Received a great question this week from Craig Basford, an IT guru I know from South Australia. The first reading of his question gave me pause for thought because it appeared to offer to compelling arguments wrapped into one. But as you will see, It didn’t take too long to become sure of my position, once the words started flowing. He wrote:
As a passionate coffee person I have a question for you in regard to Gloria Jean’s etc who flavour coffee with syrups etc. Are you against them because they are ‘bastardising’ the coffee flavours OR are you for them because they introduce people to coffee who may not otherwise take an interest?
This does present as a curly one because it contrasts my love and zeal for pure, single shot, espresso, against my inclination towards wanting to help people care about the version of coffee they sip or slurp.
My main reason for antipathy towards flavoured coffees of any kind is that the practice allows for masking. Already in Australia (and other parts of the world too, I am sure) we have an epidemic of nice-looking cafes that are thin veneers for milking gullible, apathetic consumers for all they can by masking the staleness and abrasiveness of the cheap coffee beans they use with milk and sweeteners and froth and flavourings.
I think this is cynical and despicable behaviour that needs to be stamped out. More about that in some later articles.
The saddest aspect of this practice, even if better beans are being used, is that the artificial flavours bulldoze the simple, natural flavours of coffee, undoing the months that nature has taken to grow and ripen the coffee berries, workers have taken to dry the beans, that roasters have taken to prepare the beans and that baristas have taken to serve the coffee.
And so, this proud concoction drawn straight from nature is ambushed, beaten and mugged on the pathway to the consumer who, for the most part, turns a blind eye and accepts a share of the booty.
It has long been my thought that much of the coffee industry has gone crazy. Baristas, people who carry out an important and demanding task, are encouraged to compete in barista competitions where after paying lip service to the fundamental shot of espresso, the focus and glamour surrounds hideous, sickly concoctions that might as well be cordial drinks or cocktails or fairy floss. I can’t bear to watch such competitions. It is like watching a proud animal being humbled and trivialised in an exploitative, old-style circus!
The only consideration in favour of syrups would be your point, Craig, about it helping new people access this rich world of coffee.
It is certainly true that many of us develop our palates for particular beverages by starting with simpler (some would say vulgar) styles and then working our way up the quality pathway as we learn to appreciate its nuances and attributes. Wine, beer, cheese, pizza – all these items and more typically have consumers begin with simple flavours and combinations and then demand more complex adventures as their discernment develops.
But at what price?
There is no doubt that many cheaper styles of beverages are also leas healthy. Expensive red wine has more resveratrol (a compound assicated with health claims from red wine) than the cheaper wine, cheap chocolate tends to have more sugar and other compounds than expensive chocolate with higher cocoa levels, etc. So too, more expensive coffees, sought after for their style and flavours, AA aribica beans for example, are grown at higher altitudes and typically need less or no pesticides because the thinner atmosphere drastically reduces the amount of pests endured. This compares to your cheaper grades of coffee grown closer to sea level where dozens of different chemicals are used to fight bugs and disease. It is these beans that tend to dominate your mass brands and your cheap, sickly-flavoured coffees and cafe blends (where the cafe is being used as a simple, artless profit centre).
So this young or new coffee consumer who starts with such varieties is getting inferior beans in a poor quality drink containing more calories, caffeine and chemicals than needs to be the case.
I am not 100% sure that this is the best path for them to follow. I would prefer a path where the aroma of freshly ground, quality coffee, fills their nostrils and kindles their curiosity to try this naturally sweet, earthy beverage. I would hope this, which was my pathway, could be the pathway for more people.
Despite your tantalising prospect of using syrup-flavoured coffees to woo new people, I think the price is too great. So I do remain against them.
I also remain against the mainstream coffee culture which pushes and glorifies milk/froth-sodden coffee drinks to boost the retail price per cup while masking the overwhelming lack of care and attention given to this princely beverage in the cookie-cutter cafe industry and its unbridled obsession with a sugar-soaked payday!
There are signs of respectful cafes and cafe owners emerging. I will be shedding light on them, all around Australia, in the months to come. So thanks for your question, Craig, I hope my rambling answer has been helpful.
Yours in the spirit of espresso
Founder / Espresso Evangelist
I think there is a place for all sorts of variables on any product, including coffee. So if any place decides to add syrup to coffee thats fine, i just wont order it, but there does need to be variety, innovation and choices. However, the regular coffee’s that we all know must be kept good and proper without any bastardization.
Bobby, you have a very balanced approach to life and coffee (they are two and the same methinks).
I am learning to live and let live with such vulgar (oops, there I go again), such novel pastimes as burying the gorgeous flavours of this humble bean amid swathes of sugar and colouring.
Yours in the spirit of espresso