Sugar is not a common topic of conversation in specialty coffee – at least, not in the ‘one lump or two?’ sense. While focusing on how to improve the taste and quality of our product, we’ve forgotten that the vast majority of coffee consumers take their coffee with cream and sugar.
Without the support of these sweetened coffee drinkers, our industry wouldn’t be where it is today.
The thing is, coffee is very personal – people know exactly how they like it and have probably been drinking it that way for years. On the other hand, if we’ve spent all morning dialing in our coffee we want people to actually taste it before ‘doctoring’.
And yet, ‘sugar shaming’ is not the answer, and can only limit our customer base and alienate folks who like to take their coffee with a bit of sweetener and perhaps some half and half. Why not instead meet people where they’re at?
With this in mind, I set out to learn a bit about how sugar is made, what it tastes like, and test how it affects the flavor of coffee – with mixed results. Check out the results of this sweet experiment below.
Sugar: How is it Made?
Cane Sugar comes from the sugarcane plant, native to South Asia. It’s a tall perennial grass with jointed stalks and is one of the most efficient photosynthesizers in the plant kingdom, which means it can be planted densely and still produce high volumes of cane. Its prime production regions are in the Caribbean, South America, and Southeast Asia.
Turning sugarcane into raw sugar is an arduous process that has, fortunately, been eased by mechanization. First, the cane must be harvested – many farms first burn the field to remove dry leaves from the stalks, making them easier to cut and lowering the incidence of insects or pests in the fields. It is then transported to a sugarcane mill, where the cane is shredded up to prepare for juice extraction. Next, it is juiced, and the juice is clarified to remove debris and evaporated to raise its concentration. Finally, it’s crystallized, goes through centrifugation to remove the crystals from the molasses (the syrupy byproduct that gets removed from refined sugar crystals) before going through drying and packaging.
The end result is raw sugar, a product that still contains some molasses, giving it a darker color.
If it’s pure white sugar you’re after, you’ll have to refine it further to remove the molasses and other impurities that affect its color. This requires a whole slew of processes including affination to remove the molasses coating from the sugar crystals, washing, clarification, de-coloring with phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide or with calcium dioxide, one more round of concentration, and finally, we’re left with refined white sugar.
Sugar: What Does it Taste Like?
I began my adventures in sugar tasting by trekking over to my local grocery store and buying every sugar I could find. The main difference between different types of sugar is the amount of processing it undergoes and the amount of molasses the end product contains. Although many sugars are labeled ‘raw’, they have all gone through some amount of refinement.
Coming back to the office with 13 different varieties of sugar, I proceeded to make simple syrups out of each. I used 1 part sugar to 1 part water (with the notable exception of Date Sugar, which required a 1:3 ratio and was still the consistency of wet cement) and let them steep overnight.
The next morning, I asked my colleagues to taste all 13 syrups and rate them from 0 to 3 in the following categories: Sweetness, Bitterness, and Viscosity.
The sweetness was an obvious one to measure. Bitterness seemed interesting because a higher molasses content would provide more bitterness – or so I theorized. And finally, I wondered how different processing methods might affect the mouthfeel and body of the sugar solutions.
Below you can see our results, based on scores from about 8 cuppers.
This was informative, but really only scratched the surface. What I really wanted to know was how different sugars affected coffee. How did differently processed sugars affect overall cup sweetness? Did very thick sugars increase the perceived mouthfeel of the coffee? Would sugar highlight or change the coffee’s flavor notes?
How Does it Affect Coffee?
I subjected my colleagues to another experiment: tasting coffee with a teaspoon of the sugar syrup added in. I chose a middle-of-the-road coffee from Honduras that was sweet but mild and used a batch brewer so that all cups would be uniform.
We started analysis with the same three categories: Sweetness, Bitterness, and Viscosity. However, it became immediately apparent that sugar affected the coffee’s acidity in ways I hadn’t anticipated, so we added an Acidity score on the fly.
These results were not conclusive. I was overly ambitious with the data collection, and on top of this, my cuppers were not very calibrated. Most of us don’t drink sugar in our coffee, and we all have varying sweet tooths and personal preferences. These factors are always present when cupping, but with coffee, we’ve trained for years to taste and analyze cups in line with industry standards. We do not have the privilege of that much experience tasting sugars.
I was forced to do some Excel acrobatics to extrapolate data. By looking at the standard deviation of the group for each category, I was able to determine what we agreed on and which average scores were affected by outliers. Below you can see our results by category, with scores on the y axis and standard deviation on the x-axis. The further to the left our scores lie, the more agreement there was amongst the group.
This data-wrangling produced some useful results. For example, we found that the two ‘sweetest’ coffee/sugar mixtures were Pure Cane Sugar (A) and Dark Muscovado (K), with higher group agreement on Dark Muscovado. There was also moderate agreement that Raw Cane Sugar (C) had low sweetness. Here we have one meaningful result: Raw Cane Sugar barely sweetened the coffee at all.
Based on these results it seems that adding sugar to your cup of coffee won’t affect perceived mouth feel or viscosity very much. Dark Muscovado (K) ranked slightly higher than the rest and had moderate group agreement, but overall scores only ranged from 1.6-1.8. Not very informative.
I took TDS measurements of the control coffee (no sugar added) as well as each sweetened coffee, with mitigated results. TDS was markedly higher in the cups with sugar added of course, but there was not a direct correlation between average viscosity scores and the TDS reading.
Bitterness ratings were more interesting. Folks agreed that Sucanat (E) had low bitterness and that Dark Brown Sugar (H) had a higher intensity of bitterness. Combined with its low sweetness score, Dark Brown Sugar (H) is another syrup we can eliminate from our selection of coffee-sweetening sugars.
There was low agreement on most of our Acidity scores, with the exception of Raw Cane Sugar (C). However, we had already determined based on the Sweetness score that Pure Cane Sugar is not the ideal sweetener for coffee. Dark Muscovado (K) got another high average score here, but low group agreement.
What does it all mean?
There are a few interesting things about what sugars work well in coffee, but there’s a lot more work to be done. Based on our results, we learned that Pure Cane Sugar and Dark Muscovado Sugar do a good job making coffee sweeter, and Dark Muscovado has the added benefit of brightening the coffee up a bit. Raw Cane Sugar and Dark Brown Sugar are easy to write off due to low sweetness and high bitterness.
We also learned that some sugars spoil more quickly than others. Rapadura Sugar and Light Muscovado sugars weren’t included in the Sugar & Coffee tasting because those syrups had spoiled by the time I got around to adding them to coffee (it was over a week at room temperature). And although two alternative sugars, Brown Coconut Sugar and Date Sugar were included in the original tasting, they did not pass through to the second round. They might be great substitutes for sugar in baked goods, but they do not taste great (or even sweet) on their own.
Having a basic understanding of how sugar affects brewed coffee can help us elevate our customer’s experience on another level. Why not have a recommended sugar or a coffee/sugar pairing? Rather than writing off those folks who’ve been putting sugar in their coffee for years, and excluding them from the conversation, why not invite them in and find a combination that works well for both of us?
We all want to offer the best cup of coffee possible. We spend months traveling to origins, supporting farmers, profiling our roasts, and dialing in our brews. It doesn’t make sense to give up there. Instead of washing our hands of responsibility over the effects of a couple of lumps of sugar in our coffee, let’s hold ourselves accountable to continuing to ensure that the coffee tastes delicious however the customer chooses to drink it. It’s a big task, sure. I think we’re up for it.