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A Taste for Flavored Coffees

by Rosemary Furfaro

Some coffee aficionados enjoy an occasional cup of flavored coffee but won't admit this to any coffee purist friends for fear of being considered plebeian. We buy our flavored coffees from our specialty roaster at odd times when retail traffic is at a low, hoping no one will notice us as we surreptitiously pay at the register. If caught by one of our coffeehouse buddies, we vehemently deny that the coffee is a purchase for ourselves: "Oh, this? It's for my aging aunt Martha. She doesn't get out much anymore."

I think it's about time the flavored coffee fans stood up and unite. Who cares what anyone says about our coffee-drinking habits? If it tastes good, why not enjoy it?

"Tasting good" is the key with flavored coffees. Although the aromas emanating from the coffee bins smell great, many wonder what flavors are actually delivered in their cup and how do the flavors get there?

Adding flavors to coffee is not as innovative a concept as one may think. The Arabs were the first coffee drinkers who added spices such as cinnamon to their coffees. Other Middle Easterners followed with the addition of cardamom, clove, nutmeg, black pepper, allspice and even ground nuts. Later came the addition of citrus peels, spirits and chocolate. When coffee was introduced to the Western world, they added cream and sugar to enhance the coffee flavor. These natural flavorings were added to the coffee either while brewing or once it was in the cup.

Today, flavored coffees get many of their tastes from chemical solvents which mimic natural flavorings and which are added to the whole bean while it is still warm from roasting. Because the added flavor needs to be quite assertive to be noticeable over the existing coffee flavors, you may find the aromas from a bin of flavored beans to be overpowering.

Flavored whole beans are usually separated into four categories:

vanilla-based flavors
which includes the cremes (such as French vanilla or Irish creme) and the nut-based flavors (such as macadamia nut or hazelnut)

chocolate-based flavors
such as chocolate mint

fruit-based flavors
such as raspberry or coconut

spice-based flavors
such as cinnamon

Of these four groups, the vanilla-based flavors are the most popular (with hazelnut being the best-selling within this category). Second runner up is the chocolate group with the fruit then spice groups following.

Although I agree with the bulk of flavored coffee drinkers (my favorites come from the vanilla group) I did a taste test on a variety of flavored coffee beans. In each instance, I bought the most readily available brand from my local grocery store. Some roasters have incorporated two or more flavor categories into one bean. In these instances I listed the coffee in the group that reflected the most dominant aroma/flavor. Here are my findings.

Vanilla-Based Flavored Coffee Beans

Vanilla Nut
Vanilla-cream aroma in the whole beans with an undercurrent of toasted almonds. Pleasant vanilla, toasted almond-hazelnut aromas and flavors that lingers pleasantly on your palate after swallowing. Acidity and snap of coffee beans come through just enough to balance the added flavorings.

French Vanilla
Very sweet, almost raspberry-like aroma in the whole beans. When I think of French vanilla, visions of egg-rich, vanilla bean flecked scoops of delicious ice cream come to mind. I was amazed that aromas emanating from the cup duplicated my memories of eating that sweet ice cream with a subtle fruitiness coming through near the end. Drinking it was just as pleasant. Left a slightly bitter aftertaste, but overall I enjoyed this cup of coffee.

More coffee bean aroma than others tasted. Had a slightly sweet, nut-like aroma to the whole beans very similar to hazelnut liqueurs. Aroma in cup is very much like a creamy, hazelnut liqueur. Coffee and hazelnut flavors blend together nicely. Tastes as if I added hazelnut liqueur to my cup of coffee without the kick from the alcohol. Overall my favorite flavored coffee. This is also the most preferred flavored coffee by consumers.

Irish Creme
Sweet, "thick," cream-like aroma of Irish Creme liquor present in the whole beans. (I'm not a fan of Irish Creme liquor so this was a stretch for me to taste objectively.) Rich, creamy aroma in cup. Very pleasant taste of the popular liqueur in the cup without the intensity of the alcohol. Nice lingering, sweet aftertaste. I must admit, for me, this took a close second place to the hazelnut flavored coffee. Not surprising, this is also consumers second favorite flavored bean.

Chocolate-Based Flavored Coffee Beans

Chocolate Macadamia Nut
Has a nice coffee bean aroma mixed with a slightly sweet, nuttiness and a more predominant chocolate aroma in the whole bean. Struggles for identity in the cup. Flavor is much like a robusta bean found in supermarket brand coffee which left a bitter taste. No trace of chocolate in the cup. Very low-keyed toasted nut flavor that is almost lost in the cup. This was my least favorite flavored coffee.

Chocolate Creme Brulee
Offers a deliciously sweet chocolate aroma in the whole bean with just a hint of sweet vanilla that tickles your nose. Milk chocolate and vanilla abound in the aromas and flavors from the cup. No need to serve this with after dinner sweets. This would be dessert for me. This was the best "dessert-type" flavored coffee by far.

Chocolate Mint
Assertive chocolate aroma that is almost overpowered by the aggressive mint in the whole bean. Brews into a very aromatic cup of mint-dominated chocolate flavored coffee. I found the aromas to be better than the taste. The mint was predominant on your palate and left a metallic taste long after finishing the cup. Quite unpleasant.

Fruit-Based Flavored Coffee Beans

Chocolate Raspberry
The whole bean shouts raspberry so much so that it overpowers any possibility of sensing the aroma of chocolate. Strong raspberry aroma in the cup but no trace of chocolate. Raspberry flavor was not like the pure, fresh taste of the fruit but like a hard raspberry candy with lots of sweetness and a muted fruit flavor. I wasn't crazy about this one. Overall it was too intense for me to enjoy any time of the day.

Coconut Creme
Again the whole bean in this coffee resonates with coconut but is balanced by a sweet creamy aroma. Coconut and vanilla aromas emanate from the cup and are present in the tasting. Pleasant, tropical sweetness as an aftertaste. This was enjoyable but only on special occasions. I think I would tire of this flavor too easily.

Pina Colada
I was surprised to find this coffee to be pleasant since I never touch the real alcoholic drink. Wafts of pineapple and sweetness come from the whole bean and from the cup. The flavors don't quite deliver the same punch as the aromas but they were surely reminiscent of the tropical drink. This, like the Coconut Creme, would be reserved for special occasions for me.

Spice-Based Flavored Coffee Beans

Cinnamon Hazelnut
Has a strong smell of cinnamon mingled with the sweet nuttiness of hazelnut but the combination in the whole bean creates an off smell -- almost medicinal or perfumed. In the cup, the cinnamon dominated both in aroma and flavor but it left an unpleasant metallic taste.

Cinnamon Almond Praline
This also smelled strongly of cinnamon with a nice addition of sweetness and cream for the praline. Both aromas came through in the cup and on the palate with the cinnamon nicely blending with a subtle caramelly sweetness. I thought this coffee flavor would be a nice addition to a light brunch of coffee cake, pastries and fruit.

I hope I've convinced the timid and closeted flavored coffee drinkers to openly enjoy your aromatic cups of java. And for those persistent Doubting Thomases, you'll never know what you're missing until you give it a try.

So, the next time you are out with your friends for a cup of joe, rock your world by boldly stepping up to the counter and asking for a cup of hazelnut coffee and a biscotti. Your friends may be shocked but, who knows, you might inspire a revolution.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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