughts by asking them their thoughts the role of sugar in coffee and how they themselves take their coffee.

Jonathan Aldrich, roaster for Tweed Coffee: I've never been particularly dogmatic when it comes to how people dress their coffee. As a barista, I've always viewed my job as providing a pleasant experience to people, and for a lot of folks that means taking their coffee with cream, sugar or both. That being said, I do understand the perturbations sugar causes. Sugar is one thing -- sweet -- and as a barista and a roaster, my goal with production is to create a beverage with balanced flavors that stands on its own merits. I don't do that with sugar in mind, which means that the person that adds sugar is not getting the experience I've designed, but that experience plus "sweet!" That can throw a lot of things out of balance. Rather than refuse to offer sugar, I suggest that folks try their coffee before adding anything, just like you might before salting food. You might be surprised how much you like black coffee!

I drink all my coffee black -- espresso, Americano, filter coffee. Stopped with sugar before I got a coffee job, cream not long after and dairy stopped agreeing with me a couple years ago. I miss cappuccinos!

Henry Foote, head barista and director of coffee at Ascension Coffee: At Ascension (and any other specialty shop), the barista represents millions of people working in fields, processing stations, harbors, importing companies and roasteries around the world to produce something special. We take this role very seriously. My staff spends hours upon hours of time crafting coffee to taste exactly how it does when it hits the cup. To approach this any other way would be irresponsible. However, we do not do this for us; Ascension does this to provide the best possible cup for every person that walks in our front door. Our job is to hand you excellence, and if we do that all day long then we can leave knowing we've worked well. It doesn't matter what people do with their coffee. A cup is only ruined when someone cannot enjoy it.

I suspect most folks are not aware of the immense amount of human effort that went into their morning coffee. Maybe if they did they'd think twice about dumping three packets of Splenda in there. Maybe they'd give all the complex flavors and subtle aromas a try. After all, there's a farmer somewhere in Ethiopia who spent a year of his life growing those beans and somewhere in the world there is a roaster who's spent years of his life learning this craft. But maybe most people wouldn't care anyway, and that's just fine.

On a personal level, I enjoy my coffee black and my espresso straight. The only pain I feel for those who create a concoction of artificial sweetener and skim milk comes from knowing that they are missing out on the immense joy of drinking a really wonderful cup of pure coffee.

Marta Spague, co-owner of Noble Coyote Coffee Roasters: My husband (and co-owner) Kevin and I both enjoy our coffee without sugar or other sweeteners. Besides being our personal preference, it's the truest way for us to taste coffee. As roasters that are creating a product it's important for us to have a direct unaltered connection to the flavor profile, freshness and quality of the beans. It's our opinion that for someone to truly pick up the individual nuances of a cup of coffee, it is done sans additives. That said, coffee is a widely enjoyed and consumed product, and each person's taste preferences are different. If someone enjoys their coffee with sugar added, we aren't going to make them feel badly about it. We happily talk about our opinions and ideas, but we can all get along harmoniously in this huge coffee universe.

In addition to drinking coffee black, our coffee is always freshly roasted, whole bean and ground right before brewing. The result is a nice cup of coffee that highlights what makes that particular bean special. Our favorite go-to is pour over, but we also love the French press and aeropress. We both appreciate a well-done espresso and latte as well.

Shannon Neffendorf, owner of Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters and Davis Street Espresso: Whether we like it or not, there is a role. From a coffee business perspective, we want people to enjoy their coffee; it is not our goal as a business to try to force people to drink something they won't enjoy. Of course, I would prefer people to try our coffee without sugar. Sometimes people do and often they end up loving it just the way it is.

For me, though, I drink my coffee black 99.9 percent of the time.

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Liz Goulding
Contact: Liz Goulding