Hi everyone, I'm new to coffeed. I'm Anne Nylander, and I am a recovered sugar-in-my-coffee drinker.
I'm here to defend those well-intentioned people that happen to like the way sweetened coffee tastes, and perhaps stem the tide of alienating customers because of our professional preferences.
Before I worked in the coffee business I drank a vanilla latte every day for almost ten years. I also sampled a variety of other flavors and sweeteners, and had a fondness for what I now call "ridiculous blended drinks" as well. I went into a cafe, ordered my drink, and my baristas made it for me, no questions asked. I drank it, and enjoyed it - but I'd notice on days that the espresso was off or the milk wasn't textured well. Perhaps I was spoiled growing up in Seattle, where flavorings are the rule, not the exception, to the way things are in most shops. But when it was right - it was perfect. Friends tried to pull me away from the sweeteners but there just was nothing better than a perfectly prepared vanilla latte in my eyes.
What pushed me over the edge to step away from milk and sugar was 1. sampling and 2. working in the coffee business. Behind the counter of a cafe we are required to taste the coffees and learn to evaluate them. Most of us learn to love our coffee, and gradually we come to add less and less to the (more and more expensive) product. Finally, we settle on some form of obsessive home brewing methodology that costs hundreds of dollars and we drink expensive coffees we wouldn't dare adulterate.
But are our customers at that point?
Cut to last week. A friend of mine, visiting me from Seattle, met me at a client's cafe. I was proud to show her what I'd done, have her taste the coffee and love it. What does she order? "A single tall soy hazelnut latte." The cashier looks at her and 1. has a flash moment of judgement that because she said "single tall" she goes to starbucks every day (she doesn't), 2. blinked and said, "Um, we don't have hazelnut." I laughed and explained to my friend that NYC is very anti-syrup, and apologized. She raised her eyebrows and ordered the latte anyway, clearly disappointed in the experience, and finding us all to be snobs.
I was disappointed too, obviously. Clearly, we had let this coffee drinker down. And perhaps her palette isn't the most refined in the world, but neither was mine for a long, long time. It took more than just a few no-syrup lattes to get me to make the switch. I'm certain, though, that if I had been refused sweeteners, even by coffee professionals with the best intentions, I probably wouldn't be in the business today.
My final point is to agree with Ryan Wilbur and others who say that you should offer sweeteners, or at the very least sweeteners you can tolerate going into your drinks. There was nothing more annoying than walking into a place with gross sweeteners. I do think if you're doing that, it's better not to have it at all. Your customers can absolutely tell the difference when your ingredients are bad, and when the preparation isn't good. Just because they are drinking an espresso doused in milk it does not mean they cannot taste a well-prepared espresso in there! If you're lucky, they drink it every day, and can definitely tell when something is off.
A great example of a place that took their sweeteners seriously is Octane Coffee. When Neil & I stopped in on a drive to Talahassee FL, we grabbed a straight espresso each. Then I noticed the baristas were fiddling with a hotplate behind the counter. I asked, and discovered they were making their own caramel sauce! Did I leave with a caramel latte? Of course. Was it delicious? Absolutely.
So when you make your choice about sugar, try to remember it from your customers' side of the counter, not where you've gotten to. I'm not trying to say watching someone dump six packets of sugar on top of a perfect macchiato doesn't break my heart - it does. But rather than remove the sugar entirely, suggest that they whittle down from their sweetener. Provide samples of black coffee and require people to taste it with no adulteration. If you're comping someone a drink, try to recommend a less-sweetened alternative to what they have usually, and then work with them to find what they like - not what you/we as a coffee industry want them to like.
Let's try to keep our customers, rather than discourage them from first loving their drink the way that you prepare it, and then bring them further and further into the unadulterated fold.