A few months ago, I read a post on Serious Eats: Drinks that resonated with me. Erin Meister looked into what the addition of milk and sugar does to a coffee-drinker’s experience. A while ago she took part in Coffee Common NYC, an educational coffee tasting that was open to everyone from coffee snobs to coffee noobs. One segment of the event involved a blind taste test, first with black coffee and then with the addition of milk and sugar.
The participants started with “commodity” grade coffee, the cheap, corporate-office coffee that delivers caffeine and nothing more. They responded to the black coffee negatively, comparing it to “tar” and emphasizing the bitterness. However, after sweetening a new cup of the same brew with milk and sugar, they accepted the coffee with little hesitation. There was a familiarity with this cup. None of this should be a surprise. Most people drink coffee to get through the day, not because they actually enjoy coffee. Given the easy access to substandard coffee, rinsing it with milk and loading it with sweeteners is almost forgivable.
For comparison, the attendees were also given a taste of a single-origin Guatemalan bean from Heart, a highly-respected micro-roaster in Portland, Oregon. Single-origin coffee is distinguishable from regular coffee because the beans are from one region or even a single farm. This specificity allows the coffee to achieve a particular flavor that gets accentuated. Single-origin coffee is difficult for large chains to sell, because maintaining a relationship with a farmer is something independent coffee shops are better suited for. The reaction the black coffee from Heart received was incredibly positive. People who weren’t used to drinking unadulterated coffee were praising the freshness of the brew and picking up on the naturally fruity notes. The response to the second cup, in which Heart’s coffee was doused with milk and sugar, was that it was “muted” and “dulled.” Most people found no difference between the earlier “commodity” cup with milk and sugar and this one.
If you haven’t picked up on the point of the test yet, it’s that by routinely splashing the same condiments into your coffee, you may be missing out on something far more interesting. Not all coffee tastes like the Green Mountain sludge you’ve been served out of a Keurig at your job. Some coffee is special, and you may be missing out if you tend to load sugar and milk the way you’ve always done. This post may not resonate at all with those of you who get your coffee from a food stand or sweetened up at a Starbucks (a Mocha Choca Caramel Venti Latte is hardly a coffee). However, some of you may be interested in what exactly is driving the recent emergence of independent coffee shops in New York City. It’s not simply that the cafe doubles as a cool hangout spot. There’s something exciting happening with those beans and it’s worth getting into. Erin makes a great analogy: “Cheap wine can easily be made more drinkable by turning it into sangria, but an exceptionally fine wine will never be improved by adding sugar, fruit, and brandy. Taste your wine before you throw in those orange slices, and maybe taste your coffee before you start scooping in the granulated stuff: You might just find it doesn’t need the help.”
*On a personal note: I won’t apologize for my snobbery, but I will invite you to join me. Also, the “test” at Coffee Commons is only anecdotal evidence. It’s obviously not a laboratory experiment, so use your own judgment. I found it persuasive.*