Flavored Coffees: Introduction
Flavored whole-bean coffees -- the hazelnut cremes,
Irish cremes, and chocolate raspberries of the specialty-coffee
world -- are neither as innovative nor as decadent as they may
appear at first glance. Although this particular approach to flavoring
coffee in its whole-bean form did not come on the scene until
the late 1970s, the notion of adding other ingredients to coffee
to complicate or enhance its natural flavor goes back to the first
coffee drinkers, the Arabs of what is now Yemen, who from the
very beginning added a variety of spices to coffee during brewing.
Combining chocolate with coffee was an innovation
of seventeenth-century Europeans, for whom coffee and chocolate
were stimulating novelties from the opposite ends of the known
world. The practice of adding citrus to coffee also has a long
history, as does the practice of combining spirits and coffee.
In fact, if we examine the list of best-sellers
among the flavors used to enhance whole bean coffees today, we
will find very little new. The leading seller by far is hazelnut.
The association of this flavor with coffee almost certainly rose
from the long-standing association of Frangelico, a traditional
Italian hazelnut-flavored liqueur, with coffee. With the second
most popular flavor, Irish creme, the relationship may derive
either from the liqueur of the same name, or, more likely, from
one of the most popular American coffee drinks of all time, Irish
coffee, with its combination of Irish whiskey, coffee, and lightly
whipped cream. Most of the rest of the list of top-selling flavors
can be similarly placed in a traditional context; chocolate with
the tradition of the coffee-chocolate drink Mocha; cinnamon with
the practice of combining cinnamon with coffee that began with
the first coffee drinkers of the Middle East; amaretto with the
traditional liqueur; and so on.
Coffee Tradition and Modern Chemistry
Thus, coffee tradition had already established
the compatibility of certain flavors with coffee long before the
advent of flavored whole-bean coffees. The difference, of course,
is that the traditional drinks added flavoring during or after
brewing the coffee, whereas the contemporary versions are flavored
well before brewing.
This difference means that coffee flavorings added
to the whole bean need to be considerably stronger than those
added after the coffee is brewed. The whole-bean flavors need
to carry through the brewing process; assert themselves in the
context of the already powerful coffee flavor; give the sensation
of sweetness without sugar, the sensation of creaminess without
cream, the sensation of whiskey or liqueur with only a tiny addition
of alcohol; and maintain their freshness in a product that is
largely handled in bulk and exposed to air and oxidation for weeks.
Such impressive versatility and durability can
be achieved only through the wonders of modern chemistry. To my
knowledge, no flavoring used in whole-bean coffees is entirely
natural, and many are, in the technical sense, entirely artificial.
The natural flavors used in many sophisticated soft drinks and
ice creams, for example, would not have the staying power to remain
with the coffee during its long odyssey from roasting plant to
The people who create and market flavors for the
specialty-coffee trade usually provide flavors and fragrances
for a variety of purposes, and draw from a growing body of technical
and aesthetic knowledge that includes aspects of physiology, chemistry,
botany, and the long cultural traditions of flavor- and fragrance-making.
Thus, the flavors added to whole-bean coffees are suggested by
tradition, created by chemistry, and ultimately chosen by the
roaster, who may further suggest new flavors or request custom
modification of the old. Consequently, one roaster may carry a
creamier version of hazelnut and another a nuttier or less assertive
version, even though both purchase their flavors from the same
vendor. Some roasters work closely with the flavor chemists, building
a common vocabulary of reference. So even in this relatively artificially
defined arena, specialty coffees still exhibit an individualism
absent in most commercial products.
The Flavored Coffee Controversy
Specialty roasters themselves divide into two
camps on the issue of flavored coffees. Some, usually those who
sell their coffees directly through their own stores, refuse to
produce flavored coffees for a variety of reasons. The most frequently
cited of these reasons: Flavored coffees do not taste good; their
aggressive fragrances overpower other, more authentic aromas in
a retail environment; and they contaminate the store grinders.
Other roasters, usually wholesale roasters who need to please
large retail customers like supermarkets, have little choice in
the matter. They produce flavored coffees because they must in
order to stay competitive.
The taste issue is easily pin-pointed: Flavorings
added to whole-bean coffees leave a flat, metallic aftertaste.
With some flavors this aftertaste is barely discernable; with
others it is inescapable. And recall that the effect of a well-brewed
cup of coffee does not stop at the point the cup is empty. The
experience rings in the senses, humming just below the surface
of consciousness, for minutes, perhaps even hours, mingling agreeably
with the stimulation of the caffeine. However immediate the first
burst of pleasure from a good flavored coffee, its aftertaste
never quite delivers the same resonance the aftertaste of an unflavored
There are doubtless other, vaguer issues that
come into play when a roaster or old-time coffee lover confronts
a flavored coffee. Specialty-coffee roasters and aficionados have
always been the rebels and idealists of the coffee world, and
I suspect that flavored coffees smack too much of commercial compromise
and technological contrivance for them. There always comes a moment
when dedicated coffee roasters and brokers begin talking about
why they love the business, and the main point invariably seems
to be there is always more to learn, more subtleties to be fathomed,
more discoveries to be made. The coffee bean is an extraordinarily
complex chemical system, with some 500 chemical constituents already
identified and, I am told, at least 200 to 300 more still not
even known or named. It is this tiny but potent natural universe
that draws one on and simultaneously both satisfies and tantalizes
the senses and the mind.
However much intelligence and creativity goes
into producing flavored coffees, they are still more cultural
production than natural mystery. For many coffee lovers they are
too predictable. If tasting natural coffees is rafting a wild
river, then for coffee aficionados tasting flavored coffees is
a little like taking the water slide in a suburban theme park.
Flavoring Compromises and Alternatives
If you are already drinking flavored coffees and
are interested in experimenting with the unadorned product, you
might begin with one of the more distinctive single-origin coffees,
particularly those that are striking in flavor yet not overpoweringly
acidy: an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, a Yemen, or a good Brazil Santos.
Or try a moderately dark-roasted version of one of these coffees,
and add a little cream or milk to your cup.
Or you might flavor the brewed coffee yourself.
Rather than buy amaretto-flavored coffee, add a little actual
amaretto or almond extract to your cup. Or try a drop or two of
vanilla and a twist of orange peel.
In one of the companion volumes to this one, Home
Coffee Roasting, Romance & Revival, I offer a chapter of recipes
for adding completely natural flavorings to whole-bean coffee:
orange zest, vanilla bean, and the like. Most people who have
tried these recipes feel they produce a better flavored cup than
any of the artificially flavored coffees sold by specialty outlets.
A final note of warning to those who grind their
own beans: Flavored coffees are liable to ruin grinders that use
burrs rather than blades to take apart the coffee. The flavoring
material clings to the burrs and complicates cleaning and is almost
impossible to remove completely. In other words, once you grind
French vanilla, you will continue to grind French vanilla for
awhile, whether you like it or not. And if you grind several flavored
coffees in a row, you may begin to get a sort of combined, omnibus
flavor out of your grinder no matter what you put into it. Even
the little blade grinders need to be carefully cleaned after grinding
a batch of flavored coffee, so as not to contaminate the next