Flavored whole-bean coffees — the hazelnut cremes, Irish cremes, and chocolate raspberries of the specialty-coffee world — are neither as innovative nor as decadent as they may appear at first glance. Although this particular approach to flavoring coffee in its whole-bean form did not come on the scene until the late 1970s, the notion of adding other ingredients to coffee to complicate or enhance its natural flavor goes back to the first coffee drinkers, the Arabs of what is now Yemen, who from the very beginning added a variety of spices to coffee during brewing.
Combining chocolate with coffee was an innovation of seventeenth-century Europeans, for whom coffee and chocolate were stimulating novelties from the opposite ends of the known world. The practice of adding citrus to coffee also has a long history, as does the practice of combining spirits and coffee.
In fact, if we examine the list of best-sellers among the flavors used to enhance whole bean coffees today, we will find very little new. The leading seller by far is hazelnut. The association of this flavor with coffee almost certainly rose from the long-standing association of Frangelico, a traditional Italian hazelnut-flavored liqueur, with coffee. With the second most popular flavor, Irish creme, the relationship may derive either from the liqueur of the same name, or, more likely, from one of the most popular American coffee drinks of all time, Irish coffee, with its combination of Irish whiskey, coffee, and lightly whipped cream. Most of the rest of the list of top-selling flavors can be similarly placed in a traditional context; chocolate with the tradition of the coffee-chocolate drink Mocha; cinnamon with the practice of combining cinnamon with coffee that began with the first coffee drinkers of the Middle East; amaretto with the traditional liqueur; and so on.