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There are several reasons you may be wondering how to make coffee less bitter.
Maybe you’re seeking the boost of energy or warmth a mug of hot, caffeinated coffee can provide but have never enjoyed the taste.
Perhaps you’ve been slowly attempting to cut flavored creamers or sugar out of your diet and you’re finally down to fixing that morning cup of coffee (that was the last thing to go, right?).
You might already be fine with drinking your coffee black but want to take it to the next level of perfection. Here are a few things that could be making your coffee bitter and how to address them (without switching from black coffee).
What Makes Coffee Bitter
Figuring out what is making your coffee bitter can be an adventure in trial and error. A few things can affect coffee’s bitter flavors and general bitterness, such as:
- Quality of the beans
- Age of the beans
- How fine or coarse the grind is (coffee grinds)
- The ratio of coffee to water
- Roast level
- Temperature of the water (hot water or colder water CAN effect things)
- Brewing method
- Brewing time
- The filters you use
- What you add to the coffee
Does that mean coffee is just too finicky and you should give it up? Never! The tweaks you can make are mostly minor. Most of them won’t cost you much, if anything. In some cases, you may need to choose a different type of bean or roaster (or just a different roast, which also won’t cost you much, if anything, extra).
Choosing the Right Coffee
You can’t go to the grocery store and pick up any coffee, any roast, with any roast date and expect it not to taste bitter. Other things can influence the coffee bitterness once it’s brewed, but starting with the best beans possible is a safe bet. You may find that by choosing fresher beans in a lighter roast, you eliminate the need to tweak your brewing methods.
What’s best if you’re experiencing bitter coffee and want to make a change?
- A light to medium roast (these tend to be fruitier and sweeter than dark roasts, which can have bitter or smoky components to their flavor profiles that are off-putting to some people)
- As fresh as possible (check for local roasters or coffee shops that sell beans from roasters that aren’t too far away)
- Ground at home, if you have a coffee grinder or are willing to purchase and use one (you can have whole beans ground when you purchase them from a coffee shop, but the coffee will lose its components of its flavor more quickly once ground and bitterness may become more prevalent)
- Opt for a lower chlorogenic acid coffee; acidity sometimes can be actually be what makes it taste bitter (see below for a guide!)
The Best Brewing Methods
If you’re consistently getting bitter coffee regardless of the types of beans you buy or how fresh they are, your best brewing method will be one that gives you control. That means a traditional coffee maker or single-cup option may not be the best brewing method for you.
When you’re perfecting your coffee and trying to make it less bitter, you’ll want to be able to control the water temperature and brew time, among other things. Brewing methods that give you significant control:
- French press
- Pour over
- Vacuum pot (probably best for those who are really passionate about coffee due to the amount of time and care that goes into making the coffee and caring for the equipment)
Get the Right Grind
The grind you need will depend on your brewing method. Some methods require a coarser ground than others for the optimal cup of coffee. If you’re having your beans ground at a shop, tell them how you intend to make your coffee so they can adjust appropriately.
If you’re still experiencing bitter coffee and think it could still be the grind, ask them to make it a little coarser next time. If you’re grinding your own beans at home, experiment. Consult your grinder’s user manual if you’re unsure of how to adjust the grind size. You may find tips there for matching your brewing method to the grind that you hadn’t noticed before, too.
Coffee beans that are too finely ground for the brewing method could create bitter coffee due to over-extraction. As a side note: If you find that your coffee tastes too weak or sour, your grounds could be too coarse.
Get the Ratio Right
If your coffee tastes bitter no matter how fresh it is or what you do, it may come down to the coffee to water ratio. Too much coffee and too little water will make strong, often bitter, coffee.
First thing in the morning, or in the middle of an afternoon when your energy is dragging, it’s easiest to just eyeball the amount of coffee or use a scoop. Those methods will get the coffee into your body faster, but they won’t necessarily result in the best-tasting cup. A kitchen coffee scale is the most accurate way to measure your coffee. This way you’re measuring grams and the density of the coffee beans won’t come into play, skewing the flavor compounds of your drink.
Two beans that look the same on the outside could have very different densities. The only way to address this when you’re making coffee is to measure with a scale. The denser beans, when measurements are eyeballed or scooped straight into the filter, could result in a more bitter cup of coffee. Once you’re happy with the way your coffee tastes, always shoot for the same number of grams to ensure consistency from pot to pot, and of course, keep the amount of water the same.
Don’t Brew for Too Long
If you’re using a traditional coffee maker, you won’t have much choice in the matter of brewing time. However, if you’re using a French press, for example, you will. Don’t let the coffee brew in the press for longer than four minutes before you push the plunger down.
If you leave the plunger up for a couple of extra minutes, that may seem like no big deal in the grand scheme of things, especially if your mornings are frantic and you like to multi-task by packing lunches or getting the kids ready while your coffee brews. However, it will continue to extract during that extra time and could result in bitter coffee you won’t enjoy drinking.
Set a timer or enlist other people in your household to keep an eye on the clock and help you remember when it’s time to push the plunger down. If it’s still too bitter at four minutes, try three minutes, thirty seconds next time. Once you’ve found the perfect amount of time for the beans you buy, write it down and you’ll be able to time it perfectly each day.
If you’re making water with coffee that’s too hot, that could lead to bitter coffee. Don’t bring the water in your kettle to a boil. Keep it just under a boil for the best results. Instead of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, shoot for 200 degrees.
No way of knowing what the temperature of your water is? No problem, you don’t need to go out and buy a new kettle. Simply boil the water and wait about 30 seconds before you pour it. This will cool it down just enough to make coffee less bitter.
Switch to a Paper Filter
Your filter can affect the taste of your coffee. If you’re using a permanent filter (metal or nylon), you could be letting more coffee oils and sediment into your cup than your palette prefers. Try switching to a paper (bleached, unbleached, or bamboo) or cloth filter. These will absorb some of those oils.
Overall, your coffee won’t be as bold or rich with a paper or cloth filter as compared to nylon and metal options, but you may find that you like the flavor more when it’s brewed with a paper or cloth filter. Boxes of filters are relatively inexpensive, so this experiment won’t cost a lot.
Clean Your Equipment
Residue from old coffee can taint a brand new pot. Be sure to regularly clean your coffee maker, permanent filters, as well as the coffee pot itself to avoid brewing the perfect pot of coffee and never realizing it because some component of the coffee maker was dirty.
Consult the user manual for your coffee maker to find the most effective, safest way to clean it. Be sure to rinse well so that soap, vinegar, or whatever you may use to clean your coffee pot won’t contaminate the flavor of the next pot.
What to Add (Not What You Think!)
It’s not sugar…it’s salt! Add a pinch of salt to your coffee to allow sodium ions to block the bitterness from your tongue. You probably already have it on-hand in your kitchen, making this a truly easy fix for bitter coffee.
On Your Way to Great Coffee
Making these adjustments can change the flavor of your coffee, cutting some or most of the bitterness you’ve been experiencing in your cup of joe. You don’t need to add sugar, cream, or fancy flavored creamers to have a light, sweet (but not that sweet), flavorful cup of coffee. See which switch you feel most comfortable with first and which one’s the most likely culprit behind your bitter coffee, then go from there.
Keep in mind, however, that a hint of bitterness can add to the overall flavor of the coffee and add balance. Don’t be dismayed if you’ve tried everything and your coffee is just too bitter. You may want to consider coffee from another region of the world, a different roaster, or new brand.
If there’s some bitterness lingering in your coffee that does not bother you but you’re wondering what you’ve done wrong since it’s still there, the answer may be: nothing. If you’ve improved your cup enough to please your palette, enjoy!
Gordon is seriously addicted to coffee. He also likes to write. Match made in heaven? Yes. After years of boring casual coffee drinkers to death with bean origin stories, he took to writing publicly here at 2Caffeinated.