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Article: Specialty Coffee—Sweetness without the Sugar

Sugar in specialty coffee - sweetness without the sugar

Specialty Coffee—Sweetness without the Sugar

In a recent widely published report from campaign group “Action on Sugar”, concerns have been highlighted regarding the high levels of sugar, (up to 25 teaspoons) found in the seasonal beverages of the largest coffee chains. Their research identified that 98% of 131 hot flavoured drinks were delivering 3 times the recommended daily intake of sugar. In a world where child and adult obesity are reaching crisis levels, the irresponsible attitude of these coffee chains sits in complete contrast to the rest of the drinks industry. These drinks would be forced to have red warning labels if they were required to comply with the standards set for carbonated drinks sector.

This approach of adulterating their so called diligently procured and expertly roasted coffees sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to the approach adopted by Coaltown Coffee and indeed the rest of the specialty coffee industry. So why is this?

Coffee Cherry Specialty

Coffee should be consumed as a naturally sweet flavoursome drink in its own right. The flavours derive from many factors, but mainly from the coffee variety, soil conditions and growing altitude. These variables come together to give each coffee a uniqueness in much the same way that the variety and growing conditions of grapes influence wines. Like wine, it is possible to have good and bad quality, which is generally a consequence of the quality of the raw ingredient making the final product. Raw coffee is therefore graded at its country of origin and its selling price is established based on quality and availability. Very high-quality micro lots can command extraordinarily high prices.

The world of specialty coffee is focused of celebrating the uniqueness of a particular coffee from a region and enjoying that coffee experience. That said, there is still a huge market out there for the lower grade coffees available on the market. Although not as well developed as higher graded coffees, lower graded coffees will still maintain their unique chemistry characteristics and an identity.

A prerequisite for the large coffee chains is primarily large volumes of coffee that tastes consistent year in, year out. They do not want to pay higher prices for coffees that have character and identity. They do not want interesting coffees that are available in small lots. The larger coffee chains consume tens of thousands of tonnes of coffee per annum. The economics of the coffee chain world is powered by market driven pricing, high volume and mediocre quality, whereas in speciality coffee, we are focussed on lower volume, high quality and directly traded.

So, this might sound like a bit of a rant on the big chains, but how does all this affect the sugar content in my morning cappuccino?

Sugar in Coffee

Well this is where the science and art of coffee roasting comes into play.

We need to remember that the raw coffee that we roast is actually a seed of a fruit of about the size of a small grape. As a seed it has been designed by nature to reproduce, so the seed is packed with all the organic chemistry required to do this, predominantly carbohydrates and amino acids. The carbohydrates take the form of simple sugars called monosaccharides, typically, glucose, fructose, galactose, ribose and xylose. Simple sugars do not necessarily have the sweet taste that we associate with e.g. table sugar – sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide sugar, otherwise known as a complex sugar where two monosaccharides have become a chemically bonded compound. In sucrose this a bond of glucose and fructose.

Roasting Specialty Coffee Beans

In the case of specialty coffee roasting, the seeds are tumbled in a roasting drum to temperatures ranging from 200°C ~ 215°C. During the roasting process, these monosaccharides are bonded in various combinations to produce sweet-tasting disaccharides in a chemical process known as Maillard reaction. Maillard reactions, also referred to as browning reactions, are common when we cook food. From frying onions to toasting bread, Maillard is responsible for enhancing the palpable sweetness of food.

When roasting coffee, lots of other chemistry is also taking place, giving the coffee its unique flavour and aroma deriving from the chemistry of the environment where the coffee was grown. From raw green to roasted coffee the chemical complexity increases six-fold from about 200 chemicals and compounds to 1200. At Coaltown we roast our coffee this way to maximise the sweet spot where all the delicious uniqueness is at its maximum. We work tirelessly to get the best from the coffee.

However, as mentioned earlier, the large chains' main focus is on consistency and the wish to avoid dabbling with coffee's unique character and identities. So how do they do this when one month they are sourcing coffees from Colombia and the next it could be El Salvador? Well again this comes back to the roasting technique. By roasting coffee darker, sometimes up to 245°C, the delicious sweetness and unique origin flavours and aromas that were created are now beginning to be destroyed. The 1200 chemicals and compounds that were created giving the coffee a unique identity are rapidly reducing to ultimately become one chemical—carbon. Like burnt toast, dark roasted coffees are bitter and have no sweetness. However, when roasted to this degree, El Salvador or Colombian or indeed any other coffee origin of any quality grade will taste consistently the same. It is a popular misconception that darker coffee is stronger. This is a total fallacy created by the large coffee companies to enable them to sell cheaper grade coffee under the guise of being stronger.

High street chain coffee

So, when it comes to the high street chains, they are playing a similar game by masking the bitterness of their coffee with layers of cream, caramel, syrups and marshmallows in order to mask the underlying poor-quality coffee base.

This Christmas, why not try a naturally sweet, lightly roasted coffee from your local indie specialty coffee shop?

1 comment

My experiance of coffeee is very limeted only started regularly calling down to Costa a year ago after I finally retired. After experimenting I found the Flat White which I love. And then on the 13th of March I called into your place after seeing a promtion, not sure where.
Anyway I ordered a Flat White (it was the finest cup of coffee i have ever tasted in my life!).

Can’t wait for the social distancing and lockdown to end so I can call again

Regards Aylwin

Aylwin Thomas

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