There’s an agreement among coffee professionals that putting cream and sugar in black coffee is frowned upon. This common value is so well-known outside of the coffee industry that it’s become a point of mockery to our clientele. The running joke to those on the other side of the bar, of course, is that they’ll be refused service or even forcibly removed from a cafe if they even dare utter the words “cream and sugar.”
During my professional barista career, I too disapproved of the use of sweetening agents in black coffee and I made sure to inform my customers of my stance. Of course, if a customer were to ask me for them, I would never refuse them or say something sassy or arrogant to them; I did, however, politely tell them to “Just try it black”, making sure to educate them about a coffee’s natural flavors and all of the other buzz words we ascribe to black coffee.
Lately, though, I’m wondering if we in the industry are living a double standard when it comes to sweeteners.
Creams like whole/2%/skim/soy milks and Half & Half are widely recognized as a diluting agent that is detrimental to the overall flavor of a coffee. Contrary to what people who put cream in the cup (“creamers,” “milkmen,” “the 47%”) believe, it doesn’t enhance a coffee’s sweetness or body so much as it masks the coffee entirely.
A barista shudders and grimaces when they watch a customer dump milk into the coffee that the he/she so lovingly and expertly crafted. Then, the next customer orders a cappuccino; so the barista pulls an expertly crafted double into the demitasse, steams some milk, carefully pours it into the espresso, and…
Hey, wait a minute!
Cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, you name it—every last one of them aren’t coffees so much as they are espresso-based milk drinks when you consider the milk to espresso ratio.
And speaking of dilution, what’s the deal with the Americano, am I right…? It’s espresso with hot water. “Americano” is actually a derogatory term that has its origins in World War II, when Italians made fun of American GI’s for diluting the strong Italian espresso with hot water.
Sugar and Spice
The same goes for sugar, Sweet & Low, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, whatever else. Customers argue that coffee is just too bitter, it’s just too acidic, it’s just too roasty, it just doesn’t have enough flavor; so they rip into a couple packets of Sugar in the Raw and pour it into their coffee.
And, oh how we protest! We argue that the coffee has natural sweetness, it has natural flavor, just give it a chance, once you go black… Well. You know the rest.
But when a customer orders a caramel macchiato, or a vanilla latte, or a con panna even, or (bless my stars!) a raspberry mocha, (or don’t even get me started on pumpkin spice lattes) we don’t bat an eyelash, do we? We say, “Coming right up, sir/ma’am!”
A Two-Headed Coin
There seems to be a logical disconnect, here. A two headed-coin. A double standard.
On the one hand, we do everything in our power to educate customers about the hazards of decimating a perfectly roasted and brewed cup of coffee with cream and sugar, but we encourage the use of cream and sugar (and, even worse than sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors) in espresso. We protest this sort of behavior in the shop, but then we celebrate it on stage at the World Barista Championship with latte art and signature drinks.
How can we reasonably expect our customers to listen to our urging them to let their coffee be real, be genuine, be organic, to “just try black coffee for what it is!” when our whole industry is so gaga over signature drinks and presenting coffee in pretty packages?
As for me, I’m not sure where I come down on this issue just yet. Maybe I’m on to something, but maybe I’m just being paranoid. But I’d like to hear your thoughts about it—especially if you’re a coffee professional.
Is there a double standard here? Is this an issue at all?
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