Is sugar making a comeback in specialty coffee?
Ben Mitchell speaks with the founder of Coaltown Coffee Roasters, Scott James, to understand whether sugar has a place in the “elitist” world of specialty coffee.
For many people around the world, sugar is an essential component of their daily coffee. However, in the realm of specialty coffee, added sugar has a less than flattering reputation.
Coffee variety, soil conditions, and growing altitude, as well as the care taken during processing, roasting, and brewing all affect subtle flavours in the final cup. For many in the specialty coffee sector, experiencing these is a window into the months and years spent producing the coffee.
Likewise, specialty coffee baristas strive to make these subtleties perceptible – subtleties that are inevitably obliterated by adding spoonfuls of sugar.
The addition of sugar to coffee has, in the last century or so, been informed by European espresso culture. Specifically, the world has come to know lower–grade, commodity coffees as the norm.
These coffees are typically roasted at high temperatures until all the natural sugars are broken down to one essential chemical compound, carbon, resulting in a distinctively bitter and burnt flavour profile.
This serves a practical purpose for coffee chains around the world: if flavours are flattened out, the result is a consistent drink. Conversely, specialty coffee celebrates seasonality, variety, and complexity in coffee.
Despite this perception, it’s widely accepted that when added carefully, sugar can balance bitterness and acidity, actually bringing more subtle coffee flavours to the fore. From a health perspective, however, most consumers simply don’t measure their sugar intake.
A 2019 study by Action on Sugar found that 98% of 131 hot flavoured drinks from various coffee chains contain three times the recommended daily intake of sugar for adults.
“It is shocking that so many high street coffee chains are wilfully putting their customers’ health at risk despite sugar reduction targets for sugary milk drinks being set in 2018,” the organisation said at the time.
In response, it has called for milk and milk-alternative based drinks to be subject to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, asserting that such drinks being served by high-street chains far exceed the sugar content in fizzy drinks like Coca-Cola.
With these factors in mind, it’s understandable why many in the specialty sector find the mindless spooning of sugar into coffee upsetting. In fact, some specialty coffee shops have gone so far as to ban sugar altogether.
Is there a place for sugar in specialty coffee?
For all specialty coffee’s complexity and diversity, there is just one auxiliary ingredient that is widely accepted: milk. Even the World Barista Championships – arguably the pinnacle of specialty coffee preparation – involves a milk round, and in 2023, this will be amended to include the use of plant-based milks, such as oat.
However, for countless years, both milk and sugar have been considered coffee’s ideal companions. What many people don’t know, however, is that when steamed, the lactose in milk is broken down into simple sugars, possessing a higher perceived sweetness than their chemical compound predecessor.
For many coffee drinkers – specialty or otherwise – this sweetness is enough to offset any unpleasant characteristics. For example, milk is typically added to espresso-based coffees, often paired with coffees that have chocolatey, stone-fruity sweetness to bring balance to the cup.
Despite the negative perceptions around sugar in the specialty coffee sector, Scott James, founder of Coaltown Coffee Roasters in Wales, says that sugar can be used in a similar way to milk. However, this requires more than just chucking two packets of white sugar into the cup – there’s actually a huge variety of sugars out there.
Scott has been experimenting with panela, an unrefined whole cane sugar similar to the jaggery used in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. It’s made by boiling sugar cane juice until a thick slurry is formed, and it’s then left to solidify.
And, instead of adding the panela to his coffee after it’s been brewed, Scott mixes it into the ground coffee so that it dissolves during pre-infusion and enters the cup with the espresso.
His panela coffee shares similarities with café cubano, a type of espresso sweetened with demerara sugar. In this case, a few drops of the coffee are zealously whisked into the sugar, creating a distinctive “pseudo-crema” that’s prized in Cuba and other Caribbean regions.
Scott explains that his method inevitably leads to extraction issues like channelling, but for him, this isn’t the end of the story. Rather, he sees it as the beginning of specialty coffee’s reimagined relationship with sugar.
“The industry is opening up to different roasting profiles other than the light roasts that have dominated for years,” he elaborates. “Other flavours are there to be uncovered when roasts are pushed further.”
What will it take for sugar to gain wider acceptance?
Quite often, specialty coffee roast profiles are designed to achieve balance, resulting in a coffee that can be enjoyed without any accompaniments. Alternatively, these profiles are crafted with milk in mind, and Scott believes the same can be done for sugar.
As such, he hopes that the dreaded “coffee with two sugars, please” order can be easily appeased by welcoming sugar into the specialty roasting fold, or even by simply making customers aware of the natural sweetness that coffee possesses.
He adds that this could open up the industry to higher quality, “specialty sugars” that are produced with different raw ingredients, different methods, and which add different flavours to coffee.
“Coffee growing regions have more to offer than just coffee,” he explains. “One of those things is sugar.”
Developing this idea could give sugar producers access to new markets, facilitating the establishment of sustainable trading relationships. In essence, this is an extension of the values of specialty coffee.
Broadly, however, the specialty coffee sector remains apprehensive about adding sugar to coffee. Customers are vilified for “soiling” high-quality coffee with lumps of sugar and are seen as disrespecting the tradition and history of coffee.
The future that Scott imagines is one of compromise. Ultimately, the sugar issue can be addressed by processing and roasting coffees to cater to those who simply refuse to let go of their sugary habits. At the same time, the remainder of the coffee menu can remain unspoiled and unsoiled.
As many baristas know, their disdain for sugar hasn’t dissuaded millions of consumers, despite their best efforts. Coffee shops will always have customers determined to dollop sugar into even the sweetest coffee – as is their right.
By embracing sugar rather than demonising it, Scott hopes that sugar sachets will become a thing of the past.