Virtually nobody walks the middle of the road where it comes to flavored coffees. For some, flavored coffees are the very definition of Gourmet Coffee. For others, flavored coffees are nothing less than the bane of Specialty Coffee. How’d we get here?

Since Kaldi first found his troop of dancing goats, folks have been flavoring their brew. Historically, Turkish and Arabic coffees were mixed with any number of spices — cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon, nuts and citrus rinds. When coffee found its way to Austria — as part of the loot of a failed Turkish siege — F. G. Kolschitzky used the spoils to open Vienna’s first coffee house, spiking the bitter brew with honey and milk to better suit the milder European palate.

Since then most everything under the sun has been used as a coffee additive — whether to make the bean more palatable, to ration it, or to disguise beans of inferior quality. And that seems to be where the trouble begins… In the 1970s, a number of large roasters popularized heavily flavored coffees — from Hazelnutty Whatzit to Irish Creamything — that used poor quality coffees as a base. The resulting drink was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike coffee. And it sold.

These flavored coffees still sell briskly, accounting for a third or more of today’s retail specialty coffee trade. Retailers and roasters will be quick to assure you, however, that today’s beans entirely qualify as specialty grade coffees — usually quite decent Central and South American beans, themselves with mild flavor profiles.

Those same coffees are, however, a nuisance. Coffee flavorings — even natural ones — are as volatile as they are aromatic. Roasted coffee beans are highly absorptive, so flavored beans require air-tight storage and separate grinders; they must be completely isolated from non-flavored beans. And still, chances are when you walk in to a shop that stocks flavored beans you smell vanilla, and peppermint and hazelnut.

Therein lies the most powerful argument of the coffee purist, the aficionado of single-origin beans and artisan blends: coffees that are made distinct only by subtleties and nuance can be rendered completely and irrevocably awful by a moment of neglect, or chance intermingling. One moment a Yemen Moka Hirazi dances with wildly complex fruit and earth… the next it’s an unhappy vanilla-nut surprise.

Flavored coffee — much like religion, politics and art — is ultimately a question of personal preference, and perspective. And while those who choose to adulterate their beverages have more than 400 years of history on their side, maybe they’ll yet see the light. 😉

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