A morning cup of coffee can either be the start of a great day or an omen of things to come. And just as many of us often relish that first sip of coffee in our early hours, we also dread the horror of discovering that our morning’s first cup is nothing more than dreadful. Coffee is a naturally bitter beverage, and much of its charm and flavor comes from a taste that is likely acquired rather than innate. However, it only takes a few simple differences to make a cup go from perfect to grotesque. Let’s have a look at the five most common reasons your coffee might not taste so great, and how to fix that problem.
Reason 1: Bad Beans
Beans are where it all begins. Without the right beans, you won’t be able to make the most of your cup of coffee. But that doesn’t just mean that you should consider buying different beans. Beans can be bad for several reasons: they could be stale, they could’ve lost some taste after being frozen and rethawed several times, or they could’ve been bought ground, which often eliminates a large amount of flavor. It’s important to remember that coffee beans have a finite shelf life and that freezing and/or storing them in the refrigerator can often negatively impact taste over time.
On the other hand, the roast may also be to blame. Try and play around with different roasts and figure out what kind of coffee you enjoy the most. Do you like your coffee to be more floral? Citrusy? Herbal? Or do you like your coffee much darker and muskier, almost pitch black, with notes of tar and chocolate? Coffee comes in a large variety of flavors and aromas, and the finding the right beans for your palate is half the battle.
Fix 1: Better Beans
If you want your coffee to taste as great as coffee can taste, you need to hold yourself to a couple of basic standard rules. For one, only buy as much coffee as you’re willing to consume in about a week or two. No longer than that. Hoarding coffee might sound like a smart way to save on some cash, but you’re actually kneecapping yourself in the process. If you can’t consume the coffee you’ve been buying in a week or two, then you’re sacrificing flavor and taste for extra money.
Secondly, store your beans properly. Coffee beans should be sold and packaged in vacuum-sealed, air-tight containers, before being moved to similarly air-tight containers at home. Mason jars and other similar containers do the trick. Keep coffee in a dark corner, in a pantry or a cupboard, but away from sunlight or any freezers.
Finally, grind only as much as you need. This way, you ensure that your coffee doesn’t lose its flavor before brewing. Grinding coffee is important to unlock its oils, but pre-grinding your coffee will cause it to lose a lot of flavor of the next few hours and days.
Reason 2: Wrong Grind
Speaking of grinding, this is a highly variable part of coffee-making that changes from brewing method to brewing method. The basics of how to grind your coffee rely on the grinding method. Many make the mistake of getting a bullet blender or grain grinder to grind their coffee, but these bladed grinders only serve to turn coffee into its finest form, otherwise delivering an inconsistent grind if you decide to stop before the coffee has reached a certain level of fineness.
While a very fine grind is great for certain equipment, it’s not that great for other types of coffee-making. Espresso machines and Moka pots enjoy a fine grind, but coarser grinds are necessary for pour-over coffee and cafetières. Now, what’s so wrong with using the wrong grind? To take the French press as an example, a very fine grind will lead to over-extraction as well as a large amount of coffee sludge, as more coffee particles escape through the pressing filter into the carafe itself. You end up with very bitter coffee and more residue. Meanwhile, too coarse of a grind will waste your coffee as you end up needing more to achieve the same flavor in a cup of coffee. The right grind will save you a lot of coffee and will give you the taste you’re looking for.
Fix 2: Invest in A Hand Grinder
The ideal way to make coffee is through a burr grinder, but these specialized grinders tend to be a little on the pricey side. Instead, invest in a cheaper hand grinder, which can often also be set to grind in at least three different ways. Finer grinds for espresso machines, coarser grinds for presses, and medium grinds for flat-bottom drip coffee and most pour over coffee makers.
Reason 3: Water Was Too Hot
The temperature at which you begin steeping coffee does a lot to change the way it steeps. While tea is made with boiling water, people mistake the steeping process as being similar to tea making. The truth is that water at its boiling point will burn the coffee, killing the flavor and the aromatic oils and leaving behind the charred and burnt taste of roasted beans. A lot of the beauty in coffee comes from heating it up at the right temperature – extremely hot water will kill that beauty.
Fix 3: Use a Thermometer
The steeping process for coffee depends in length on the kind of coffee you’re making and the grounds you’re using, but in any case, water used to make coffee should be no hotter than 96° C, and no cooler than 91° C. Moka pots are a bit more difficult to brew with, as they take a lot of timing and a unique understanding of how fast water gets hot on your own gas stove, if you don’t have an induction or electric stove. For other kinds of coffee, however, the trick is to simply bring the water to a boil and wait for a few minutes, keeping an eye on the temperature.
Reason 4: Coffee Steeped Too Long
While fine grinds make for a stronger extraction, and boiling water kills the coffee’s aroma and flavor (often making it taste and look “flat”), another sure-fire way to ruin a delicious cup of coffee is to let it steep for too long. This isn’t an issue for a lot of different coffee brewing methods, as Moka coffee, drip coffee, and pour over coffee is “done” once the coffee has dripped or percolated completely, coffee made in a cafetière or a similar product (such as an Aeropress) can easily be left to steep for too long if you don’t time your steeping properly.
Fix 4: Use Appropriate Extraction Methods
For a cafetière, start with a gentle pour to about half of the cafetière, followed by a few seconds wait, followed by a second pouring, another ten seconds, a gentle stir with a wooden spoon or chopstick, and two minutes of steeping, before pressing down. The exact steeping time and method will depend on what you’re using to brew your coffee, how your coffee is ground, as well as your coffee-to-water ratio.
Reason 5: Terrible Water Quality
You could be doing everything else right, but if the water sucks, the coffee will suck as well. Do not use any kind of water that you wouldn’t enjoy drinking yourself – and if you just plain don’t enjoy drinking water, at least make sure the water you’re using for your coffee isn’t heavily mineralized, chlorinated, or carbonated. All of these factors will affect the flavor of the coffee, as the chlorine, sulfur, iron, and/or various salts will carry over and negatively impact the flavor and aroma of the coffee oils in your cup.
Fix 5: Use Drinking/Distilled Water
Stay away from the tap, and use drinking water, or ideally, distilled water for your coffee. The closer it is to pure H2O, the better. Remember, any “off” tastes in the water will carry over to your cup of coffee.
Two issues not mentioned above that can also negatively impact the taste of your cup of coffee are the temperature at which you drink your coffee, and the state of your equipment before using it for coffee-making. Your temperature when served, and cleanliness.
Temperature When Served
The temperature of your cup of coffee is critical. Anyone can tell you that this same principle applies to a vast majority of different dishes and recipes. A beautiful and freshly-cooked steak tastes amazing, especially with the mouthwatering flavors of the marbled fat in each delicate cut of meat. But leave it to cool for too long, and the lard on the meat begins to harden, and much of the flavor is lost as the fat regains its solid consistency. Soups are traditionally best served and consumed hot, and many recipes can quickly become much harder to enjoy as they lose their heat. On the other hand, cold dishes are meant to be consumed cold, before they lose integrity and taste. Take ice cream as an obvious example.
Coffee is no exception and should be consumed either hot or iced. The reason for this is two-fold: when hot, a cup of coffee’s aroma is much stronger as its oils are still subject to heat. As the beverage cools, it loses a lot of its distinct scent, which greatly affects flavor. Our tongues are also wired not to pick up on strong tastes when food is very hot or very cold, allowing us to drink coffee without particularly being bothered by its bitter nature.
This is most apparent in espresso drinks, as these are often made with beans that are explicitly more bitter than most other brews while remaining delicious due to the texture and aroma of the drink. Room temperature espresso, on the other hand, is much harder on the palate.
What About Cold Coffee?
While iced coffee doesn’t give off nearly as much aroma as its warmed counterpart, it doesn’t let the bitter taste of the coffee come to the foreground either. While bitterness is a definite and important part of coffee’s flavor profile, it’s important to not let it overpower the underlying flavors in each roast. Depending on the origin of the beans, and the level of the roasting, the taste, and aroma of coffee differs wildly from acidic, tangy, sharp, and citrusy, to chocolate-like, smoky, or even floral. A cup of coffee can evoke nutty flavors, herbal flavors, and aromas like cedar and pine. But at the wrong temperatures, all that complexity and flavor is lost and overpowered by an astringent and bitter note. The solution is very simple: drink faster. If you do end up with leftover coffee, either consider tossing it out to the plants, doing something else with it in the kitchen, or making yourself a post-lunch iced coffee.
Cleaning Your Tools
The second bonus tip is to make sure you regularly clean out your coffee-making equipment, thoroughly at that. When ground and brewed, a batch of coffee often ends up with a thin layer of sediment at the bottom of each mug, cafetière, and carafe. Regardless of whether you’re brewing via drip, pour over, or press, consider properly disassembling your coffee making tools, giving them a thorough clean with warm soapy water, and making sure each of your mugs is impeccably clean. Any coffee residue gets stale quickly and can severely affect the taste of each subsequent cup of coffee over time, making your coffee batches taste progressively worse.
To recap, it’s important to try and simplify the coffee-making process, otherwise, it’ll be virtually impossible for you to effectively remain consistent over weeks and months. The enthusiasm for fresh and well-prepared coffee can wane over time, so making things as simple as possible is a good way to ensure that you’re never really compromising quality. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Brew with mineral water.
- Use a hand or burr grinder and always grind the same way.
- Use a kitchen timer for each brew.
- Consider a kettle with a thermostat.
- Get a digital scale to quickly and consistently use the same coffee-to-water ratio.
- Clean out your mugs and brewing equipment every morning.
- Thoroughly clean your brewing equipment and grinder once a week.
And that is all – a simple and quick daily checklist for all your coffee-making needs! While all this might require a bit of an initial investment, particularly if you do not have a kitchen scale or a kettle with a thermostat, it’ll be worth it if you find yourself spending a considerable amount of time and money drinking your own coffee on a daily basis.