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Repost: A Favorite From 2010

May 26, 2015

Would You Like any Cream or Sugar?
Originally posted: October 8, 2010

I love cream.  And we are programmed to like sweets.  Give me a good crème brulee and I’m a happy man.  But today I want to talk about the use of these two delightful ingredients in good brewed coffee

A long long time ago, before Raf was well versed in the world of good coffee, we were having brunch with some of my extended family in a distant suburb of San Francisco.  ADS, Raf and I were relatively new transplants in the area.  The bulk of our coffee knowledge came from Miami where it is served strong and sweet, and sometimes milky, from Cuban cafeterias.

Anyhow, I will never forget the exchange as Raf was offered coffee.

Mar: Do you take anything in it?
Raf: Cream and sugar.
Mar: Cream AND sugar?
[Mar pauses and looks at Raf]
Raf: [Looks back and nods]
Mar: Oh. [nervous chuckle] You’re serious.

What’s funny is that people drink coffee with cream and sugar in it every day.  Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks survive on the backs of people who drink coffee but don’t like the way coffee tastes.  Frankly, I don’t like the way Dunkin’ Donuts coffee tastes either, and I don’t begrudge you your fat and sweet.

But there is something important you should know.

Really good coffee, brewed properly, doesn’t need either one.  This isn’t really just a matter of personal taste or preference, it’s a matter of fact.

I know it’s a bit of an audacious claim, but please hear me out.

Cream and sugar have a very important role in the consumption of everyday coffee drinking.  They exist to correct the flaws of bad or poorly prepared coffee.  A lot of coffee is bitter.  The bitterness can come from a variety of flaws from roasting to brewing.  And overly bitter coffee benefits from sugar, to take off its edge.  Cream both adds body to thin coffee and softens the pucker of acidic or tannic brews.  A well-made cup, with a generous proportion of grounds to water, will have a gorgeous body on its own.  Acidity brightens a cup of coffee, but like anything, should be in balance.

Personally, I think that cream or half and half can generally solve both problems with the delicate sweetness of the milk sugars.  But I have a high tolerance for bitter things.

That is not to say that coffee has to be bitter.  It does not.  Bitterness can come from the bean, the roast,the grind or the brew.  There are so many variables involved in making a cup of joe it is no wonder that finding a truly great one is no small task.  Maybe it will help to think of it like wine.  Red wine doesn’t have to be tannic.  But tannin does add a level of depth and complexity when it is balanced with other components in the glass.  So it is with coffee and bitterness.

To automatically put cream and sugar in a cup of coffee is to concede that the coffee you are about to drink has no chance of being good on its own.  It is akin to adding salt and pepper to a dish at a restaurant before even taking a bite.

If you don’t like the taste of coffee, I completely understand.  Go ahead and mask the flavor of the brew any way you see fit so that you can choke it down and get your caffeine and sugar fix.  Just please understand if I tune out your opinions on the relative merits of one coffee over the next.

Sometimes we all get into habits that are hard to break.

Here is what I encourage you to do.  Drink the first sip of your coffee black.  Don’t drink it through a plastic lid, at least at first.  Taste it.  Really, taste it.  Every time.  If the coffee is flawed, which is likely, correct for the flaws with dairy first, and then sugar if needed.

You may very well end up in the same place as before, no harm no foul.  But should you eventually stumble on a good cup of coffee, you will know it.  And then, you can tell me where you found it.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Deedee permalink
    June 9, 2015 6:33 pm

    I’m glad I went back and read this one. I have always added dairy to my coffee. At work one day a few years ago my friend made some and we didn’t have any real dairy, so I decided to try it black. It was so much better than I imagined! Now I do exactly what you suggest. I give it a chance black and if it turns out not to be worthy, then I add dairy.

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