Sugar and Cold Brew 101

Sugar and Cold Brew 101

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” sings Mary Poppins. And coffee drinkers who don’t like the bitterness of a sharply roasted coffee pile it on, drinking nearly 50% more added sugar than tea drinkers.

The idea is simple: coffee is bitter, sugar is sweet. Why not overwhelm the bitterness with sweetness? However, for anyone avoiding sugar for its potential health risks, this is a non-starter. Aren’t there better ways to help the medicine—er, the coffee—go down?



One problem with using sugar as a weapon against bitterness is that sugar doesn’t eliminate bitterness. To enjoy milder coffee, you have to start at the source.

Most of us have experienced just how different food can taste when prepared in different ways. Consider the difference between fried eggs and scrambled, or fried fish and sushi. 

In coffee, the effects of hot and cold are profound:

  • Hot water promotes the release of acids in the coffee that lead to bitterness, while the effect is much more muted with cold brew.

  • Hot water also releases more oils from the grounds, speeding up oxidation (and, of course, bitterness).

  • With less oxidation, cold brew coffee takes longer to spoil, extending its non-bitter lifespan.

Is cold brew bitter? Not really. For these reasons, cold brew coffee can have a milder taste that requires less sweetener. It also remains shelf-stable for longer periods.



Still need a little sweetness in your cup of cold brew? Here are a few options.

    • Sugar. You have costs and benefits to weigh here. Sugar is great for sweetening foods because it tastes great, but it can also lead to potential health problems like Type 2 Diabetes and weight gain

    • Artificial sweetener. Your mileage may vary. “Generally safe in limited quantities,” says the Mayo Clinic, quoting the National Cancer Institute. You won’t notice the same sweetening punch that sugar offers, but you may also stave off the health risks that come with sweets. Sugar free cold brew doesn’t have to mean non-sweet, after all.

  • Your pleasant thoughts. That is to say, use nothing as a sweetener. One reason people overwhelm coffee with sweeteners is to overpower the bitter compounds already released with hot temperatures. But what if your cold brew never tastes all that bitter in the first place?

  • Is cold brew sweet to begin with? Some people might report that it is. But they may also be responding to the fact that cold brew simply has less bitterness than hotter methods of preparing coffee. It makes it more of a blank canvas, letting you sweeten it—or not sweeten it—as you see fit.

    W. Bear