Not long ago, the choice of sweeteners offered at coffee shops was limited to white, pink and blue. Sugar, Sweet’N Low and Equal, of course. Yellow, Splenda, was a sign of a cafe that truly catered to every taste. Today, however, condiment bars are flooded with different forms of sugar, artificial sweeteners and syrups, some which used to only be regionally available. For people who prefer to sweeten their coffee, here is a guide to this myriad of choices.
White and Raw Sugar Provide Sweetness without Distorting Flavor
The two primary sugars offered at most cafes are white sugar and raw sugar. White, granulated sugar remains the most-used sweeteners, and most people have tried it at some time. Raw sugar, which has molasses, provides a slightly darker taste that some people prefer.
Other sugars aren’t practical for coffee shops to offer. For example, powdered sugar, a finer form of white sugar, would coat the condiment bar and constantly need to be wiped up. Brown sugar, another sugar that’s made with molasses, clumps much more often than white granulated or raw sugar. It wouldn’t come out of a shaker easily.
Both white sugar and raw sugar provide sweetness without significantly distorting the flavor of coffee. White sugar has almost no impact on flavor other than making coffee sweeter, and raw sugar has only a minor impact. Additionally, many people prefer the minorly darker flavor of raw sugar in coffee.
Artificial Sweeteners Impart Undesirable Flavors to Varying Degrees
All artificial sweeteners impart coffee with undesirable flavors, although some are worse offenders than others:
- Aspartame (Equal) has a mild artificial flavor evident throughout a sip
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) has an artificial flavor that lingers after drinking
- Sucralose (NutraTaste Gold, Splenda) has a noticeable artificial flavor
Stevia products (PureVia, SweetLeaf, Stevia Extract and Truvia), while derived from a natural source are processed and often offered alongside artificial sweeteners. In plain coffee, these sweeteners have an undesirable, astringent taste. The worst offenders make coffee taste almost medicinal.
Alternative Natural Sweeteners Impart Desirable Flavors
Other natural sweeteners, such as honey, significantly affect how coffee tastes. Unlike the artificial flavors of the above-listed sweeteners, however, the flavors these sweeteners impart are often tasty. Adding maple syrup to coffee might not be suitable for a cupping, but it can make for a delicious morning beverage.
The list of natural sweeteners includes:
- Honey, which some people like but others find clashes with coffee’s flavors. If you try honey, try several different kinds before forming a conclusion.
- Agave nectar, which imparts mild caramel flavors, as well as a slight bitterness and some vegetal notes.
- Molasses, which adds a rich, earthy flavor and syrupy texture. Molasses pairs best with dark roasts, like those from Sumatra, that are already earthy and syrupy.
- Maple syrup, which adds a maple flavor and smoothness that complements coffee nicely. Many people like the taste of maple syrup in coffee, even if they don’t use it regularly.
In the past, some of these natural sweeteners were only regionally available. More and more of these sweeteners are being offered outside of their original region, though.
Try Different Sweeteners with Different Coffees
You may find that you prefer different sweeteners with different types of coffees. For example, you might like regular white sugar in classic-tasting coffees, agave nectar in floral coffees and molasses in bold, dark roasts. If you’ve been using the same sweetener for years and want to experiment with new flavors, try our sampler pack, which includes four different roast profiles, and get some different sweeteners. Try various combinations, and let us know what you like.