A newbie question about Italian coffee tradition and sugar?

Discuss flavors, brew temperatures, blending, and cupping notes.

#1: Post by gordonm »

I am a relative newcomer to the serious espresso lovers scene, and have just purchased my first "real" machine/grinder (an Expobar Pulser/Rocky doserless; all to arrive next week!). But, having just spent 2 months in Florence, Italy and having tasted multiple single espressos in about 10 different bars there and observed many Italians drinking espresso, I have a question about the Italian coffee tradition.

I was told in Florence that there is an old saying (and for any fluent Italian speakers out there, I apologize in advance if I get this wrong) that goes "Quando il cucchiaio sta a piedi, c'e abbastanza zucchero nel caffe", which means, "When the spoon stands up straight, there's enough sugar in your coffee". And, indeed, I saw many, many Italians pouring multiple spoonloads of the white (and brown, raw), sweet stuff into their tiny cups of espresso. It didn't seem to matter what time of day (as it does with the milk-based drinks), or what bar I was in, there was always someone dosing their espresso with sugar.

So, my question is, what is the general opinion here about adding sugar to your espresso? It seems to me it can cover many faults in coffee/technique, etc, similar to milk. But, I must admit that I tried it and had many good and tasty shots that had a bit of sugar added. So I was also wondering if anyone has compared shots with and w/o sugar to see if some flavors might be enhanced or detracted from? Or, am I (and a lot of Italians!) just being completely crazy here?


Urnex: 100% dedicated focus on coffee and tea cleaning
Sponsored by Urnex
User avatar
Team HB

#2: Post by another_jim »

A shot of espresso in Italy has the same market niche as a cup of coffee from an office carafe, diner or fast food place here, with the cost running between 60 cents to a dollar, depending on the neighborhood and town. This means the blends, in general, don't use very good coffee, and that means it's not very sweet. In the post war years through the seventies, when Italian espresso culture took shape, this was even more the case. So most blends are designed for a packet of sugar (at least); and one basically should start at that point.

There are a few upscale cafes, as well as some restaurants that do espresso well. These use better blends, and one sees more people drinking the shots straight. In the Salerno/Amalfi/Positano region, where there's a lot of small roasters and culturally savvy tourists, I had a lot of shots that were very sweet naturally, and one saw far less sugar use. Also, the shots there were so ristretto that a packet of sugar would have absorbed the lot of it! However, for all I know, the sweet ultra-ristrettos were Tedesco (German Tourisrt) shots.
Jim Schulman


#3: Post by PeterG »

As a proud Italian-American, and student of Italian food culture, I can confidently assure you of the following:

Italians have an incredible sweet tooth.

This is interesting from a cultural perspective: the Arabs introduced it to Europe via Sicily, the first place in Europe where sugar was cultivated. Sweets in Italy are legendary, particularly in the south. Sugared fruits, pastry, the famous confetti (sugared almonds), cannoli (toothachingly sweet ricotta cream stuffed pastry), torrone (nut brittle candy), etc. etc. abound in the south. These foods all have an Arabic ancestry. Our word sugar comes from the Arabic "al sukar", and so does the Italian "il zucchero".

It was also the Arabs that introduced coffee to the world. Coffee throughout the Mediterranean is drunk very sweet, as anybody who has ever had a traditional Turkish, Greek, or Arabic coffee knows. In Ethiopia, coffee is always drunk heavily sweetened, too.

In the old days, sugar had an important role as a preservative, and also an indicator of luxury. Coffee, along with spices, chocolate, and other imported foods, were also considered luxurious and almost magical. It is natural that they would be consumed together.

I think it is less surprising that Italians consume sweetened coffee, than the fact that we often do not. Starting in the 20th century, UNsweetness became more "high status" in many parts of the developed world, including the United States. Dry wines and dry gin became popular, while port and sweetened "old tom" gin fell out of favor. And then the perception of sugar as a dangerous food took hold, and we started leaving sugar out of everything.

Now, we think of drinking straight coffee as more sophisticated than sweetened coffee. Also, with great espressi, it is clear that an unadorned cup is usually the greatest.

Peter G
counter culture coffee


#4: Post by Climb14er »

Just this morning I was making my latte, with two shots of Black Cat and 2% milk. I've been using an old Cremina for many years but in the last month, got a Macap and the espresso and lattes have been fantastic.

I used to put in my large latte a small teaspoon of sugar, I guess out of habit from the 'old days' when I made espresso in a Krups small grinder and used run-of-the-mill whole coffee beans from my neighborhood natural foods store. :roll:

So this morning I said to myself 'don't use any sugar with the Black Cat latte'. OK, I didn't.

The latte came out great and it tasted rich w/o the slightly sweet taste. But I senses that I was 'missing something'.

Question: Am I tasting the natural sweetness of the milk and true taste of the espresso or does the small amount of sugar act toward the latte like a small amount of salt would, say on a good steak? You know, it brings out the flavor a little more?

I'm curious what others think re: sugar with their latte. :?:

Abe Carmeli
Team HB

#5: Post by Abe Carmeli »

That was a great historical overview Peter. I grew up in the Middle East, Israel to be exact, and spent years in Europe including Italy in my twenties. Drinking sweetened coffee may be ingrained in my genes by now. I often add 1/2 a teaspoon of sugar to my espresso, even when it is naturally "sweet". It just tastes better to me. As far as I'm concerned, the focus on sweetness in espresso in the U.S. has gone overboard, and in a separate post on the topic I contended that it has become a dogma. But for me, it is nothing more than a culinary preference. Bad coffee cannot be cured by sugar, it can only numb the pain.
Abe Carmeli

User avatar

#6: Post by HB »

Climb14er wrote:Question: Am I tasting the natural sweetness of the milk and true taste of the espresso or does the small amount of sugar act toward the latte like a small amount of salt would, say on a good steak? You know, it brings out the flavor a little more?
Sweetness preference is an individual thing, though it's worth confirming the steamed milk does indeed taste sweeter than before, e.g., microwaved hot milk and properly steamed milk should be worlds apart in flavor and texture.
Dan Kehn

User avatar
Team HB

#7: Post by cannonfodder »

In straight espressi, I do not add sugar. Not because I feel it is unpopular or un coffeegeek'ish, but because I simply desire no more sweetness in the cup. Cappuccino, I do add a table spoon (the implement, not the measuring device) to my milk before I froth for just a little extra oomph. Sugar will accentuate some flavors, just as salt does. Think of it as a flavor enhancer not a flavor cover. Like salt in ice cream, you don't know it is there until you forget to add it to the mix. I add the sugar to the milk before steaming so it is already dissolved and fully incorporated. That avoids the ultra sweet last gulp from the cup.

My two cents, there is no right way or wrong way to enjoy espresso just as long as you like what is in your cup.
Dave Stephens

ECM Manufacture: @ecmespresso #weliveespresso
Sponsored by ECM Manufacture
User avatar
Team HB

#8: Post by RapidCoffee »

I'm sooooo tired of hearing people state categorically that espresso is sweet enough on its own. Not to my taste buds! I've been drinking coffee all my adult life, I've sampled it in some of the great cities of the world, I roast my own beans and own just about every type of coffee brewing device known to man, and I've never liked it straight. Like unsweetened chocolate, unsweetened coffee tastes really bitter to me. But add a teaspoon of sugar, and it's a sip of heaven on earth.
cannonfodder wrote:My two cents, there is no right way or wrong way to enjoy espresso just as long as you like what is in your cup.
Thanks Dave, I (sob) needed to hear that. :)