Once You Go Black…

Once You Go Black…

batman coffee cream and sugarThere’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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  • Curious as to why we take offense when someone doesn’t appreciate a coffee’s natural flavor. Some people do wish for their coffee to taste like cream and sugar, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkin spice, or chai tea. They just don’t like coffee that much. There’s never going to be an origin, roast profile, or brew method that fits them. Do we need to “fix” this problem? Maybe they just want to be able to wake up in the morning, and happen to like the taste of cream and sugar over black coffee.

    I am, of course, playing the devil’s advocate on this one, as I can’t stand to sweeten coffee, tea, whiskey, or any other beverage I appreciate.

  • William Kennedy

    The fact that nearly every coffee bar has a cream/sugar station while we promote the natural sweetness of coffee is contradictory. We are effectively saying, “This stuff is great! It doesn’t need anything added to it to make it great! But just in case you disagree, here’s a big cart with tons of stuff to add to it.” How are customers expected to believe the coffee is good when we are to afraid to stand by our product?

    While I do not think artificial sweetener or flavoring (including plain sugar) should be provided, I disagree about milk and espresso based milk drinks. What I do think is important to emphasize is proportions. A small amount of whole milk or half and half can reduce the acidity of filter coffee without being too detrimental to the flavor. A certain amount of complexity is lost but the bolder flavors remain and I think it is a great way to help a larger number of people drink specialty coffee. When it comes to espresso, milk is an even greater ally to us. Small sized drinks like the mac and cap can be very nuanced and delicious. The creamy texture and sweetness of the milk combined with the citrus or grape acidity of light-roasted espresso can win over a lot of Starbucks fans.

    All this being said, I would love to open a shop that didn’t have milk.

  • Brandon

    I’ve never been told by a barista to try it black or not put something in my coffee. I think baristas forget that they are an extremely small sub-section of people who enjoy coffee, and ‘right or wrong’, most want something in their coffee. I can appreciate the passion and education baristas provide, and I think education is a good thing. I’ve been learning more and more about coffee, but guess what? I still enjoy a little milk, some simple syrup or cinnamon in my coffee. I can’t and don’t want to obsess over every little subtlety every time I drink coffee. Coffee isn’t my profession or hobby, otherwise I probably would be more obsessive.

  • As a barista I think about this all the time. You raised some good questions. Any chance we’ll see a follow up post with some more answers?

    • I don’t have any answers yet, unfortunately. This is a very complex subject, that I think comes down to a matter of preference – it’s a two-headed coin, just depends which side you think is shinier.

  • barkingburro

    There is so much misconception about this subject, it seems I’ve been waging a never-ending battle. Baristas need to understand that not only is their palate not universally shared, but the addition of cream and sugar does not mask coffee flavor or complexity in the way they think it does for every person. Furthermore, one needs to distinguish between those who seek coffee complexity and unique origin flavors but can’t stand black coffee, and those who routinely add the proverbial ketchup to everything they consume because they want everything to taste like ketchup.

    Let’s start with the statement that some people just don’t appreciate coffee’s natural flavor, so they’d rather have it taste like cream and sugar, or vanilla, or pumpkin spice, etc. I don’t want my coffee to taste like, say, vanilla. Nor do I see any point to ordering weak coffee with a lot of complexity, only to drown it all out with condiments. I don’t want my coffee to taste like sugar, or cream, at the expense of a certain amount of complexity. I do want my coffee to exhibit flavors like chocolate, and nuts, and a certain amount of caramelly flavor–the best parts of the roast. But if that was all it tasted like, I would be disappointed. I must have a certain amount of acidity. I want to taste a little tartness, and fruitiness. And a little spice doesn’t hurt, either. But mostly I’m after the chocolate, the fruit (orange, strawberry, blueberry), and a little nuttiness (hazelnut, if I had a choice). That describes my perfect cup.

    I can’t stand coffee black. It tastes bitter. And the bitterness masks all the other flavors. If the coffee is brewed strong enough, I can add some sugar, and the complex flavors start to become evident. I can’t even perceive sourness until I’ve added some sugar–that’s how overpowering the bitterness is. And yes, I like the richness of a little half and half, but the brew has to be strong enough for the flavors to punch through. If I can tell the difference between a fine origin or blend and a mediocre one, or the difference between too early or too late after roast vs. in the sweet spot, all while adding cream and sugar, then I’m sure there are others like me who have similar taste palates.

    By the way, I’m not a supertaster. Took several tests and settled the question. Doesn’t really have any bearing on the argument, does it? The point is, you can accommodate those of us who differ from you, or you can shun us. That’s your choice, baristas. But don’t keep fooling yourselves that you know what’s right for everyone. And try making stronger coffee that can handle a little cream and sugar. It tastes better, you know.

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