I Will Never Apologize for My Flavored Coffee

You do you and I'll do me.

August 22, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Earlier this year, I had an interaction at my bagel place that threw me into a bit of an existential vortex. It was a Sunday morning, in that perfect window where winter turns into spring, and I was filling up at the coffee station. Hazelnut—my little Sunday treat. A cloud of sweet steam was rising from my thermos.

“Hazelnut, huh? Wouldn’t have pegged you for a flavored coffee person.”

I looked over my shoulder to see a guy, smiling as he poured himself a cup of regular black coffee. It was clearly a gentle tease—not super smooth, but not confrontational. I don’t quite remember how I responded. Probably with some platitude designed to end the conversation: “What can I say? I love my hazelnut.”

You’re not my type, and that’s not a very good line.

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Top Comment:
“Many coffee shops in the UK have flavoured syrups which you can pay extra for. Stuff like vanilla, amaretto and, yes, hazelnut. I don’t like them as they’re too sweet. But surely coffee is like wine? If you like it, then it’s good and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
— LizB

What I really wanted to say: Yeah, okay. Let’s get into this. I drink my coffee black these days—can you tell that from how I look?—but years ago, growing up in Seattle in a family of relentless coffee drinkers, flavoring my joe was the way in. I could join my dad in the morning with a cup over the newspaper, or walk to the Metrobus stop with my thermos like everyone else. Sometimes I poured a packet of hot chocolate into my coffee; sometimes it was hazelnut.

What I also wanted to say: People have been flavoring their coffee for years. Sure, my boo artificial hazelnut is a more modern intervention—but have you ever had cardamom coffee? When I lived in Abu Dhabi, this staple was often the only coffee I could find in the grocery store. Or chicory coffee in New Orleans, so pleasingly earthy that you might forget the practice had roots in a coffee shortage? Or a mocha, named after the city in Yemen where we first started drinking coffee in earnest? The beans were known to be so rich, so sweet, that people still chase after that flavor with supplemental chocolate.

But my main gripe: What is a “flavored coffee person”?

There is a certain school collectively known as the Coffee Snobs. These people “geek out” on coffee, buying specialized equipment (read: those kettles with the thin, curvy spout) and researching new ways to get the perfect grind. Sure, this is probably more of a caricature than anything else, dating to that time when people were still making jokes about hipsters. But now you can get single-origin coffee at Starbucks. And the underlying idea that the Coffee Snobs perpetuate—that “real” coffee drinkers should drink coffee that’s been studied, catalogued, purified, and optimized—seems to have permeated our collective consciousness.

Single-origin coffee tastes good, sure, and is even better when it supports farmers and communities, promotes sustainable growing practices, and pushes back against the tide of big agro.

You know what else is good? The coffee from my bodega. When you line up in the morning, and it’s still a little dark, behind the kids on their way to high school who mix it up with half milk and three cubes of sugar. Behind the delivery guy who just dropped off the Gatorades and the people who, like you, are about to head underground for their commute. At the beginning of summer, on the first day you finally see the cups of ice in the freezer next to the Drumsticks and Magnum bars, and the “iced coffee” in an urn that’s really just the hot coffee from yesterday. When Ali says $2 to the person in front of you and then, winking, charges you $1.50.

We all know that coffee is not just about the literal coffee. It’s an upper, of course, but that’s not the only reason we love it so much. As for many people, coffee is also part of my morning ritual—something that I do for myself when I wake up. The moves of coffee-making are so powerful that, during the moments in my life when I have reluctantly tried to reduce my caffeine intake (which always helps, but never lasts), even the act of preparing decaf has a stimulating, reassuring effect on my day. It’s the smell, the feel of a warm mug in your hands, the coffee breath (confession: I love when partners or lovers have coffee breath), the taste of the imperfect—burnt, or bitter, or a little too strong.

Our dude at the bagel shop, on the other hand, has implied that coffee is something that you can do “incorrectly.” This idea is at best, silly, and at worst, sinister.

I understand that coffee can be a complex drink. There are similarities to wine, beer, sake, and, of course, tea; each of these has a world of nuance within them and a web of historical context around them, as well as entire professions dedicated to them. But sometimes, our effort to understand these drinks intertwines with something larger—a system that attempts to elevate a certain kind of “knowledge,” rewards the arbiters of “taste,” and, often, discounts how people actually live and make connections in the world.

Coffee is not just the domain of the culinary. Like many other things we consume to alter our state of consciousness, coffee is a social lubricant and a cultural touchstone. It can also be a great equalizer. Think of the many things you do over coffee: meet with an old friend; interview for a new job; make small talk after a worship service, after a performance, after a funeral; get a breakfast sandwich the morning after, in the light of day, when you’re both secretly dancing inside that the other person didn’t leave; read alone on a bench on Eastern Parkway, in the sun.

When we strip life’s pleasures of their social context, we lose so much. Let’s just drink to that.

And don’t hate on my hazelnut.

Do you have any coffee snobs in your life? What are your thoughts on flavored coffees? Let us know in the comments below.

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Caroline N. February 10, 2023
I like my coffee with some chocolate flavor in it, and I'll add cream and sugar to it. I want it hot, sweet, and creamy. I'm not a purist; I grew up drinking Nescafe instant (and I still drink instant at home). I can appreciate a very good coffee (mocha java for example) black; but I don't enjoy it it that way. And I usually drink decaf so I'm not drinking it for the caffeine jolt! Drink your coffee however you want--I wont throw shade at you--and let the snobs fall by the wayside.
Carol S. February 6, 2023
My family is Swedish- so I grew up drinking coffee. We prefer good quality, whole bean coffee, so we can grind the beans ourselves…and it must be strong. When we do add flavoring, our choice is cardamom (flavor combination is heavenly). What difference does it make if your coffee is flavored -or not? Enjoy what you love.
Jackie G. February 25, 2021
I love flavored coffee. I make a different flavor every morning. I look forward to this every morning. I am always looking for new flavors to try. Since the pandemic a lot of shops selling beans are popping up on-line so it has been fun. Always buy whole beans and grind every time.
Nick M. January 6, 2020
Amen! Sue me, I want my coffee sweet and creamy.
Frank A. January 6, 2020
Flavored or not most importantly organic, even better beyond organic like wild harvested coffee. Such coffee gives you full flavor while been toxin free and tasty. I suggest the Kaffa brand from it is the best
Justin M. January 5, 2020
The fact that you write an article about this, means that you are trying to justify yourself. So obviously you care what other people think.
janet September 11, 2019
I don't think his comment was even about the coffee. He saw a moment when he could seem superior to someone else. Maybe I'd say "I'm sorry someone hurt you, but I am impervious to unconstructive criticism. Have a great day"
sharon September 10, 2019
love the comments by coffee lovers- we know who we are !I really enjoy/ need that morning cup before heading out to the barn to feed and clean a hungry horse- not ridden. enjoy Irish creme and hazelnut also. we will raise our cups high!!
Gennifer M. September 10, 2019
I hope he reads this, recognizes himself and realizes that that was not his best play so he can take it out of his list of come-ons.
janet September 11, 2019
very nice.
Guadalupe L. September 10, 2019
I live in a coffee-producing country, and I wouldn't even think of drinking flavored coffee. Nevertheless, I seldom drink dark coffee. I start my day drinking a latte with a teaspoon of sugar, and I drink another one just before going to bed at night. That prompts my purist friends to poke at me because of it, and unabashedly say they won't waste their best coffee by offering it to me who, in their opinion, am unable to appreciate it. I regret to tell them that I do appreciate good coffee. Even a latte tastes different when the coffee you use to make it is not good quality coffee, but that's the way I like it, and if I can't drink my coffee the way I like it, what's the point of drinking coffee?
janet September 11, 2019
wow. yours gave me goose bumps. 'friends' is apparently a subjective term?
Guadalupe L. February 25, 2021
Nope. They are indeed my friends and very good ones. We openly discuss any subject and poke fun at each other, but never, ever feel offended because we all have a keen sense of humor.
Julie August 24, 2019
There's no way he would have said that to you if you were a man. But he felt TOTALLY FINE about evaluating you in a cafe, and then making a passive aggressive comment about your coffee choice to try to talk to you, so he could get attention. So yuck. Dude should have said "I love Hazelnut coffee too, but I save it for special occasions." Which then would have prompted you to ask, 'what sort of special occasion?" And then the meet-cute would have been creep-free. People looking to chat up women in cafes, take note.
Mike P. August 23, 2019
YES, I TOTALLY AGREE WITH HANNAH! I moved to Seattle 14 years ago, and I still miss going to a coffee shop that grinds and brews flavored coffee in addition to regular coffee.
Luciana August 23, 2019
When I was first married, we lived near a French bakery where they brewed their own hazelnut coffee by roasting hazelnuts along with the beans. It was heavenly, so the memories of that place are what hazelnut coffee evokes for me. :) variety is the spice (or nut) of life!
heidih August 23, 2019
Yes! I come from an Austrian tradition ad having coffee is a ritual - from the great coffee houses in Vienna to the get togethers with percolated drip that the women socialized at. I will call one of my landscapers today to see if he has any of his mom's home grown organic coffee from their farm in Mexico, and I am currently drinking grocery store dark roast from a Melitta pour over filter with almond milk and a touch of cinnamon as I brainstorm homelessness issues nationally. Tomorrow my gal pals and I will brave StarBucks for a chat before Peanut Butter Falcon. Life is gloriously varied and broad.
Annada R. August 23, 2019
Oh, I SO hear you, Hannah! My flavored coffee invited the comment, "Is that even coffee?"
FrugalCat August 23, 2019
THIS! I may be snobbish about some other things (beer, bread, fish, cheese) but when Dunkin' Donuts advertises a new syrup flavor I am there the next day! And it's going in iced coffee ( I live where it is over 90 degrees over 90% of the time).
lunalovegood August 22, 2019
I love this so much- thank you for sharing! One of my favorite places to get coffee is at the local diner- the kind of place where the waitress keeps refilling your cup whenever she walks by, and you start to lose count of how much you've had. I honestly love the little plastic containers of cream, too. Of course, I do appreciate single origin coffee, grinding the beans myself, and brewing with the pour over- but the experience is what counts the most, and no one should be judging another's right to enjoy their cup of steamy caffeinated goodness however they please!
Carolyn C. August 22, 2019
I have read that lesser quality beans are used to make flavored coffee, thereby masking the taste of the inferior beans. Readers should be encouraged to add hazelnut flavor to a quality cup of brewed coffee. I totally didn’t understand the paragraph about coffee at the bodega. Iced coffee = day old coffee? You get a $.50 discount from “Ali” why? Just very confusing.
LizB August 22, 2019
Such an interesting post. Thank you for writing it. I love coffee (though as I live in the UK tea comes first obviously!! 😉 ) But I’m curious that you buy your coffee already flavoured. Is that right? That’s not common here. Many coffee shops in the UK have flavoured syrups which you can pay extra for. Stuff like vanilla, amaretto and, yes, hazelnut. I don’t like them as they’re too sweet. But surely coffee is like wine? If you like it, then it’s good and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Dana E. August 26, 2019
I agree LizB, on the wine comment. This article could be applied to a number of things that people are 'snobbish' about: pizza, movies, books, etc. Let folks like what they like :) If you enjoy it, do it!
D G. August 22, 2019
What is your favorite way to flavor your coffee with hazelnut?
Nancy December 17, 2019
Depending on the time, place and state of my budget, with a shot of Frangelico.