Whilst a lot of people enjoy the bitterness in coffee, for some it’s overpowering. Many enjoy the aroma of freshly brewed coffee but can’t stand the bitter taste. But all coffee is bitter, right? Wrong.
Arabica coffee beans make coffee that is less bitter than robusta beans. High-quality arabica coffee that has been roasted light to medium barely has any bitterness at all. Buying coffee from local and independent specialty coffee roasters will ensure that you enjoy a bitter-free cup of coffee.
If you find the bitterness in bad coffee overwhelming, you may well be the one in four people in the population that is a supertaster. But fear not, I’m here to show you how you can avoid bitter coffee and start enjoying coffee’s true taste.
Although bitter compounds are found in all types of coffee, the degree of bitterness can vary hugely depending on the variety and how the coffee is processed and brewed.
Whilst the majority of the world’s coffee is merely a low-grade commodity, there exists an industry that is intent on improving the quality of the coffee we drink. That industry is known as the specialty coffee industry.
Through painstaking attention to detail, the resulting cup of coffee is anything but bitter. It is truly like nothing you’ve ever tasted. It’s flavoursome, it’s aromatic, it’s balanced, it’s sweet, it’s light.
Perhaps you’ve already noticed a new trend in your city of specialty, third-wave coffee shops. Unlike the big names such as Starbucks, Costa and McDonald’s, these specialty coffee shops use high-grade coffee that has been lovingly processed.
Through meticulous care and attention in the growing, roasting and brewing process, the coffee isn’t bitter. You can buy these coffees by googling specialty coffee near me or by searching online specialty coffee roasters.
Make sure to check out the list of roasters in your country at the end of this article. If you’re in the UK, we have the best online list of specialty coffee roasters in the UK.
Cold brew coffee is less bitter
Cold brew is definitely riding the third-wave at the moment with huge companies such as Starbucks even getting in on the act. Not only is it a refreshing drink to enjoy on a hot summer’s day, but it’s also a coffee with reduced bitterness.
It’s all to do with how coffee reacts when it’s combined with water. The hotter the water, the more easily it can extract the bitter compounds inherent in the coffee bean. Using cold water means those bitter compounds stay trapped in the bean, resulting in a smoother cup of coffee.
Cold brew is good for producing a coffee with slightly lower acidity, too. That’s great news if you have a sensitivity to acidity.
Why does coffee taste bitter?
The two main reasons for the high levels of bitterness in coffee are:
- Coffee roaster: roasting inferior, low-grade coffee too darkly
- User-error: over-extracting the coffee during brewing
Most cheap, commercial coffees are roasted way too long which results in burning and thus bitterness. It’s exactly the same as when you toast a piece of bread for too long; the result is bitterness due to burning.
You’ll notice that coffee beans are often black or, at best, a very deep brown colour. Roasts such as French- or Italian-roast are roasted at such high temperatures that the beans become shiny due to the coffee lipids (oils) showing on the surface. If they were to be roasted any longer, they’d go up in flames.
This makes for an extremely bitter cup because you’re essentially drinking burned coffee.
So why do roasters roast their coffee so dark? It’s all done in an effort to conceal the poor quality coffee beans. By roasting as dark as they do, they cover over the flaws of the inferior, low-grade coffee beans.
Most commercial packets of coffee are also a blend of as many as 40 different coffee beans from around the globe. Just as with wine, coffee has its own inherent flavours which change year upon year.
To create a blend that tastes the same year in, year out, the coffees are roasted darkly to account for the changes, meaning the flavour of the blend stays the same.
Another reason for bitterness can be down to user-error. Even with the best coffees beans in the world, you can still cause the resulting brew to be bitter.
When you brew coffee for too long, it becomes over-extracted and thus bitter. When you add hot water to coffee, the water acts as a solvent to the coffee. Firstly, the acids are extracted from the beans, then the sugars, and finally the bitter compounds.
You want to stop the brewing process when you’ve got to the tasty sugar compounds but not far enough that you’re into bitter territory.
This is much the same as a piece of fruit. Did you know that coffee comes from fruit too?
When a piece of fruit hasn’t had a chance to ripen, you’ll notice that it’s sour and unpleasant to eat. If you leave the fruit to mature, it becomes sweeter and sweeter. That is when you want to eat it.
But when you leave a piece of fruit too long, what happens? The sweetness actually diminishes because it reached its peak.
Although fruit doesn’t become bitter after reaching its sweetest point, coffee is much the same as fruit in that it reaches its best and then gradually gets worse. You want to consume it at its peak.
Which coffee is most bitter?
Darkly roasted coffee will always be more bitter than lightly roasted coffee due to the chemical process that takes place during roasting. The more coffee is roasted, the greater the build-up of quinic acids that turn into chlorogenic acid lactones and phenylindane bitter compounds.
The most bitter coffees will either have a high strength rating on the packet or be named full city roast, dark roast, Vienna roast, French roast, or Italian roast, so they’re the ones you want to avoid.
Good specialty coffee roasters seldom roast coffee darkly. The darker a coffee is roasted, the more you obscure its inherent flavours.
Specialty coffee roasters roast their coffees in such a way as to highlight the coffee’s beautiful flavours, and to show off its terroir – where the coffee came from.
Robusta has more bitterness than arabica
The two most common varieties of coffee beans are arabica and robusta. Arabica is superior in taste to robusta and therefore demands a higher price.
You’ll find robusta used in jars of instant and packets of cheap coffee. It’s also commonly found in coffee pods for automatic machines such as Nepresso or Dulce Gusto.
Roasted robusta coffee is a lot more bitter than the arabica variety. This is because it has higher concentrations of the bitter compounds chlorogenic acid lactones and phenylindanes.
Robusta also has a higher concentration of the bitter compound caffeine, which also adds somewhat to the levels of bitterness.
Robusta produces a lot more crema (the foam you see on the top of your espresso). To a lot of people, high quantities of crema is a sign of delicious coffee, and crema is even shown-off in advertisements as something desirable.
However, the crema is extremely bitter and isn’t favoured much in the specialty coffee industry. Try scooping the crema off the top of your espresso and tasting it. You won’t want to do it again in a hurry.
Look for 100% arabica coffee next time you buy a packet. Arabica is a lot more gentle in flavour.
How do you make coffee that isn’t bitter?
One of the simplest ways to brew bitter-free coffee is to add freshly ground specialty coffee to a French press and add water that’s just off the boil. Leave it for four minutes, and you’ll have perfectly brewed coffee.
Water temperature and grind size affect how your coffee tastes. The hotter the water, the more easily you’ll pull out the bitter compounds. Grind fine, and you’ll reach those bitter compounds more quickly.
You can use pretty much any water temperature and grind size that you like, but you’ll just need to adapt your brewing method.
It’s a lot like cooking. For example, a whole potato takes a lot longer to boil than one that has been chopped into smaller pieces. The smaller the pieces, the quicker it cooks.
It’s no different with coffee. You just need to know when to stop the ‘cooking process’.
Clean equipment to reduce bitterness
Make sure to keep your equipment clean. Rinsing is not enough. You may have heard that it’s better not to clean coffee equipment much the same way as they say it’s not a good idea to clean a Chinese wok.
Coffee becomes rancid if you don’t clean it because of the build-up of oils. Use a neutral, non-perfumed washing-up liquid and give your equipment a thorough clean after every use.
Note: I recommend not putting plastic coffee-brewing equipment such as the AeroPress or Clever Dripper in the dishwasher, as the plastic takes on the taste of the dishwasher tablets. It’s better to clean plastic by hand.
How do you counteract bad coffee’s bitter taste?
If you find black coffee to be too bitter, you can, of course, add sugar and milk. The natural sugars in milk known as lactose help to reduce bitterness much the same way as normal sugar does.
You may have heard about adding salt to coffee to reduce its bitterness as salt is actually better at reducing bitterness than sugar. Whilst it does help to some degree to add a tiny amount, if you’re resorting to salt, then you want to look at buying better quality coffee.
You can’t make something delicious from bad ingredients.
Rather than trying to counteract the bitterness found in bad coffee, buy good-quality specialty coffee that is bitter-free. Nowadays, most towns and cities have specialty coffee shops that sell packets of quality coffee. You might also be lucky enough to live near a specialty roaster too, especially if you live in a large city.