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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 cup.

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 coffee does.

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 lot.

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