The most common coffee and tea additives are dairy and sweeteners. For a sweeter cuppa, most people simply add white sugar, but there are lots of ways to sweeten coffee and tea, such as honey, agave nectar, molasses, simple syrup and artificial sweeteners.
Notes on Sweetening Coffee/Tea
Most sweeteners are easiest to add to hot drinks. If you’re sweetening iced coffee or iced tea, try sweetening it before you chill it, or sweeten with liquid sweeteners, such as honey, agave nectar and simple syrup. Here's an article with more information on how to sweeten iced coffee/tea.
As with many things, less is more when it comes to sweetening coffee and tea… at least if you care about your health! If you find that a large dose of sweetener is as much a part of your morning beverage as the drink itself, try switching to a higher quality coffee or tea and reducing the amount of sugar you add. You may find that the flavor of the beverage stands on its own with little or no sweetener.
Sugar is the most common sweetener for hot coffee and tea.
Different types of sugar have different flavor profiles. For example, brown sugar has a deeper, richer flavor than refined sugar. If you’re interested in exploring more unusual sugar profiles, try Indian jaggery – it’s great with masala chai or coffee.
Some people prefer sugar that is shaped, such as rock crystal sugar, which may come in rectangular prisms or be attached to stirring sticks in a geode-like form. (Here's a video on how to make your own rock candy sugar crystals.)
Honey is a popular sweetener for tea and iced coffee/tea. It’s also used in Café con Miel (“coffee with honey”).
As with sugar, different types of honey have different flavor profiles. Clover honey is the most popular type, in part because of its relatively neutral flavor profile. Tupelo honey (pictured above) has a buttery, mellow, smooth flavor that is exceptional for tea. Many coffees can take on the bolder flavors of wildflower honey.
Some people select honey as a sweetener for its reputed health benefits. If you prefer honey for health reasons, be sure not to boil it as you prepare your coffee/tea, as this decreases its efficacy.
Some coffee shops offer different types or flavors of honey in small “sticks” (which are actually more like tubes).
Agave nectar is an up-and-coming natural sweetener. It has a taste that is between honey and molasses. It’s great with stronger teas and many coffees. Since it is a liquid sweetener, it’s ideal for iced drinks.
Molasses has a bold, deep flavor that is suited to Brazilian, Kona and Colombian coffees. Like honey and agave nectar, it is a liquid sweetener, so it works well with iced or chilled beverages.
Whether it’s in juice, nectar or pureed form, fruit can be a flavorful and natural way to sweeten coffee and tea. This works especially well for coffee or tea smoothies, but doesn’t have to be anything so elaborate – lemon (which is sweet and tart) is commonly added to tea.
Stevia is a newer sweetener on the market. The SweetLeaf brand is made from an extract of the sweetleaf plant and is generally considered to be a natural product. It has a flavor that some find to be smooth, while some (notably supertasters) find the aftertaste to be bitter or licorice-like.
Pepsi and Coca-Cola/Cargill have also launched their own stevia-based blends of stevia, which some say have a heavier, more cloying flavor.
Stevia is best with bold-tasting coffees and teas.
Simple syrups (a.k.a. “sugar syrups”) are simply solutions of sugar that has been boiled in water. Plain simple syrup has a neutral flavor that works well with most coffees and teas.
Simple syrups can be flavored easily with the addition of ingredients such as herbs or fruit during boiling. Here are recipes for basic simple syrup and ginger/brown sugar simple syrup. Pair flavored syrups with coffees and teas based on the flavor profiles of each.
Corn syrup (and high-fructose corn syrup) is commonly used as sweeteners in “ready to drink” (bottled/canned) coffees and teas. There is some health controversy over the use of corn syrup as a sweetener and whether or not products containing corn syrup should be labeled as “natural.”
Artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda, Equal and Sweet-n-Low, are also used to sweeten coffee and tea. They tend to be more popular amongst calorie-counters and people with diabetes or other sugar sensitivities that they are amongst the general populous, in part because they often have an unpleasant aftertaste. They are best in strong-tasting coffees and teas.