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Jan 5, 2013 01:56 PM

Sugar and coffee snobbery

Am I the only coffee snob (espresso, specifically) who takes sugar? I'm tired of baristas attitude regarding sugar-users (that they have "undeveloped palates" was today's insult). Why do other snobs think that sugar harms or covers over the flavors, rather than adding another layer?

I'm confused about the sugar hatred; educate me ye 'Hounds.

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  1. Coffee is something you are supposed to enjoy. You like sugar in the coffee, put it in and no need to justify your why when adding it. There is so much pretention about food and it is really unnecessary.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ruthie789

      I get that and I use sugar because it's enjoyable, but I am also curious what other coffee snobs have to say...

      1. re: fame da lupo

        I don't care what snobs have to say, but if others who enjoy coffee wish to contribute, I'll be happy to read their posts.

    2. I'd start by saying there are so few shops that do this - probably fewer than 0.25% of all coffeehouses - that I'd have to ask why don't you just avoid them?

      I can give you a number of reasons, but the above is a good starting point.

      9 Replies
      1. re: Panini Guy

        In my experience, they are the same places that make the best espresso. That's why I'm here. Perhaps it's that those who are self-consciously the best must reject wholly the philosophy of the corporate chains, which rely almost exclusively on sugar and dairy for flavor. An overreaction then.

        1. re: fame da lupo

          I'll give you the benefit of the doubt here. I used to own a coffeehouse and we were accused of snobbery although we never refused sugar or milk or anything else. You bought it, do with it what you want. It didn't make us as happy as someone who tasted the fruits of our labor and enjoyed it as is, but it's not our business to tell you what to do.

          However, with some coffees and espressos we encouraged tasting it unadultered first before adding anything as our mission was to do something different and prove to the public that there's no such thing as "just coffee" in the same way there's no "just wine" or "just beer". It's all different depending on where it's from, how it's roasted, etc. etc. ad infinitum - and I'm sure you've heard this from the bars you visit.

          On the one hand, it's individual sensibility. If I'm eating a burger at Five Guys, I'm likely to put ketchup on it. If I'm ordering a $15 dollar burger of Wagyu beef cooked rare, I want to savor the beef. The ketchup isn't adding another layer, it's acidity is competing with the luscious fat. You may think differently.

          OTOH, I fully understand a coffeehouse wanting to gain appreciation for their espresso. There's a lot that goes into making a great espresso besides pushing a button. A great barista really is a professional highly educated on the process. I'd hate to equate them to chefs, but the concept of bringing your own ketchup to The French Laundry comes to mind when you're talking sugar and milk in a specific type of espresso.

          I'll add that coffee professionals live in a bit of a bubble. The community has a number of 'high priests' they follow on Twitter and Tumbler and the trend of the best of them, which become destination shops, is to not offer sugar. So it gets copied.

          I don't know the Seattle scene that well (I'm assuming that's where you're from based on other posts). I don't know if David Shomer at Vivace allows sugar or not. I would think he does as he tries to recreate true Italian espresso blends. And I can't see why any shop that offered something akin to a Northern Italian or Southern Italian espresso blend would object to sugar.

          But for a lot of single origin espressos (and some blends), there are notes - particularly fruit acidity - that would get lost in sugar. Many are already fairly sweet (in coffee terms). The shop would like appreciation for their art. You could humor them by taking a sip, saying it's nice, but I like it sweeter, then add your sugar.

          I'm trying to respond best I can as someone who was inside the bubble and understands the rationale, but one who also sees a lot of it is overblown and not customer friendly.

          If you really want to upset a top notch barista, order your espresso, watch them start to make it, then go to the bathroom and let the drink sit there. Trust me, you'll be talked about in unfavorable terms while you're away from the counter :-)

          1. re: Panini Guy

            So honey and 1/2 & 1/2 would be off the charts on the NO
            scale? :)

            1. re: bbqboy

              In an espresso? They'd throw you out even in Italy!

              1. re: Panini Guy

                Italy isn't the only place people enjoy small strong cups of coffee. I grew up in Brazil where enjoying a strong small "cafezinho" with LOTS of sugar is normal. I grew up drinking my coffee this way..I don't care if it's from Italy, Africa, Arabia, if a meerkat pooped it out, Tom Keller roasted it and the Pope blessed it..I'm putting sugar in it.

            2. re: Panini Guy

              Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I'm not in Seattle (LA, rather) but I'm also not happy unless I'm drinking the best espresso (which I'd say is the stuff produced by Grumpy in NYC, Blue Bottle in San Francisco, Klatch in the IE .. I have fond memories of Monorail in Seattle and Sterling in Portland).

              I understand the idea behind single origin coffees and recognize the variety of flavors that can be coaxed out of the world's coffee beans. But I also don't think sugar happens to mute or damage those flavors, at least not the ones I care about (berry, toffee, caramel). I find it complimentary just as acidity (say in ketchup) is complimentary of fat (say in a burger). Sugar balances bitterness and acidity as well. Perhaps this is the "Thai" way of approaching coffee as an art of balancing extreme and opposite flavors into a beautiful whole. I think sugar does that.

              I'm not sure the "bringing ketchup to the French Laundry" analogy is apt. I've never found a cafe that had no sugar, though there is a stupid trend towards only providing large crystal raw sugar (usually the "Sugar in the Raw" brand) that very poorly dissolves in espresso. I think it's a problem of viscosity and temperature.

              PS Hell no do I ever let my espresso sit, gotta get those volatile flavor compounds on my tongue ASAP!

              1. re: fame da lupo

                Blue Bottle? You can certainly do better . . . . ;^)

                I find Blue Bottle to be very problematic for me. Even in their cafés, there are times when I have liked it very much, and times when I haven't. And I've never been happy with it at home (Elektra T1 with a Mahlkönig K30 Vario). But even at its best, BB's coffee has never wowed me.

                C'est la vie . . .

                1. re: zin1953

                  I've only been to one location, the alleyway location in Hayes Valley. Been on several occasions and never was disappointed. I've gleaned that they've become a pretty big operation nowdays, akin to Stumptown... not sure if size has affected their quality...

        2. I supertaste bitter, and find that I'll need a half teaspoon of sugar in even a 100% Kona coffee to cut the bitterness down to tolerable for me.

          So I'm with you on this one.

          1. Oh, gee . . . where to begin?

            a) Not even the LAPD's infamous S.W.A.T. team will kick in your front door and and hit with tasers for putting sugar in your espresso . . . or lemon peel, or . . . or . . . or . . . .

            b) I am not really sure I am a snob, just because I drink my espresso "straight" (no sugar). I also drink my cappuccino without sugar; my brewed (drip) coffee without sugar (though generally with milk); my tea without sugar; and so on . . . I just don't like those drinks with added sugar. Does that make me a snob?

            c) Sugar does not "harm" anything; it can, however, be useful in covering over the bitterness that can exist in a bad shot of espresso, or with an over-extracted and/or "burnt" drip.

            d) Finally, who gives a $#|+? Drink your coffee the way YOU enjoy it!

            1. As my coffee has gotten better over the years I've been able to go from a teaspoon per mug to less than half that. I no longer want it sweet, but to my taste a bit of sugar rounds off and enhances the flavor. And if any hired minion wants to give me grief about that, I will remind him or her exactly whose cup of coffee this is, although that has never happened. Of course, neither do I hang out in places with "baristas."