Back in Black: Why You Should Taste Your Coffee With and Without Milk and Sugar

Are you a condiment zombie? Many of us are, after enduring practically a lifetime's worth of crappy coffee in diners, at airports, and from the corner deli. Certainly the burnt-popcorn flavor of those subpar cups can be made exponentially more drinkable after the addition of milk and sugar.

But is all coffee thus improved? There's only really one sure way to find out: Taste, taste, taste.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to participate in the inaugural Coffee Common NYC. (What's Coffee Common, you ask? Why, you can read about it here.) As one of the baristas on hand, I was tasked with walking folks through a particular flavor experience: We brewed and tasted a pair of coffees both black and, afterward, with added sugar and milk. One cup was a "commodity" grade coffee (Read: cheap, ubiquitous, caffeine-delivery-system stuff); the other a hand-crafted single origin Guatemalan bean roasted by Portland, OR's Heart.

When asked what they thought of the cheapo version, most folks remarked on its "bitterness," "tar flavor" and even simply calling it "gross." But after we sweetened and softened it up with whole milk and cane sugar, it became a different experience. "Oh, I've had this coffee a million times," one girl said. "This is basically what got me through college."

Upon tasting the Heart coffee in its unadulterated black form, however, the responses were startling: "Oh wow," one man said. "I haven't tasted black coffee in ten years, but this is great!" The fruit-like sparkle shone through to everyone who tasted it, utterly unanimously. "The only way I know how to really describe this is 'fresh,'" another taster offered.

When put to the milk-and-sugar test, however, most found the mug's specialness "muted" or "dulled," and that it didn't taste much different from the doctored cup of commodity-grade coffee we had to start.

coffeecommon on Flickr

So, what's the point? Many of us are so used to mindlessly wandering over to the condiment bar with our steaming cup of coffee and trying to match some kind of specific shade of taupe we've been drinking for years without even sipping the naked brew—mostly because we've always been better acquainted with that terrible diner sludge, and it's vastly bettered with the help.

But what if more of the coffee we drank was special, with a natural sweetness and a sparkle of its own without milk and sugar? And what if we continued just zombie-walking our way over to the half-and-half and never knew how good the stuff could be on its own?

Think of it this way: A cheap wine can easily be made more drinkable by turning it into sangria, but an exceptionally fine wine will never be improved by adding sugar, fruit, and brandy. So taste your wine before you throw in those orange slices, and maybe taste your coffee before you start scooping in the granulated stuff: You might just find it doesn't need the help.