Hands up if you’ve ever felt nervous when ordering a coffee. We specialty baristas can be a moody bunch at times, especially when it comes to certain “bad coffee” orders. And the worst of these, the one that’s really going to make it hard to look your barista in the eye, is adding sugar to your coffee.
But is a little bit of sweetener really that bad? I wouldn’t add it myself – but I won’t judge a customer who does either.
Spanish Version: ¿Agregar Azúcar al Café Es Realmente Malo?
What’s So Bad About Sugar?
Before we go any further, let’s look at why sugar is so contentious. Coffee isn’t made in minutes. It’s made in days, months, even years of hard work. And this is particularly true for specialty coffee.
In specialty, every step of the supply chain is focused on bringing out the best possible flavours in a coffee. What’s more, those flavours are unique. They’re created by the coffee varietal, the soil it was planted in, the use of (organic or not) fertilisers, the amount of shade, the altitude, the processing method, and more. Then the roaster chooses a roast profile that they believe will emphasise the best flavours in those beans. The café owner or head barista develops a recipe that highlights those notes even further.
And sugar – sugar doesn’t just make coffee sweeter. It drowns out some of the more delicate notes. It changes the flavour balance.
In a barista’s eyes, this coffee is perfect. But once you’ve added sugar to it, it’s not longer the same drink. Yet that’s just the barista’s side of the story – what about the consumers?
Adding sugar to coffee is contentious.
Taste Is in The Mind of The Consumer
Some people say coffee is a science; others say it’s art. I believe it’s both. I like to compare it to art because we approach it in the same manner. For instance, I have no trouble appreciating the Mona Lisa. However, if I had to comment on Willem de Kooning’s Woman series, I’d have to say that it hurts my eyes.
But I’m no expert.
Left: Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. Right: Woman I by Willem de Kooning
Coffee, like art or food or music, is a preference, Some coffees are like the Mona Lisa – universally beautiful. And some are like Woman I. You need to have some understanding of the subject matter to appreciate them.
Again, like art, coffee has a few universally appreciated attributes. But in my opinion, it’s up to individual to choose what coffee they like to consume.
Sugar Shaming: It’s Not Helpful
I asked Anthony Rue, World Barista Championship judge and owner of Volta Coffee, Tea & Chocolate, about sugar.
“First, I believe that most people have not experienced sweet, clean coffees that have been properly prepared,” he tells me. “Their only frame of reference is that coffee needs sugar… That said, I’ve seen firsthand that ‘sugar shaming’ only creates resentment. An uncomfortable customer is not going to be a repeat customer.”
Our job is to serve the customer the best coffee we can – not to judge them.
Sugar will mask other flavours in coffee.
Can We Meet in The Middle?
That doesn’t mean we can’t politely suggest sugar-loving coffee enthusiasts try our coffee without sugar first. I always suggest having a taste before deciding whether or not to add sweeteners. We try food before adding salt, so why not adopt the same policy?
Anthony Rue’s policy of not sugar-shaming works well for him. “We make the best coffee and espresso we can, and trust in our customers. Some will always put sugar in their drinks, and there’s no changing that behavior. But if you have repeat customers, many more will find themselves putting less sugar in their drinks over time. There isn’t a day that we don’t have a customer tell us that they no longer need to put sugar in their coffee when they are at our shop.”
Baristocrats, a travelling coffee bar, takes another approach. Co-Founder Vincent Rikken tells me that, at events, he hides the sugar. If someone asks for it, they’re given a treasure map that will guide them to it. The thought process behind this is to make people think about sugar instead of adding it to their coffee out of habit.
Hiding sugar or making guests work for it can easily cross over into sugar shaming, so think carefully before adopting these policies. But if done in a judgment-free, fun way, it has the potential to be an interesting starting point for a conversation about sugar.
Can taking a sip before adding sugar be a compromise?
Many coffee professionals will feel a little pinch in their hearts when customers add sugar. But there’s no point in judging anyone for how they enjoy their coffee. We all appreciate coffee in different ways.
That doesn’t mean we won’t politely suggest tasting the coffee before adding sugar. And if a customer does that, I think it’s a happy compromise.
All views within this opinion piece belong to the guest writer, and do not reflect Perfect Daily Grind’s stance. Perfect Daily Grind believes in furthering debate over topical issues within the industry, and so seeks to represent the views of all sides.
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