Serious Eats: Drinks
The Dark Side of Flavored Coffee
Imagine with me for a moment. Let's say you have a warehouse full of last season's (or last year's) coffee you can't easily unload on your customers while upholding the quality standards for fresh, flavorful beans that you'd like your company to be known for. Let's say there's a huge audience out there for coffee drinks that, instead of tasting "bitter", are full of overt dessert-like flavors, appealing to a mass market that would drink a full 32 ounces of whipped cream and caramel sauce alone if it were socially acceptable. Let's say you wanted to combine your coffee with flavors that would make them appealing to everyone. Is that so wrong? Yes.
Flavored coffees are the bane of many coffee geeks' existence: essentially, they're a whole category of fragrances and flavors meant to completely obscure the taste your coffee naturally begins with.
The concept is a traditional way of making bad coffee taste better, and at times in history when only lower quality coffees were easy to access, flavored blends seemed like a luxury. In general, coffee flavoring contains flavor compounds mixed with a solvent like propylene glycol (popularly used in pharmaceuticals, and airplane de-icing compound!) in order to attach the flavor chemicals to the beans. The flavor syrup is poured onto to coffee beans after the roast, and agitated to provide an even coating. (Roaster X says the procedure he used was "put it in a giant plastic bag, pour flavored chemicals on the coffee, tie the bag closed and throw it into a cement mixer-type machine." Yum?)
Flavor syrups are concentrated and strong, geared towards engaging the drinker's sense of smell as much or more than taste, and as such are intensely aromatic and...lingering. "After multiple showers and washings, it stays on your clothes and body for a few days. You can even smell it on someone outside on a windy day," said Roaster X. Pardon me...is that Irish Cream you're wearing?
Though it seems that it wouldn't be hard to create coffees with flavors like maple, vanilla and uh, "Pumpkin Spice" using natural means, it's rarely done. Rather than infusing your coffee beans with cloves and nutmeg, your flavors are more likely to be born in an industrial flavor laboratory in, let's say, New Jersey, and shipped "in large containers that look like biohazard bins," says Roaster X. It stands to reason: flavors like Maple Bacon, Hazelnut Milkshake, Golden French Toast, Baked Alaska, and Bananas Foster would simply be too sloppy to "naturally" infuse into coffee bean! While it's true that coffee requires heat and flame to roast it, performing a feat of flavored flambée might be a little too much to ask—and coffee roasters are really uptight about getting meringue all over their equipment.
If a little processed enhancement in your coffee doesn't deter you, you're among the many. But for those who'd like to wean themselves from the addictive powers of, say, Banana Hazelnut beans, though, we suggest you try slowly introducing your palate to more subtle, yet naturally flavorful coffees—a super fruity Ethiopian natural processed coffee might be a good start for berry lovers, a sweet, naturally chocolaty Brazilian blend could be just the thing for the dessert-coffee-inclined. Your increasingly attuned palate will thank you—and so will your coffee grinder. The chemical compounds applied to your flavored beans will leave a sticky residue that's hard on equipment lifespan—and will create a legacy of flavor-schmutz you pass on to each new coffee you grind.
And remember: you can always add in the milk, sugar, cinnamon, maple syrup, or cherries jubilee afterwards. We won't judge.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. Her photographs of the best coffee in the world will be published by Presspop this spring.