If you’ve been reading our “Truth About Bitterness” series, you now understand that the truth is… there is no one single cause of unpleasant bitterness in coffee. Nor is bitterness a stand-alone characteristic of coffee; it’s affected by the coffee sweetness and acidity too. We already explored the role of acidity in balancing bitterness, and now we turn to the sweet side.
It’s not quite as straightforward as sweet being the opposite of bitter, but sweetness is key to balancing out coffee’s natural bitter notes. With the highest scoring specialty coffees, a high sugar content balanced with pleasant levels of bitterness makes for a most delicious cup. Those sugars are further enhanced by expert roasting techniques. Poor quality coffees tend to have low sugar levels, which makes their less-pleasant bitter notes even more prominent. Many opt to add sugar to cheap coffee as a way to improve its flavour. We suggest choosing specialty coffee with its own natural sugars as a far superior option.
COFFEE SWEETNESS: COMMODITY VS SPECIALTY COFFEE
All coffee beans possess natural sugars. The levels of sugars present in coffee beans, most importantly those sugars that are soluble in water, vary considerably from bean to bean. A coffee’s species, varietal, growing conditions and modes of production all influence its sugar content. It’s important to note that Arabica beans contain about twice as much sugar as Robusta beans. That’s why coffee blends containing Robusta beans as cheap filler taste especially bitter.
Coffee experts explore the nuances of different sugars present in different beans. Some offer a lighter, fruity sweetness and others a deeper, more chocolately kind of sweetness. The discerning coffee drinker seeking to avoid bitter coffee just needs to understand that specialty coffee is always sweeter than commodity coffee. That extra sweetness keeps specialty coffee’s more subtle bitter notes in balance. We source the highest-scoring coffees in the world for our capsules, which also happen to be the sweetest. Even those with a sweet tooth should find that specialty coffee needs no added sugar.
HOW ROASTING AFFECTS SWEETNESS
Roasting coffee beans affects their sweetness almost as much as their natural sugar levels. Specialty coffees with high levels of sugar require great care in roasting. Sugars can in fact become bitter with a too-long or too-hot roast. In general, sugars diminish as a roast progresses, with their caramelised flavours peaking at the medium-roast level. Light-roast coffees retain the most sugar, but those sugars are less flavourful due to a lack of caramelisation. Dark-roast coffees lose pretty much all their sweetness. The drop in sweetness is the most dramatic between medium-dark and dark roasts, and more subtle between light and medium roasts.
Not only does a dark roast dramatically reduce the sugar content of coffee beans, it also cuts the acidity and other natural flavours. This puts them out of balance and leaves the “roast” flavours more prominent than the complex flavour profile of the beans. We always recommend a medium roast for the sweetest-tasting coffee without unpleasant bitterness.