No Sweetener For You (Do Coffee Shops Go Too Far?)

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You can divide coffee shops, these days, into two categories: those pushing the sugar (Starbucks, The Coffee Bean, Dunkin’ Donuts) and those scorning the sweet stuff. Most of us start out in the former camp–I began my coffee-drinking habits with Frappuccinos–and migrate to the latter camp, the independent coffee shop where the beans are of the finest quality and the baristas glare at you if they see you shaking Sweet N’ Low into your iced macchiato. That glare, though, isn’t necessarily encouraged by coffee shop owners: at most of the indy coffee shops I frequent in New York and L.A. (Joe, Gorilla, Commissary, Intelligentsia) sweetener is offered up in a myriad of forms: blue, pink, white little packets and a big bottle of simple syrup to address your iced coffee drink needs. Last week, however, I visited a coffee shop that L.A. Weekly just named Best Coffee Shop 2013–Handsome Coffee–and discovered that sweetener isn’t offered in any of its forms. No pink packets, no blue packets, no sticky syrup bottle. If you want sugar in your coffee, you’ve got to go somewhere else.

Reactions to this fact are fairly divided among people that I know. Tien Nguyen, who selected Handsome as the Best Coffee Shop 2013 for L.A. Weekly and who you’ll hear on tomorrow’s podcast, explained that Handsome’s not denying you sweetener, they’re just not offering it because they don’t think the coffee needs it. Celebrated pastry chef Gina DePalma, on the other hand, reacted on Twitter this way: “My response to this policy contains an obscenity. That’s why I’m saying it in my head.”

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The abruptness of this policy didn’t jar me as much as it might have if I hadn’t experienced something like it elsewhere. But my local coffee shop, Cognoscenti Coffee–which Tien named Best New Coffee Shop in 2011, so maybe Tien is the mastermind behind all of this!–doesn’t offer simple syrup for iced coffee drinks, though they’ll add a squeeze of honey or agave to an iced latte before they shake it. When I complained about this on Twitter, New York Times coffee guru Oliver Strand echoed Tien’s sentiments about the coffee not needing the sugar. So I took to drinking my iced lattes–(actually, I order iced cortados because there’s less milk)–with no sugar and found Tien and Oliver to have a valid point. This particular coffee, with its delicate flavors and aromas, would get swallowed up by sweetener. Same at Handsome where the sugarless coffee drink allowed me to really taste the coffee. I get it. The policy is there to open your eyes to the coffee’s true flavor. But does that make the policy right?

Well, as I say in the podcast, how you feel about this policy probably says something about how you feel about government. For those who think government is too big, who resent the idea of being told which doctor to go to or how large your soda should be, this policy will be an outrage. Personal freedom is the hallmark of a free society and if I want to put sugar in my coffee, damn it, no hipster barista is going to stop me. Hell, I’ll bring my own simple syrup in a flask and to hell with them!

Those who don’t mind government intervention, however, who see the good of a benevolent hand guiding you in the right direction might not have as much of a problem with this. Heck, those baristas sure know a lot about coffee and who am I to argue with a policy that’s meant to further my enjoyment? And sugar’s not good for me anyway, so may as well try it without. Bottom’s up!

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I think it’s ok for a coffee shop to suggest that you not sweeten your coffee–maybe with a sign or by keeping the sweetener behind the counter–but by absolutely denying customers the right to sweeten their own coffee, they’re going a step too far, bullying their customers into submission rather than pointing their customers in the right direction. And, honestly, having had these lighter roasts with their floral notes over-described on bean bags as “pear-like” with “a whisper of licorice,” I prefer a strong, dark roast contrasted with a hit of sugar (but only in iced drinks; I take my warm coffee drinks without sugar except for traditional brewed coffee, then I do add sugar and milk). But why am I hiding that fact in parentheses? That’s my own personal coffee-drinking style and I should be allowed to express that style wherever I go without being judged.

Someone, though, compared it recently to asking for ketchup at a fine restaurant. And if you think about it that way, I can see why these baristas who spend their days living around coffee would take such offense at someone like me adulterating the coffee with sugar. Which is why I don’t think Handsome should change its policy: there are so many good coffee shops out there, it doesn’t matter if the rules at some of them aren’t democratic. When it comes to which ones to patronize, the choice is yours.

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