Specialty coffee gets its name from the care and attention it receives from harvest to roast, ultimately providing the consumer with a nuanced (and delicious) flavor experience. Once properly extracted, sweetness is one of the naturally-occurring notes you encounter in specialty coffees, but for some, their ideal cup leans more towards the sweeter side of things. This is where sweeteners come in.
Flavored coffee isn't a recent phenomenon. In fact, adding sugar to brewed coffee dates back 500 years when European traders brought home “exotic” foodstuffs from far away lands. Sugar and coffee were two of these exciting discoveries that quickly became luxury items.
In 16th century Europe, only wealthy elites had access to coffee beans and a heaping spoonful of sugar. Aside from their high prices, these two ingredients were also considered a delicious combination due to sugar's ability to balance out the bitterness in coffee.
However, it should be noted that these were different times when people didn't have today’s access to bean variety. For the most part, coffee beans were of lower quality, roasted very dark, and, as a result, quite bitter. When Italy's espresso culture flourished and spread across the Mediterranean, so did the demand for bitter coffee, particularly dark roasted Robusta. This only made adding sugar in coffee more desirable to those who didn't care for a strong, unsweetened doppio espresso.
Eventually, prices for both sugar and coffee dropped, making them more attainable for working-class people. And as one can imagine, those with newfound access to these foods didn't hesitate mixing them together. But the European tradition of stirring sugar in coffee isn't the only method for sweetening your cup. Many cultures use spices like cinnamon, cardamon, and clove to achieve a different flavor profile. Other traditions, like in Vietnam, use sweetened condensed milk to simultaneously thicken and flavor their brewed Robusta. And then there are the man-made and naturally sourced sweeteners found in today's supermarkets that have made their way into people's kitchens (and morning cup.)
Similar to other mix-ins like milk, coffee sweetener can drastically alter the drinking experience. Each type of sweetener brings a distinct flavor to your coffee, whether it’s manufactured or naturally sourced. And like your favorite store-bought creamer or milk brand, choosing a sweetener ultimately comes down to personal preference. Some might prefer a more neutral-tasting option to not overpower the coffee's natural properties. On the other hand, other coffee drinkers might not enjoy coffee on its own and prefer altering it to their liking. So whether you're looking to venture into the world of flavored coffee or are interested in changing your typical coffee sweetener, here is a comprehensive guide for adding some extra flavor to your cup.
You can't describe sweetness without discussing sugar, the most commonly used sweetener in the world. Derived from processing sugar cane, sugar can come in a few different forms, each with their own unique characteristics.
White sugar, also known as granulated sugar, is what typically comes to mind when people think of this pantry staple. Once the naturally occurring molasses is removed in sugar’s refinement process, you’re left with white crystals that don’t adhere to each other. This makes white sugar easier to weigh and measure for baking, cooking, or portioning off for your coffee.
White sugar’s popularity also comes from its neutral, clean, sweet flavor and versatility. Its lack of aftertaste makes it easy to control your coffee’s level of sweetness as well.
Brown sugar gets its name from its color, which results from adding the natural molasses back into the granulated sugar crystals. This gives brown sugar its distinctive moisture and rich, caramel and toffee-like flavor. Brown sugar in coffee is a tasty option that brings its unique notes, unlike its more neutral white counterpart.
Raw sugar often gets confused for brown sugar, and that’s because they’re not too different. That is, except for one major difference. Unlike brown sugar, raw sugar is never fully processed. As a result, raw sugar still contains its natural molasses rather than having it reincorporated after processing. This gives it a coarser texture and a similar caramel-like flavor to brown sugar, although much milder in potency.
Sugar has gotten a bad rep in recent decades, which has left some people searching for alternatives that provide a similar experience. Today, coffee drinkers can swap out their granulated sugar for manufactured and natural coffee sweetener alternatives.
This natural sugar substitute is made from the leaves of the stevia plant that commonly grows around Asia and South America. Regarding its appearance, stevia looks similar to white granulated sugar but with a finer crystallized texture. Stevia is widely marketed as a low calorie sweetener alternative to cane sugar, but it can also be between 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Some claim that stevia has a bitter aftertaste that resembles menthol, making it a less neutral-tasting alternative to granulated sugar.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that has been manufactured and sold as a sugar alternative since 1990. But this substitute also occurs naturally in fruits like pears and grapes or during the fermentation process in cheesemaking and beer brewing. Erythritol comes in a gritty, crystallized texture similar to granulated sugar and melts when stirred into hot coffee. Its taste is similar to granulated sugar but with a brighter, “fresh” aftertaste that slightly lingers in the background.
Besides the processed sweeteners found on grocery store shelves, there are various natural sweeteners that come in various textures and flavor profiles.
Extracted from the agave plant, which also gives us products like tequila and aloe vera, agave syrup can come in a range of flavors depending on the type. The syrup looks similar to maple syrup or honey and can come in raw, light, amber, and dark variations.
Raw agave syrup comes in a dark, caramel color and is made from slowly cooking the liquid extracted from the blue agave’s core. The syrup thickens after being processed at low temperatures for longer periods of time than other agave variations. The final result is a neutral flavor that is about 25% sweeter than regular cane sugar.
Light agave is heated for less time than raw agave, producing a lighter, honey-like syrup with a delicate and almost neutral flavor. Amber and dark agave syrups are darker in appearance due to longer cooking times, and contain a full-bodied, molasses-like taste that’s perfect for drizzling on pancakes, waffles, or even into your cup of coffee. It should be noted that these agave varieties, like raw agave, are sweeter than cane sugar. In other words, a little can go a long way.
Maple syrup is much more than just a topping for pancakes. This natural sweetener is made from the sap of the sugar maple, red maple, and black maple trees native to North America. Maple syrup’s flavor profile is typically characterized as caramel-like with some hints of nuttiness. There are also various grades of maple syrup, such as golden, amber, dark, and very dark. These distinct variations are products of when the maple syrup is extracted. For example, when springtime rolls around, the sap inside the maple trees warms up, producing a darker syrup with bolder, more concentrated flavors. Maple syrup provides a comparable amount of sweetness to granulated sugar, which is why it’s often used in baking as a sugar substitute in a 1:1 ratio.
Honey has been used as a natural sweetener since ancient times, making it an older discovery than granulated sugar. With its high levels of fructose, honey in coffee adds a higher kick of sweetness than table sugar. Bees produce honey after they’ve collected nectar and honeydew during pollination. Because honey is derived from bees coming into contact with different flowering plants, there are several kinds of honey around the world that have unique flavor profiles based on their origins. For example, there is orange blossom honey with a sweet citrusy flavor, dandelion honey with a prominent floral taste, and manuka honey with earthy and somewhat bitter notes. Honey is also commonly adulterated with other syrups and sweeteners that dilute its natural taste, making it important to research the brand you’re purchasing to ensure quality.
Monk fruit, or lo han guo, is a green melon fruit that is native to southern China. When dried, this fruit can be ground into a powder that’s used as a sugar alternative. Monk fruit is also a natural low calorie sweetener that’s 150 to 250 times sweeter than table sugar. Its taste is boldly sweet without any unwanted bitter aftertaste.
Vanilla extract is an everyday baking staple that can also make its way into your coffee recipes. Made from soaking vanilla beans in a combination of water and ethyl alcohol, this extract is a concentrated form of vanillin or the molecule that gives vanilla its distinct, floral sweetness. There are also many artificially manufactured vanilla extracts on the market that have a more intensely sweet and often bitter taste than pure vanilla extract.
Coconut sugar is formed from coconut palm sap that’s heated until its water content fully evaporates. The result is a granulated sweetener that looks and tastes similar to brown sugar but with a more pronounced caramel aftertaste. Coconut sugar in coffee also adds an amount of sweetness that's comparable to table sugar.
Several cultures flavor their coffee with spices. Turkish coffee is often brewed with cardamom and cloves, while Mexico loves its café de olla sweetened with cinnamon sticks and piloncillo, a crystallized version of molasses. Adding spices to coffee brings plenty of nuttiness, warmth, and subtle notes of sweetness.
Dairy can serve a dual purpose when adding it to coffee. Besides adding richness and creaminess to your cup, some dairy products can also come sweetened.
There are currently several creamers on the market, whether plant-based or dairy-based, that come flavored. This is a versatile option for those who prefer some milk in their cup as well as some extra sweetness. Many brands also release seasonal flavorings, like peppermint during the Holidays, making it easy to switch up your creamer from time to time.
Condensed milk is a decadent (and delicious) way to add lots of creaminess and sugary sweetness to your coffee. Commonly seen in Vietnamese coffee traditions, condensed milk is an intensely sweet dairy product that is viscous in texture and has a distinct milky aftertaste. This is an excellent option for both iced and hot beverages.
Your method for sweetening your coffee depends on the sweetener you’re using. Some sweeteners are more soluble than others and fare better in warm beverages than iced. It’s also common to see baristas pour sugar in coffee cups before extracting espresso, allowing the coffee’s heat to melt the sugar as it drips. Some coffee drinkers prefer adding sugar after their latte or cappuccino is finished and stirring the foam and sugar together. It generally comes down to personal preference but also understanding how your sweetener reacts in different temperatures. Sample, experiment, and determine what you like best.