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Taste Testing: Sweet as Sugar

Taste Testing: Sweet as Sugar

 One of the most common types of flavor descriptors that we use are different types of sugars. The sweetness in the coffee can be the result of many things; the green coffee quality, the age or storage conditions of the coffee, the roast, the rest, or even the brew. We're not going to so much get into what leads to what type of sugar sweetness, but I wanted to speak to the differences in some of the sugar types that we use so that when you see them in a description you can have a better idea of what we're talking about. 

The sugar refining process is all about taking the raw material and taking as much of it away as possible through boiling, centrifuging, filtering and drying until all that's left is sucrose. Refined white sugar can be 99% sucrose, and may have additives used as well to whiten it. Sugar in the Raw is not raw sugar at all. It's refined, but not as much as white table sugar and also hasn't been through a whitening process. Molasses is a liquid by-product of the sugar refining process, and in the case of brown sugars is added back to refined sugars to create a deeper flavor.

For this test, I looked at granulated sugar. I did caramelize some refined white sugar so I can speak a little on that, but I'm saving honey, syrup, and other sweetners of that nature for another test. I did however look at Molasses granules in this test. 

I tasted:

Refined White Sugar



Dark Brown Sugar

Molasses Granules

and Light and Dark Carmelized Refined White Sugar

Turbinado is produced in the first pressing of the sugar cane and is refined just through boiling and then cetrifuging in turbines. This sugar retains much more of it's molasses and can be used as a substitute for brown sugar but is distinctly different. Sucanat is a kosher sugar that is produced just from dehydrated sugar cane juice, with no refinement. This is a similar sugar to muscavado, panela, demerera, or jaggery which are all geographically specific sugars, but sucanat is actually a brand name. What was especially intersting was the difference between the sucanat and the molasses granules, which many sources identify as being the same, but from my understanding the granules I tasted were produced from dehydrated molasses, not pure cane juice.

What I tasted:

Refined white - Intensely sweet, but only on the tip of the tongue sweet, not long lasting. Only really sweet right at the point of contact. This kind of immediate sweetness without any lasting effect can be found in delicately floral cups, and they're usually very clean coffees, such as coffees from Kona or Costa Rica:

Turbinado - A broader sweetness than the refined white sugar. Crests in the middle of the palate as there's a bit of a brightness to it, and a long lasting finish. Just a tinge of maltiness/molasses. Just lightly sweet on contact, intensifies as it dissolves. The Nicaragua Finca La Tormenta has this saturated, slow dissolve type of sweetness.

Sucanat - Lightly sweet on contact, round, wild tasting as it dissolves with a heavy molasses note. A bit of a fruity quality to it like over ripe pear, but biscuity malty too. There's a long long finish with some heavy sweetness. If you look at this archived review of this Nicaragua from Finca Maria, you'll see how the sucanat is paired with the ripe apricot fruit note.

Dark Brown Sugar - Similar intensity to the refined white on contact, but with more depth in the dissolve. Not nearly the long finish or maltiness of the sucanat, fairly close to the turbinado, but without the bright or fruited quality. There's actually a heavy molasses fragrance from it though, the most fragrant of the sugars. A lot of times, dark brown sugar is used as a descriptor in darker roasts even though brown sugar doesn't come from caramelization, but because of the potency of the sweetness at these levels it's an apt descriptor.

Molasses Granules - This tastes like bran cereal though a heavily sweetened one, and with just a bit of cocoa quality. Not as sweet on contact as when it dissolves, a dissolving sweetness crescendo. Sweet in the middle of the palate, then biscuity in the finish. Molasses type sweetness is frequently paired with some more earthy or savory elements, as with this Java description.

Caramelized Light - Definitely some bittering caramelization, but the sweetness is long lasting with just a shadow of the bittering/roastiness. The long lasting sweetness with just the touch of bitterness is great with bright juicy coffees like this wet processed Ethiopia.

Caramelized Dark - The bittering roastiness/toastiness is omnipresent, roasted marshmallow, heavy sweet on the bottom layer. Cola like, which is very common in the earthy and herbaceous Sumatras.

One thing that I started thinking a lot about during this test is not just how we taste these types of sugar in a coffee, but the relationship between sugar and coffee in general. With the ability to find truly special and remarkable coffees, it's become taboo to allow the use of cream and sugar in some cafe settings. And yes; while cream and sugar may take away the nuances of some coffees and cream and sugar in volume can make a drink one dimensional, cream and sugars in the right amount in a coffee can make it delicious. It tastes good. In tasting these different sugars, I was thinking not just about which coffees have that type of sweetness, but what a certain type of sugar might add to or amplify in a certain coffee. Wouldn't it be nice to be told by whoever sold you a cup of coffee what the coffee might taste like if you used just a bit of turbinado, instead of scolding you for even considering it?