Bitter Coffee, Begone

You went to a friend’s house and tried her new coffee. It was the best coffee you ever had, so you got some for yourself. You could smell it brew as you got ready to go the next morning, and you couldn’t wait to get to the kitchen to get a cup. Finally, the moment had arrived, you were ready to savor that first sip, and . . . it was so bitter you couldn’t even drink it. This is the same stuff your friend used; what could have happened?

The first cause could be the grind. It is certainly preferable to grind your own beans; it makes a fresher taste. But it can also be difficult to find the right grind. One that is too fine can cause a bitter taste. Perhaps you bought a grinder when you purchased the coffee since that ‘s what your friend did. You adjusted the grind to a coarser one after this first pot, but the bitter taste is still there. Do you need to make it coarser yet? Not necessarily. The problem might lie in the kind of grinder you get. Cheaper, more readily available grinders tend to use blades to chop the beans rather than burrs, a mechanism that grinds more evenly. An inconsistent grind can also cause a bitter taste.

What if this was pre-ground coffee, the same grind as your friend got? That probably means that your balance was off. Using too little coffee of any grind can create a bitter flavor. But it could also mean that you don’t have the best coffee maker. Ideally, a full pot brewed at home should finish in about four minutes. Extended time means the beans are in contact with the water longer than they should, which can again cause bitterness.

This problem is caused by overextraction. Extracting is drawing the flavor out of the bean. If you’ve ever gotten a poorly made hot chocolate somewhere, you can see the same sort of idea. When you first start drinking the chocolate, it is good and sweet, and halfway down it is maybe a bit more chocolate-flavored, but when you get to the bottom, there is a chocolate sludge, sludge that is too strong a taste. Similarly, the first part of the coffee extracted from beans is wonderful, but if you go too far, you’ll get the bitter end product. A smaller grind has more surface area for the water to pass over, allowing for more extraction. If you go to a local coffee shop for a latte, you can see this concept at work, also. Ask for two identical drinks but one with a short shot. It doesn’t draw over the beans as long, so it will have a less bitter taste. Using a single cup coffee brewer no pods, I think the quality will still be better.

When dining out, the major cause of bitter coffee is overcooking. Hotplates not only keep the brew warm but actually continue to cook it, and the “burned” result will be bitter. Airpots do lengthen the life of coffee considerably since they hold in the heat rather than adding more. Likewise, coffee you leave on the coffee maker or stove at home will become bitter if you try to keep it hot for too long.

Although bitterness can be caused by the darkness of a roast, the causes are often less obvious. But with the right equipment, a little practice and some knowledge, you can create your own favorite cup of coffee.