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Coffee flavoring

Although this particular approach to flavoring coffee in its whole-bean form did not come on the scene until the late 1970s, the tradition of adding other ingredients to coffee to complicate or enhance its natural flavor goes back to the first coffee drinkers, the Arabs of what is now Yemen, who from the very beginning added a variety of spices to coffee during brewing.

Combining chocolate with coffee was an innovation of seventeenth-century Europeans, for whom coffee and chocolate were stimulating novelties from the opposite ends of the known world. The practice of adding citrus to coffee also has a long history, as does the practice of combining spirits and coffee.

In fact, if we examine the list of best-sellers among the flavors used to enhance whole bean coffees today, we will find very little new. The leading seller by far is hazelnut. The association of this flavor with coffee almost certainly rose from the long-standing association of Frangelico, a traditional Italian hazelnut-flavored liqueur, with coffee. With the second most popular flavor, Irish creme, the relationship may derive either from the liqueur of the same name, or, more likely, from one of the most popular American coffee drinks of all time, Irish coffee, with its combination of Irish whiskey, coffee, and lightly whipped cream. Most of the rest of the list of top-selling flavors can be similarly placed in a traditional context; chocolate with the tradition of the coffee-chocolate drink Mocha; cinnamon with the practice of combining cinnamon with coffee that began with the first coffee drinkers of the Middle East; amaretto with the traditional liqueur; and so on.

If you are already drinking flavored coffees and are interested in experimenting with the unadorned product, you might begin with one of the more distinctive single-origin coffees, particularly those that are striking in flavor yet not overpoweringly acidy: an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, a Yemen, or a good Brazil Santos. Or try a moderately dark-roasted version of one of these coffees, and add a little cream or milk to your cup.

Or you might flavor the brewed coffee yourself. Rather than buy amaretto-flavored coffee, add a little actual amaretto or almond extract to your cup. Or try a drop or two of vanilla and a twist of orange peel. You can also add completely natural flavorings to whole-bean coffee: orange zest, vanilla bean, and the like.

A final note of warning to those who grind their own beans: flavored coffees are liable to ruin grinders that use burrs rather than blades to take apart the coffee. The flavoring material clings to the burrs and complicates cleaning and is almost impossible to remove completely. In other words, once you grind French vanilla, you will continue to grind French vanilla for awhile, whether you like it or not. And if you grind several flavored coffees in a row, you may begin to get a sort of combined, omnibus flavor out of your grinder no matter what you put into it. Even the little blade grinders need to be carefully cleaned after grinding a batch of flavored coffee, so as not to contaminate the next lot.