Flavored Coffees : The Flavored Coffee Controversy

Specialty roasters themselves divide into two camps on the issue of flavored coffees. Some, usually those who sell their coffees directly through their own stores, refuse to produce flavored coffees for a variety of reasons. The most frequently cited of these reasons: Flavored coffees do not taste good; their aggressive fragrances overpower other, more authentic aromas in a retail environment; and they contaminate the store grinders. Other roasters, usually wholesale roasters who need to please large retail customers like supermarkets, have little choice in the matter. They produce flavored coffees because they must in order to stay competitive.

The taste issue is easily pin-pointed: Flavorings added to whole-bean coffees leave a flat, metallic aftertaste. With some flavors this aftertaste is barely discernable; with others it is inescapable. And recall that the effect of a well-brewed cup of coffee does not stop at the point the cup is empty. The experience rings in the senses, humming just below the surface of consciousness, for minutes, perhaps even hours, mingling agreeably with the stimulation of the caffeine. However immediate the first burst of pleasure from a good flavored coffee, its aftertaste never quite delivers the same resonance the aftertaste of an unflavored coffee does.

There are doubtless other, vaguer issues that come into play when a roaster or old-time coffee lover confronts a flavored coffee. Specialty-coffee roasters and aficionados have always been the rebels and idealists of the coffee world, and I suspect that flavored coffees smack too much of commercial compromise and technological contrivance for them. There always comes a moment when dedicated coffee roasters and brokers begin talking about why they love the business, and the main point invariably seems to be there is always more to learn, more subtleties to be fathomed, more discoveries to be made. The coffee bean is an extraordinarily complex chemical system, with some 500 chemical constituents already identified and, I am told, at least 200 to 300 more still not even known or named. It is this tiny but potent natural universe that draws one on and simultaneously both satisfies and tantalizes the senses and the mind.

However much intelligence and creativity goes into producing flavored coffees, they are still more cultural production than natural mystery. For many coffee lovers they are too predictable. If tasting natural coffees is rafting a wild river, then for coffee aficionados tasting flavored coffees is a little like taking the water slide in a suburban theme park.