Oh, sweet panela

Oh, sweet panela

The even-more raw sugar brings a gentle sweetness.

ANOTHER SWEET DEAL: Panela is evaporated sugarcane juice, put into molds and then boiled down to a solid, shown here being made in Columbia, but available all over the rest of the world. Photo courtesy Gaston Rings

As I've been exploring the vast world of Melbourne's coffee scene, I've run into many, many things that are commonplace here but haven't yet made their way to America. The predominant one is something I overlooked until it was pointed out to me by a barista who'd been to America recently. Our sugar technology is, apparently, lacking.

Australians have no snobbery whatsoever about adding milk or sugar to their coffee — as is right. Different coffees taste better different ways — certain beans lend themselves to espresso, some to a filter brew, and some just don't taste right without a bit of milk and/or sugar. Variety is key and individual taste rules over all here.

When it comes to sweetening their coffee, Aussies led the way in the use of raw sugar, but that was years ago. Now, the order of the day — and the standard item you see almost everywhere — is panela sugar.

The "raw sugar" we primarily use in the United States is usually either of the turbinado or dermerara varieties. It is (mostly) less refined than the processed, bleached white sugars which were ubiquitous years ago, but still involves — especially in mass production — a fair amount of processing and industrial production.

Panela was originally conceived as an easy means of transporting large amounts of sugar. It's basically evaporated sugarcane juice, without additives or other processing. Shortly after it went into use, it was recognized as a cheaper, healthier and much more accessible sweetener than other forms of sugar. Panela is available in large blocks, in liquid form or granulated, but what you'll see in every cafe in Melbourne is granulated panela on the table.

Baristas explain that the sweetness of raw and refined sugar has something of an acidity that panela doesn't. Coffees left to sit for any length of time with other sweeteners tend to change in flavor due to additives or issues with the sugar; panela offers a clean, gentle sweetness which doesn't overpower or alter the composition of the flavor of espresso. Sweetening a cold brew with panela produces a far better tasting result and shelf life than other sweeteners.

It's also cheaper, easier to produce and easier to transport. Colombia and Venezuela are the world's leading exporters of the stuff, though northern Australian sugarcane growers are beginning to work with it as well considering the volume of the demand from Australia's urban coffee culture.

Panela is only just becoming available in the United States, in useful form anyway, but will certainly begin to infiltrate through our cafes soon. Most of what I can find on Amazon right now is in blocks or is simply "raw sugar" labeled as panela, but I'm sure you can find the real stuff if you look.

As for me, I'm bringing back a couple of jars from Melbourne.