Well, that really depends on who is doing the flavoring and, if it is not you, what flavoring agents are being used. Flavored coffee can be created from natural herbs, spices, and nuts and from real food extracts. It can also be created from synthetic flavors. Today we breakdown the three basic coffee flavoring techniques and offer some tips on how to identify each flavoring method should you come face-to-face with a bag of gifted flavored coffee.
Real food flavoring
Infusing fresh coffee beans with real herbs, spices, and raw nuts is the easiest way to flavor your coffee. This can be done either at home or by the roaster. The most common ‘real food’ coffee flavorings are cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, cocoa beans, star anise, whole cloves, nutmeg seeds, and whole peppers. Real food coffee flavorings, such as nuts, may be left in the coffee when ground.
Aroma: Real food flavored beans do not have a strong flavor-scented aroma. Depending on the flavoring agent (e.g., hazelnut), there may not be any flavored scent at all — the coffee may just smell like coffee.
Taste: Real food flavored beans do not display powerful flavoring taste — the flavoring notes will be subtle and ride on the coffee’s natural flavor notes rather than overpower them.
Look: Real food flavored beans / grounds may have a slightly funny color due to the flavoring agent or may show the flavor agent dispersed within the un-brewed coffee.
Click here to learn how to make your own flavored coffee.
Real food extract flavoring
Real food extracts are flavor oils made from real herbs, spices, and nuts. Similar to a vanilla extract used for baking, coffee flavor extracts / oils are highly concentrated and intensely flavorful. These flavor agents can be made from organically-grown, naturally-grown, sustainably-grown, and / or conventionally-grown herbs, spices, vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc. These real food flavor agents are prepared by professional flavor chemists, generally use water or vegetable-based solvents (the agent that binds the flavor to the bean), and do not contain any metallic or unnatural tones.
Aroma: Real food extract flavored beans should have a powerful, clean, immediately recognizable aroma. There should not be a non-natural chemical or metallic smell.
Taste: Real food extract flavored beans should have a subtle to moderate flavor taste that is most pronounced when the coffee is drunk with milk or cream and some sugar.*
Look: Real food extract flavored beans should have a slight to rich oil sheen (depending on the roast) and should not be cracked — basically, they should look and smell like fresh coffee beans.
Chemical coffee flavors, also known as synthetic flavor agents or oil, are created in labs by professional flavor chemists. These flavors are produced from non-food extracted chemicals, such as dimethyl, acetylthiazole, and dimethylpyrazine and are most often bonded to the bean with propylene glycol, a slightly sweet-tasting organic compound.
Aroma: Chemically flavored beans have an overpowering, almost sugary-sweet aroma.
Taste: Chemically flavored beans have a very sweet, artificial sugary taste to them that may be overpowering.
Look: Chemically flavored beans tend to have a thick, shiny oil residue that will be visible on your hands, in the coffee bag, and in the coffee pot.
When purchasing flavored coffee, bear in mind that…
No coffee flavor agent, neither natural nor synthetic, adds nutritional value to your coffee. That means no fat, calories, sugars, etc. are present in your coffee due to the flavoring agent — your cup is still just 2 calories per 6-ounces and fat and sugar-free. Nor do coffee flavor agents contain gluten.
Many roasters use old or stale beans for flavored coffee. If you open a bag of flavored coffee and the beans are cracked, looked dull, and / or do not emit a strong aroma, the beans are likely old. If you can’t see the beans prior to purchase, a quick price comparison between the flavored and non-flavored beans is a good indicator of the quality of bean being used. If the prices are the same or close, the roaster likely used a fresh bean.
*Most flavored coffees are designed to be drunk with milk and a pinch of sugar. Some flavor notes may not be as pronounced if the coffee is drunk black.
Bottom line: flavored coffees can be delicious, health-neutral, or even healthy for you depending on the type and quality of flavoring agent and solvent being used. Contact your local flavored coffee roaster to learn more about their flavoring practices.