Adding sugar to coffee is a bit of a controversial topic among coffee enthusiasts. While some consider it a necessity, some might turn up their noses against it completely.
Let's get into the history of it.
The relationship between coffee and sugar goes back almost 500 years and has existed for centuries.
Back when coffee was introduced in Europe in the 16th century, both coffee and sugar were considered to be an exotic luxury, almost exclusively available to the weatherly upper classes. But most coffee beans were of low quality, roasted poorly, and had quite a bitter taste. And to combat this factor and make the coffee flavor more palatable, sugar was commonly added.
During this time, while beer and cider-based drinks were very common and popular, even safer than drinking water at a time, coffee gained popularity. Slowly but surely, coffee became affordable and everyone's favorite as it changed in higher quality and gave a nice little dose of energy without the drunkenness or the hangovers!
Apart from this factor, coffee was also popular amongst workers. It offered enough calories (with the addition of sugar and milk) and made the perfect companion to the lonely and bland meals with bread.
Sugar and coffee then gained more popularity during the 18th century. Again, with little to no control of the quality of the roast, sugar was critical in enhancing the flavor of the coffee.
The coffee experts would also argue that sugar overpowers the bitter tastes and acidity in coffee, muting out the intense flavors.
Why adding sugar may be looked down upon
Now coffee takes a long time to make, and a lot of hard work goes into it. Also, the coffee plant, the soil it's planted in, the weather and the altitude, and the processing and roasting methods all affect the flavor. Months or even years go into growing, harvesting, and processing coffee, more so for specialty coffee.
Various stakeholders put in all this work at various steps to bring out the best possible notes and flavors in a cup of coffee. More specifically, these flavors can be unique as per the preference of the customer. And finally, when your roaster or coffee supplier gives you the finished product, the flavors are meant to be tasted as they are.
When you pour yourself a cup and add a teaspoon of sugar to it, it's comparable to adding ketchup to a gourmet burger. Similar to how the ketchup might drown out the flavor of the truffle oil, sugar might overpower the delicate notes of coffee and mess with the flavor balance.
According to your roaster, the coffee is the output of a long process, meant to be enjoyed for the fantastic experience that it is, with its tasting notes intact. And so, adding sugar to it will not be considered ideal.
Sugar and coffee around the world
Thanks to years and years of drinking coffee, especially the Italian espresso and the Mediterranean coffee, the general perception of sugar has changed, making it a deep-rooted habit to add it to coffee.
Sugar has actually also been used in the roasting process of some coffees in Mediterranean countries. Surprising, right? This process is called torrefaction. It's when roasters glaze coffee with sugar during the roasting process itself, so the finished product tastes sweet. Due to the Maillard reaction when beans are heated, it also increases viscosity.
The process of torrefaction is also used to preserve coffee beans, and has been in practice for almost 100 years. But if left for too long, it generally gives it undesirable flavors, making coffee taste burnt.
While in European countries, where sweet coffee is preferred, the Middle East likes it simple. Traditional Arabic coffee (served in a dallah and rewed with numerous spices) has actually been served with dry fruits and nuts to balance out the bitter taste of coffee. Another fact that you might not know is that sugary drinks are subject to high taxes in Saudi Arabia, making it rare to find pre-sweetened coffee drinks at shops.
But what about the coffee drinkers?
The coffee enthusiasts believe coffee is life and art and starts the day on the perfect note. But again, we all have different ideas and opinions. Some believe adding sugar to coffee is imperative and inevitable; others can do without it. Especially among the communities of health-conscious and intermittent/keto diet practitioners, sugar is best left out.
The practice of adding a sweetener to coffee has been a diminishing one. In the specialty coffee industry, many prefer their coffee without milk or sugar. This is because milk and sugar mask the delicate and complex flavors, "masking" them for drinkers. But then again, it depends on your drink. If you're adding milk to your coffee, sugar might be an addition by default.
While regular white sugar might just be sweet, other sweeteners like honey, brown sugar, coconut sugar, and artificial sweeteners might alter the flavors of your coffee even more. Of course, the sugar rush also has a role to play when it comes to energy; we recommend you try your coffee without sugar at first.