Sweetened coffee drinks are far from uncommon in the United States, but their reputation has had its fair share of maligning. For a long time, flavored syrups and frothy toppings were deemed frivolous and low-brow, with black coffee and Italian cafe classics deemed as the “adult” caffeine choices. That creamer in the fridge door? Unserious. An iced frappe? Childish.
But in 2023, it seems that we’ve reconsidered. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain’s Chamberlain Coffee just released a coffee-cake-batter-flavored syrup. TikTok is flooded with tutorials for brown sugar lattes and grapefruit cold brew spritzes. Independent coffee shops nationwide are incorporating indulgent ingredients and house-made syrups into their menus, inspired by the flavors of their ethically sourced small-batch coffee. It’s the flavored coffee renaissance, and it’s sweetening the deal for consumers and baristas alike.
Moving Past Purism
For much of the 2010s, independent coffee shops took a purist approach to preparing and serving coffee, says Andrew Sinclair, co-owner of Mad Lab Coffee in Los Angeles. Whenever you’d add anything to coffee, he says, “you’d have every suspenders-wearing-barista say, ‘What are you doing to that beverage?’ There was this idea that a farmer had worked hard to create that coffee and you were covering it up.” In the meantime, national coffee chains had a lineup of flavored syrups, plus a rotating cast of seasonal flavored drinks, called “specialty drinks” within the industry.
But, Sinclair says, a shift happened around 2019. “There’s definitely a new renaissance of coffee- making right now. We’re seeing very intentional drinks being served and prepared with flavors that match the type of coffee being served and roasted in the shop.” This new wave of “specialty drinks,” which rely on the flavors already present in the coffee and are generally less sweet than your average Pumpkin Spice Latte, are making the art of coffee more accessible to consumers and giving baristas a new creative outlet.
Baristas, like bartenders and nearly everyone else on the planet, found these new creative outlets during the early pandemic in 2020. And without open coffee shops to offer a daily fix, coffee drinkers were forced to get creative at home. Dalgona coffee, or whipped coffee, soared in popularity thanks to TikTok, where the term still has a whopping 989.4 million views. DIY syrup tutorials flooded feeds. And without judgment from their coworkers, people drank more of what they really liked. In May 2020, Helen Rosner, staff writer at The New Yorker, tweeted, “The older I get the less I give a shit about the coolness optics of drinking coffee black. Milk AND sugar thanks, I’m already suffering enough in other areas of my life.” To someone steeped in specialty food and drink culture like Rosner, this was a little subversive — and, it turns out, prophetic. After rediscovering the joys of more “frivolous” coffee drinks, people don’t seem eager to go back to black.
And the fate of the Pumpkin Spice Latte? An obvious happy ending. “It’s still one of our top beverages,” Thomas Prather, VP of marketing at Starbucks, told CNN in August 2023.
Cocktail Culture Meets Coffee
Sinclair and Thorn Wilson, owner of Aerial Coffee in Mesa, Ariz., both see this change in tastes as inspired by the cocktail world.
“Coffee hasn’t always paid the same way that bartending does,” says Wilson, “though that’s kind of changing.” After years in the specialty coffee scene, Wilson went back to bartending so he could afford to pay his bills. After crafting cocktails to enhance the flavor of the spirits, making syrups in-house and batching garnishes, he realized that he could bring all this back to the coffee world. “It played a huge role in what I’m doing now,” he says.
Wilson offers a range of specialty lattes and espresso tonics, using two different coffee blends from local roaster Pair Cupworks, which was named Arizona’s best coffee roaster in 2022 by Food & Wine. He makes his syrups in-house and garnishes specialty drinks with anything from a whole dried pepper to a theatrical gust of smoke. And Mad Lab, named one of L.A.’s essential coffee bars by Eater, has a seasonal offering of specialty drinks. One evergreen offering is called the Dolly Latte, a nod to a vanilla latte that is simply an undisclosed sweetener added to a latte made using its roasted Dolly Blend, a single-origin coffee from Ethiopia in which some of the beans are lightly roasted and some are roasted quite dark before they’re blended together. Past seasonal offerings have included drinks inspired by baklava, banana milk, Moscow Mules, and s’mores.
“In L.A., people don’t think twice about spending $15 to $16 for a cocktail. When you put that same work into a drink that has coffee as its centerpiece, it feels more normalized to pay $7 or $8 for a latte. A lot of work and thought went into crafting that beverage.”
“We used Swiss Miss for that one,” says Sinclair of the s’mores drink, “Because what makes you feel more like a kid than Swiss Miss?”
This shift in offerings, he says, benefits customers as well as those in the coffee industry. “In L.A., people don’t think twice about spending $15 to $16 for a cocktail, or sometimes, even more,” he says. “When you put that same work into a drink that has coffee as its centerpiece, it feels more normalized to pay $7 or $8 for a latte. A lot of work and thought went into crafting that beverage.” And in a world where baristas struggle to make a living wage and farmers still aren’t paid adequately for their work, these drinks can help bridge those gaps.
“It’s up to us at the end of the supply chain to promote those coffees,” Sinclair says. “These drinks help get farmers paid and spotlight barista craft.” Paradoxically, these “unserious” drinks are allowing those in the specialty coffee world to take it more seriously as a career — and for coffee drinkers to drink whatever the hell they enjoy.
“People used to think that if you said you were a barista, you didn’t actually have a job,” says Sinclair. “Now it’s a career. We enjoy making coffee for customers, we enjoy bringing them on a journey of exploration where they didn’t know the product could be that good.”