“Real coffee drinkers take their coffee black.” Sound familiar? This claim has unfortunately become commonplace. A simple Google search will yield no shortage of judgmental testimonies on why people who drink black coffee are better, healthier, or somehow... more disciplined?
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly this idea started. The why is a little clearer, and understandable to a point. From seed to cup, a ton of people put an abundance of love and care into making sure the coffee you’re drinking is absolutely delicious. Specialty coffee buyers often select and purchase beans based on how they taste without any additives. A lot of baristas then take pride in their ability to brew a delicious cup of coffee that can stand on its own.
However, none of this changes the reality that coffee is meant to be enjoyed. There’s no such thing as the “best” cup of coffee — or rather, the “best” cup of coffee for you is simply the one you personally love the most. It’s not a mark against that barista’s skills or pride if someone prefers coffee with additives, nor does it diminish the meticulousness and care a farmer put into growing it.
To clarify, there is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking and enjoying black coffee. But that’s just the thing — coffee is meant to be enjoyed, whether that’s with milk, sugar, flavored syrup, none of the above, or some combination therewithin.
People have been adding milk and sweetener to coffee for nearly as long as they have consumed it. Dating back almost 500 years, consumers began adding honey, milk, and sugar to coffee to offset the often bitter taste of dark roasts. Eventually, they discovered that properly heated milk — namely, milk heated by introducing air as the temperature increases — made coffee even more delicious. The legacy of coffee additives is long and storied, and those obsessed with black coffee as the only “valid” coffee are actually ignoring centuries of coffee aficionados and their preferences.
When folks label black coffee drinkers as more “real” than others, they’re also ignoring the fact that they are actually outnumbered. Recent surveys have found that an estimated 65 percent of coffee drinkers add something to make their morning cup more palatable to them.
This pervasive belief is not without negative consequences, either. First, it makes folks who don’t enjoy or prefer black coffee feel ostracized from specialty coffee spaces. Even before the pandemic temporarily forced milk and sugar off condiment bars and behind the counter, some coffee shops were opting for this model, often even treating it as an inconvenience when customers would ask. It’s gotten so bad that some folks feel the need to hide or defend their preference for milk and sugar as if it’s something shameful. The reality is that people like coffee additives because they taste good — when for many people, the flavor of black coffee itself simply does not tickle their fancy!
By creating environments where people can proudly declare, “Yes, I prefer milk and sugar,” think of all the people who would start to feel more at home in cafés. We could welcome the 25-year Dunkin’ veteran who enjoys just a hint of coffee flavor along with a warm, cozy place to answer emails. We could also welcome young people who might just be starting to enjoy coffee and want to explore all its plentiful offerings without judgment. The possibilities are truly endless!
Second, most brew recipes are developed with the assumption that people are drinking their coffee black. Heck, a lot of coffee is even purchased with this notion. We encourage folks to brew between a 1:15 to 1:18 coffee-to-water ratio because this is considered an optimal overall coffee-to-liquid ratio. But what if water isn’t the only liquid they’re using? Well, then the resulting cup could actually be much weaker in flavor than they had hoped.
What might it look like to develop a brew recipe for a milk-and-sugar coffee drinker? One suggestion might be to grind your coffee a little finer than normal and use a slightly lower coffee-to-water ratio, so you still get all the flavor out of your grounds but end up still within an optimal coffee-to-liquid ratio after you add milk.
Contrary to the many hot takes that black coffee is superior, exploring additives opens the door to a wonderful new world of possibilities.
Syrups, for example, can make your coffee taste like virtually anything. From common offerings like vanilla and caramel, to more adventurous ones like Salted Egg Yolk, you could have a uniquely flavored cup every day for a year.
The most obvious impact of sugar is adding sweetness. However, when you dive into different varieties of sugar, you’ll also find that different types add various hints of flavor. Demerara sugar, for example, is often described as tasting like toffee, while muscovado and piloncillo sugars have a pungent molasses flavor.
Milk can help mask the bitterness of your coffee, make it creamier, and add some subtle sweetness. The rise in alternative milks, like soy, almond, oat, and... avocado... gives you a ton of alternatives if traditional dairy milk is not your thing. Both dairy and non-dairy milks alike are chock full of sugars, and due to a nifty chemical reaction, become noticeably sweeter when properly steamed. Proteins and fats give your coffee a creamy texture, and both are essential for creating the characteristic velvety foam of lattes and cappuccinos.
All this to be said — while black coffee can be delicious — limiting oneself or others to a single option simply closes the door to all other possibilities of flavor and texture. Coffee additives can be tasty and exciting and experimenting with them can keep your sipping adventures fun and fresh. However you drink it, always remember that the best coffee for you is the one you love. If you are not sure where to start, take our coffee quiz and let us recommend where to begin.