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June 21, 2012

I touched on the relationship between speciality coffee and the addition of other ingredients in my “coffee as a cocktail post”, but one ingredient needs specific exploration. That ingredient is sugar.

Sugar is seen around the globe as a natural addition to coffee and, for many people, it’s half of what constitutes an espresso. This is a well-earned association. My wife and I were driving back to England last week through Germany and we stopped off at a service station. Like many of the weary drivers, I needed a little pick me up. I bought myself a Segafredo espresso. It had been a long time since I had sampled this kind of commercial coffee. I had a sip without sugar and struggled with the overwhelming acrid and bitter flavours. The addition of sugar transformed the cup. It reigned in the spiky edges and presented me with a dark sweet liquid. It was still nothing like the speciality single origin espressos packed with complex flavour and acidity that raise the cup, but my Segafredo did combine very positively with the sugar. I knew this was the case but I had forgotten how starkly this compared to the negative impact the addition of sugar has on the speciality coffee we brew back in our shop. It reassured me that the advice we compliment our coffee with is absolutely necessary.

Our advice is as follows “As we mentioned at the till, our coffee is very different to commercial coffee and, a little warning is that our coffee can react very strangely to the addition of sugar. The espresso seem to become very sharp and sour with an increased perception of bitterness whereas the 6oz milk drinks seem to become dry, woody and sharp. The brewed coffee gets very dry and flat.”

We arrived at this point through much time and development based on customer feedback. We never used to talk about the best way our coffees would work. We served them up tailored to customer request and prided ourselves on this. Without fail there would be many complaints about to how sharp, strong or odd tasting the espresso coffees were and that they didn’t taste like the taste descriptors noted on the board enticing them to buy the product in the first place.

It would be at this point we would ask, “Have you put sugar in the coffee?”  The customer would say, “Yes, I always do!”  We would then embark on an explanation of how much our coffee differed from continental, traditional coffee or even from a lot of Antipodean-style coffee and so forth. We would explain that the aim is to pursue variety and provenance of flavour, rather than roast, etc. What seems to happen is that as you go down this route the drinks stop working positively with sugar. When we brew and taste the coffee there is no sugar added.

Customer rightly says, “ Why didn’t you tell me any of this? You just have sugar out on the table even though you know it doesn’t work!”

This was an extremely common occurrence in the old shop. We realised that although it is obviously the customers’ choice to add what ever they wish to their coffee, it was also bad service not to inform them that this coffee was probably not at all close to what they expected it to be based on all of their previous experiences. The addition of sugar is an attempt to sweeten and smoothen a drink, in this case the opposite is being achieved.

After all, as service and coffee professionals, we should know the most about our product and how it works as it’s specific to us, and therefore, it is our responsibility to be the guide. When serving speciality coffee one also needs to think about how their business’s approach fits into the marketplace.

We began to figure out the most concise and positive way we could deliver this information. We have tried many ways and we now have a lot of communication throughout the shop, at the till and on tables, in order to frame the product differently, in turn changing the expectation of what our coffee may be and how it may work. This then means the sugar advice is less of a shock. The table menus outline the advice in more detail.

We still have sugar behind the bar. We don’t want it to be a restriction but rather helpful friendly advice. This way many people will try with and without, which is important as the proof is always in the pudding. People will comment that they didn’t really see what we meant at first and thought we were being funny until they tried our coffee with and without sugar.

The adverse effect of sugar doesn’t seem to be as pronounced in our largest milk drink (9.5 ounce latte- double shot). This makes sense as there is softer flavour to be affected by the sugar, a less complex balance to tip over if you will. Although, weirdly, the filters change quite drastically even though they have a more elegant and less intense flavour. This leads me to think acidity is one of the main components that clashes with sugar.

There are exceptions to the rule such as decaf and soy based drinks that seem to combine much more positively.

We have since amended the menu to explain that the advice is product specific, that the most adverse effect occurs in the espresso and shorter milk drinks whist the Latte, soy and decaf work well with sugar.

On the whole, our customer’s responses are really positive and people are very thankful for the advice and thoughtful service. There are still occasions when we have a negative response to the sugar advice. Comments such as, “oh, but you don’t understand I have a sweet tooth” or, “I always put sugar in my drink. Who are you to tell me how to drink my coffee?”, etc.

All of these responses mean that the individual has not fully understood the purpose and meaning of the advice. They have not recognized that we are offering a different product, essentially.  A defensive mechanism cuts in and a dialogue regarding the product ceases. The strong likelihood here is that our attempt to communicate through shop design, menus, etc. – our attempt to reframe the customer’s expectations from going to a “coffee shop” to having a speciality coffee tasting experience – has not worked on these occasions.  We are constantly trying to improve our communication with our customers, to be a guide for speciality coffee.

There seems to be a syndrome here directly related to modern service culture – rather than understand how a product works, the customer demands that the product work how they want it to, to the point of attempting to achieve the impossible. It’s the idea that if the customer asks for a speciality coffee that works with sugar, you ought to find one for the customer.   Yet, there is a complete failure to understand that we are describing the reality of the product we serve and, that what they are requesting is unachievable. At the same time if you do not mind the sharpness or dryness that can occur and enjoy the coffee with the addition of sugar, that is great! The advice is there and the customer can move forward from that point.

If sugar is an important part of what coffee means to a customer and what they enjoy about it, then the product we serve may not be what they are looking for. Rather than trying to force it to fit like a square through a circle, there is a choice.

There are many roasty blends that work a treat with sugar just like the Segafredo I picked up in Germany last week. Once again the choice for the consumer isn't necessarily within the shop but within the market place.


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