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The Coffee Nerdist: Coffee Flavored Coffee

Fall is here, and while I may want to pound the table with my head demanding that Seattle give me more summer (the second of its two seasons), I have resigned myself to lying down on my desk and repeatedly pumping the nearby Zojirushi SR-AG30 until all 101 ounces of coffee are in me, and then sloshing back down into my seat.

I’m not alone in this. Make no mistake – fall is the official beginning of coffee season. The shops and corporations that have survived the air conditioning bills and low-brow-latte scofflaws during the summer months are desperate to get your attention and to assure you they will be the key to keeping your tongue warm and your eyes open during the short days and long meetings in the months ahead.

All coffee shops will be rolling out their latest coffees; a fair amount of these will be Central and South American coffees that are in season. Alongside these will be a raft of flavorings to add to your coffee and even, gasp, flavored coffees.

What’s wrong with flavoring coffee, you ask?

I want candy

Besides giving Dennis Leary a conniption, the short answer is “lots”. Different coffee species and cultivars are grown in different conditions (sun, soil makeup, adjacent crops, native animals, no not THAT one) around the world, employing different processing methods, and it’s these factors that influence the flavors inherent in a coffee. Roasting and brewing the coffee can only magnify what’s already there. While the result of the growing, processing, roasting and brewing will almost always be described as coffee, the flavors present can range everywhere from “toffee and earth” to “candy-lemon”.




I’m earthy

The inimitable Dan Telfer will be the first to admit his pumpkin spice latte bathing habits, but if you’re buying a cup of quality-roasted, properly-prepared, well-grown coffee, there should be no need to add vanilla and chocolate sprinkles to the point that you need an electric mixer to keep your coffee in liquid form. Each different coffee has its own tasty flavors already baked in. Adding creamers and flavorings can only mask the good flavors and turn your tasty coffee into a hazelnut caffeine delivery system. To borrow from the wine analogy, do you routinely plunk pretzel-bites into your cabernet? Let’s hope not. Similarly, flavoring coffee beans directly has much the same effect. Towards the end of the roasting process, chemical flavoring is added and adheres to the outside of each bean. It tends to gum up coffee grinders, so often flavored coffees are sold pre-ground. Even with Starbucks recent addition of more naturalish coffee flavorings, it’s an admission of defeat: “this coffee’s not so great, so can I cover it up with some cinnamon instead?”

Having said that, until Starbucks initiates phase 2, there will always be times where you need to make do with the tools at hand, but I encourage you to at least try your coffee unadulterated. Your eyes will be opened to all the great (and terrible) coffees out there and you might just learn something. A fantastic way to try new coffees is to hit up your favorite cafes and ask when they’re holding tastings, cuppings, or even informational sessions. You’ll get free coffee out of it and if they play their cards right, the cafe will get a new customer.

If you have burning coffee questions that would make interesting Nerdist Coffee fodder, please @me or add a comment below .

Images: Terroir, Stumptown

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  10. Brett Hanson says:

    @Everyone- thank you for the lively and continuing (many months after the original post) discussion.

    I don’t want to see my coffee people fight– there’s a whole world of tea drinkers out there that we will need our combined powers to defeat!

    As such, I want to clarify- I’m not saying that flavored coffee should be forbidden or something, just that “plain” roasted coffee should be also be given a fair shake before you shell out more money for sugar, cream, and the like. Also, if what you really want is vanilla in your coffee, spring for a bottle of Davinci or Monin syrup. For a few cents per cup you can have straight sweet flavor that is nothing more than water, cane sugar, and vanilla and doesn’t taste like it’s been barbequed.

    Also, let’s not devolve this into some coast vs. midwest thing– I grew up in one of these places and now happily live in the other. You don’t expect my left hand to start battling my right for control of the coffee mug do you? Well, I’ve resolved the battle with a left and right sippy cup helmet… for now.

  11. Jo says:

    Oh my goodness! What snobbery! I say, more power to those Midwesterners who eschew the the $5 cups of coffee for down-home brew they LIKE. I hate Starbucks and I hate paying ridiculous amounts of money for it even more. As far as grocery store, everyday type coffee, Folgers has always been the most consistent in flavor and was my singular choice for years. Stewarts is as good, but more expensive, so why waste money? There are mobs of so-called “sophisticated east and west coast folks who spend tons of money on “gourmet coffees” who wouldn’t be able to pass a blind taste test if their lives depended on it. They just frequent coffee houses b/c they have fallen prey to excellent marketing ruses. I also enjoy a flavored coffee from time to time. Not so much in the morning….just give me my java straight up please. But in the evening it is a nice substitute for a much more calorie laden dessert. So all of you east or west coast snobs….go ahead and waste your money trying to live up to some Madison Avenue created image. Midwesterners have more common sense.

  12. Kathleen says:

    Unfortunately, personal choice is also what yields the lowest common denominator. Yes, Midwesterners love their flavored coffees, but from my considerable experience, it’s because they’ve been raised on watery Maxwell House or, if they’re “lucky”, Folgers. There is even the occasional can of pre-ground old stuff purchased at the dollar store, because it’s an economically depressed area. I’ve never met a Midwesterner (who hasn’t lived on a coast or has pretensions to urban sophistication) who makes their coffee with the requisite number of scoops, either–they make a whole pot with two scoops. I’m talking mostly about old-school Midwesterners, not Mi’pplites or Madisonians, or even Chicago people (about whom I’m skeptical on the coffee front).

  13. Chase Mann says:

    While I agree with you in principal, I can’t agree with you in practice.

    I’m from the midwest and midwesterners love their flavored coffees … one of them being my beloved mother … and who am I to try to change her ways? I have tried for years and she did make efforts, but she always went back to her flavored coffee.

    Some people like coffee their way and I’m okay with that. Personal Choice is what makes the world go round.

  14. Dan Telfer says:

    I quit caffeine, so a nice Venti decaf pumpkin latte simply an excuse to drink something warm and Pumpkininny.

  15. mike p says:

    Tasting a good natural processed Ethiopian Harrar was the “a ha!” moment that introduced me to finding specific flavor notes (blueberry) in an unflavored coffee. Changed my perception for good.

  16. Kaileigh says:

    Unlike the brainy well put comments before me, all I have to say is…. I LUV COFFEE. And I appreciate the amromalicious scribings your brain guided hands have produced.

  17. Lewyintheuk says:

    In 2001 I worked in a cafe in Wellington, NZ, alongside a proud barrista who kicked a customer out once for asking for a vanilla latte – it was about a week after the first Starbucks opened in town and he was determined to stamp out that particular coffee habit. If you ever get the opportunity, check out the cafes in Wellington – a really fantastic coffee culture

  18. Jennifer says:

    A couple weeks ago I was at a Starbucks getting a soy chai and I saw a sign for the “return of the pumpkin spice latte.” Inside I was leaping for joy, but outwardly I glanced at my husband who hates coffee and can’t understand my addiction. So I stuck with the soy chai.

    A couple days later, I was at my in-laws’ house and my father-in-law is a coffee connoisseur (why couldn’t my hubby inherit that gene?). He had some fancy coffee brewed and I drank it, with some soymilk and a bit of sugar. It was awesome!

    I refuse to drink flavored coffee now, unless I’m craving something sweet and candy-like!

  19. Thanks for linking to my article about Starbucks flavored coffee.

    I agree with you exactly… it is like saying “this coffee’s not so great, so I’ll cover it up…”

    The challenge at Starbucks had always been only a slice of our customers drank coffee straight and black. Most automatically add cream and sugar. (When you ask for a regular coffee in Seattle – you get it black. When you ask for a regular coffee in the New York – you get 1 sugar and cream.)

    And – rarely did a customer ever drink two different coffees side-by-side (perhaps from a press pot) to even be able to distinguish a blackberry or spice flavor…

    Working at old-school Starbucks when we were taught flavored and instant coffees were both the work of the devil… it has been tough to see them introduce both with such gusto.

    Thanks for the great site!

    – Paul