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Flavored Coffee

March 9, 2011

Coffee should taste like coffee. This is the purist’s mantra. Flavored coffee is an aberration. Something invented for people who dislike coffee so much that even cream and sugar aren’t enough to make it enticing. No, for these coffee haters who need their hot morning jolt of caffeine, they require a drink that tastes like candy, or nuts, or pastry.

It even begs the question, why drink coffee at all?

Then again, chocolate should taste like chocolate, and yet I do not think twice about having chocolate truffles that are infused with the flavors of chai or hazelnuts or Grand Marnier. Even serious chocolatiers who sell single origin chocolate wafers also sell delicate flavored chocolate confections.

Ultimately, chocolate and coffee are fundamentally similar foods. At their best, both offer an incredibly rich and textured sensory experience. So why is it okay to have flavored chocolate, while having flavored coffee is looked upon with disdain?

One answer has to do with the ingredients.

Chocolatiers steep tea leaves and spices in scalded cream before using all of that hot luscious butterfat to melt pure dark chocolate into a silky ganache. Coffee roasters simply open up a vial of eggnog flavor and pour it onto their beans. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification.

But most commercial coffee flavorings are so persistent that coffee sellers need to use two different grinders: one for unflavored beans and the other for their adulterated coffee. The problem is that the flavoring agents stick to the grinding mechanisms and contaminate successive batches of beans that pass through the machine. It would seem as if a store would need as many grinders as they stocked flavors. But perhaps they think the eggnog coffee drinker won’t mind (or notice) the hint of blueberry from the grinder’s prior run.

Although I don’t think that’s the full story.

A while back I went to a coffee joint named Philz in San Francisco. And Phil does something remarkable. He’s spent 25 years playing around with different roasts, different beans and different blends, and has found ways of coaxing clear and clean flavors out of coffee beans.

So much so that when I had a sip of my freshly brewed cup I had to confirm that it was not actually a flavored coffee.

And while I could recognize and marvel at the achievement of roasting and blending, I was a bit disappointed. I wanted complexity and balance, not a dominant and focused impression of nuts and chocolate. On one level it was very tasty. But there was a part of me suggesting that this wasn’t coffee, this was some coffee colored confection.

Still, I’m looking forward to future visits, and now that my coffee obsession is reaching a fevered pitch, I may even order some Philz online and have it delivered. What’s changed?

Perhaps now I’m more open to the idea than I once was. It is easy to be close-minded about a matter of taste, especially when all the evidence that surrounds you reinforces a long-held belief. But the more I think about coffee the more I can imagine that, like with chocolate, the judicious use of high quality ingredients could complement and even enhance the natural flavor of the bean and the roast. In good conscience I cannot vilify a pinch of freshly ground cardamom or a soupçon of cocoa nibs.

I know in some circles that is akin to blasphemy. Just don’t go thinking for a minute that I’m getting soft or open minded, because there is still no room for banana nut creme coffee or a peppermint latte.

If you want a cool minty sensation with your latte, light up a Kool or pop an Altoid. Yuck.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    March 9, 2011 11:44 am

    I totally agree with you on this one right down to the Kool and Altoid. Haha.

    I don’t do drip coffee. Ever. We use the old school stovetop “espresso” pot at home…. the Bialetti Moka pot, although not true espresso, it brews the coffee similarly. After using this pot, I can never go back to drip, reminds me of dirty water.

  2. March 9, 2011 11:45 am

    I think most flavored coffee is absolutely vile. Cookies n’ cream? Cinnabon? Ew ew ew.

    That said, the coffee with cardamom from the Middle Eastern grocery stores is pretty rockin’ and I also have a soft spot for Cafe du Mond’s coffee w/ chicory.

    It’s the fake-y fake flavors I really can’t deal with. And incidentally, some of them aren’t gluten-free. How gross is that? Coffee should not contain gluten.

    • Kerosena permalink
      March 9, 2011 1:14 pm

      I used to work at a coffee shop that used that stuff to flavor the beans. It’s a super-concentrated oil. When I’d get a drop or two on my skin, I could smell it for days. No amount of soap, vinegar, lemon juice, bleach, or milk would dull the smell. I also tried fresh cut parsley and rubbing my skin with stainless steel. That smell is just so unnatural. Dissipation could take up to four days. Yuck.

  3. March 9, 2011 11:46 am

    One more thing: I think those flavored creamers might actually be more vile than the flavored coffees. And can you imagine combining them? Gross!

  4. Tonia permalink
    March 9, 2011 12:05 pm

    Jess! I totally agree. They are disgusting, not only in flavor, but ingredients!

  5. Shawn permalink
    March 9, 2011 12:24 pm

    I worked in a food flavoring plant for 4 years in college; National Products in Kalamazoo. I could tell you stories about that stuff that would make your nose bleed. There are certain artificial flavors I can pick out now in very small amounts that I just can’t tolerate, and flavored coffees tend to contain many of them.

    Benzaldehyde for almond. It’s chemically identical to the stuff in almonds and peach pits, but you CAN tell the difference with your nose. Also, in its pure form, it will burn through an epoxy resin floor. If you wipe it up with a towel and don’t soak the towel down with water, it will heat up and combust.

    6-Methyl Coumarin is coconut. God … it is horrifying stuff. It comes in crystals that have to be melted and dissolved in propylene glycol. It is also a component of diesel fuel exhaust. I got some of this in my eye once and because it is oil based it doesn’t wash out. It was a pretty brutal 20 minutes or so.

    I could go on but … yeah. I don’t want this in my coffee.

  6. March 9, 2011 1:57 pm

    I like flavored coffee sometimes. And unflavored coffee. Coffee with milk, coffee without milk. I don’t add sweetener. Jasmine green tea with honey or agave nectar. And even though I like the occasional caramel macchiatto or latte (whether it’s sugar free vanilla, plain, or chai), I’m aware that it more closely resembles a treat or snack than coffee.

  7. March 9, 2011 7:01 pm

    Someone gave me a bag of pumpkin pie and pecan flavored coffee from Harry & David. It tasted just as vile as it sounds. Sorry I did not see this post before I chucked it in the trash because I could have sent it down to the Casa de Fussy instead.

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