Peanut butter and jelly; cereal and milk; coffee and—wait, is it okay to pair coffee with something or should it be left alone and savored as a complete experience? Let's open this can of vacuum sealed worms and see what happens.
The truth is that even the super elite will allow for adding ingredients to a coffee experience at times. The cappuccino—the 'specialty coffee beverage' at the barista races—and even a suggestive biscuit or piece of fruit next to a cup of black coffee would all still be considered true 'unadulterated' coffee experiences. So why do these bullies give us such a hard time when we want to add a little cream or a dash of sugar?
Many coffee professionals fear that something thoughtfully crafted is going to be lost. This fear might be rooted in a myopic view of your coffee's craft narrative. It leaves out all the other hands that contribute to the wonder in the cup, and, in this case, the consumer is also being marginalized. It's as if we are being told, "You can't add anything of quality to that beverage; I already added everything possible. Just drink it how I say and leave yourself out of it."
To be fair, this is a predictable reaction to our industry's previously overstated patronization of the consumer. It was once commonplace to be bombarded with endless choices at the point of sale, giving consumers a sense of their coffee being made 'in their own image.' Now, the coffee professional has rebelled against this incomplete picture of craft and taken many, if not all, of the options away. Shelves that once held dozens of syrups, for example, are often only stocked with chocolate, vanilla, and (if you are lucky) a third option like caramel or agave nectar.
It is true that coffee taken black is always the easiest way to taste subtlety. It is also true, however, that tasting is an incomplete event. The fullness of coffee experience will always come through informed, hands on craft followed by consumption.
Just like the super elite barista, you can gain confidence and take ownership over your craft at home. Does a particular bean pair well with dairy and processed sugar? Then go ahead and put it in there. You have hands and you have a tongue. Allow these appendages to work together and trust yourself. Take back the full experience that belongs to you as a coffee lover. Be passionate and decisive, and let the joy of informed craft fill your cup.