Posted by: Ron Loza | February 26, 2014

Why Add Sugar to Coffee?

ImageCoffee, cream, and sugar; the three go hand in hand, and undoubtedly you will find that virtually every coffee house, cafe, and convenience store has a condiment area for cream and sugar. Have you ever asked yourself why we add sugar to coffee?  Let’s examine the possible reasons:

Related Commodities

Oddly enough, sugar and coffee grew up together.  Coffee and sugar share a unique partnership since both commodities are grown in similar conditions and climates around the globe.  Indonesia, Peru, Brazil, India, Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica are all popular coffee growing regions and sugar producing regions.

All of those regions are huge sugarcane producers and have the climates necessary for both coffee and sugar production.

Roasts Changed

William Palgrave’s 1863 account of his travels through Arabia documented in his Narrative of a Year’s Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia paints a picture of the developing roast character of coffee, how it affected flavor, and what humanity ultimately did about it.  We add sugar to coffee because coffee changed.

Coffee was once roasted to a very light brown color instead of today’s dark brown, nearly black, roasts.  A lighter roast will impart more fruitiness, sweetness, and origin character to the beans where darker roasts subdue those nuances in favor of roastiness and chocolate characteristics.

This darker roast attributed to coffee and sugar’s bond just as much as their economic relationship.  Darker roasts required something to decrease the bitterness, bite, and burn of dark roasted beans, ipso facto: sugar.

Technology

why we add sugar to coffeeAs coffee spread throughout the middle east, specifically into Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, certain roasting styles and flavor preferences began to develop. Coffee was roasted to a much darker color, almost black, and ground into a very fine powder.  The powder was boiled with sugar and served unfiltered in small cups instead of the larger cups preferred by the Arabians.  These factors contributed to a style of coffee we now know as Turkish.

Where technology comes in is in the grind. Lighter roasted beans were more difficult to grind, whereas dark or black roasted beans were much easier to pulverize by hand.  In a day where electric burr grinders didn’t exist, folks in Egypt were forced to use primitive methods of “grinding” coffee.

Quality

As a child in the 60’s and teenager in the 70’s, I grew up with parents who brewed coffee every morning. I loved the smell of brewing coffee but when I tried my first cup, it was awful.

In those days coffee was typically brewed in percolators and the commercial brands, such as Folgers, used robusta beans in their blends. The end result of using an inferior brewing method and inferior beans was inferior coffee. Sugar was the common means for cutting the resulting bitterness. Today, with the predominance of specialty grade coffee, sugar isn’t needed but, people develop habits that are hard to change. As an example, early dishwashers required pre-rinsing dishes before loading them into the dishwasher. Technology changed such that, even in the least expensive dishwashers, pre-rinsing is no longer needed. How many of you still pre-rinse your dishes?

Don’t Blindly Add Sugar to Coffee

Average coffee consumers are tempted to pour cream and add sugar into their coffee without a thought to the flavor subtleties and fabulous nuances of each varietal or blend.  While cream can boost certain Southern and Central American roasts, sugar can take away and possibly mask the fruity origin characteristics of an artisan-roasted bean.

The next time you get a cup of coffee at your favorite cafe, taste the coffee.  Make sure the cup actually needs what you’re adding to it.  Try your coffee before adding cream and sugar. Think of milk and sugar as salt and pepper in a dish.

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