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Drinking Bitter Coffee?
Here’s Why + 12 Quick, Easy Solutions

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By Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Are you tired of drinking bitter coffee? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Whilst bitterness is a popular part of the coffee flavor, too much will completely ruin your cup. 

The most common reason that coffee tastes bitter is over extracting flavor from your coffee grounds. This can be due to your coffee being too finely ground, water being too hot, brewing for too long, or using the wrong coffee-to-water ratio. 

It could also be due to using low-quality or old coffee beans or dirty coffee brewing equipment.

Here, we’ll give you the quick and simple fixes so you can get back to drinking delicious cups of joe.   

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Why Does My Coffee Taste Bitter?

The cause of bitter tasting coffee can be one of two things:

Either you have poor quality or stale coffee beans, or you’ve extracted too much of the bitter flavors from the grounds themselves.

Bitter flavors are extracted at the end of the brewing process. So, when brewed correctly, you get a nice balance of sour, sweet, and bitter notes. But too much extraction leads to the bitter flavors dominating your cup of joe.

The first problem is easily fixable, if not so easy to identify as the issue.

The second has many causes and therefore many possible solutions. So, to help make it a little easier, we’ll break them down individually.

Infographic: 7 main causes of bitter coffee
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1. Bad Quality or Stale Coffee Beans

Cheap coffee beans are cheap for a reason.

Compared to more expensive coffee, lower-quality beans have less aromatic and sweet notes. As a result, they have a much more bitter flavor profile.

Many people who have only ever drunk the cheapest coffee have no idea what good premium coffee can taste like. Or that the burnt, bitter flavor isn’t actually the point.

Similarly, if you have very old beans, they’re more likely to produce stale tasting coffee that’s bitter. This is because the volatile oils that add all those sweet and aromatic flavors to your coffee will evaporate over time. As a result, only the bitter flavors are left to extract.

When you brew with old beans, bitterness will be the dominant flavor.

Fix it With Better Beans

Of all the possible culprits for bitter tasting coffee, this at least is very simple to fix.

Buy good quality, freshly roasted Arabica coffee and you’ll notice a significant reduction in the bitterness of your coffee. Most cheaper coffees use Robusta beans which have a naturally more bitter flavor profile. So switching to quality Arabica coffee should reduce the bitterness.

This doesn’t have to cost the Earth either. Whilst you will pay more for quality over instant coffee, there are plenty of good premium coffee options without hefty price tags.

For the best-tasting coffee, you should also grind your beans fresh for each cup. Even a relatively cheap manual coffee grinder (like the Javapresse) will be a significant upgrade over pre-ground coffee.

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2. The Wrong Roast

Maybe you’re already using freshly roasted Arabica coffee beans but still feel there is too much bitterness. The beans could still be at fault here.

Not that they’re faulty themselves but that they’re the wrong roast for you.

As flavor is subjective, what’s right for you might not be right for someone else. And, to make things more complicated, the best roast level will vary depending on your preferred type of coffee maker. So if you like to mix things up, just keep in mind that you might need to have a different coffee variety for espresso and pour over, for example, to avoid one from tasting bitter.

The Fix: Go Less Roasty

Pick a lighter roast.

Darker roasts produce more bitter, smoky flavors. So if you’re drinking dark roast coffee and feel it’s too bitter, try some medium roast coffee beans instead. You may find a new favorite coffee that tastes a lot less bitter.

Read next: Ultimate Guide to Coffee Bean Roasts

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3. Over-Extraction

If you’re using the right beans then the reason your coffee is too bitter is that you are “over-extracting.”

In other words, you’re taking too much flavor from the coffee grounds, ruining the balance of sour, sweet, and bitter. As the bitter notes are the last ones extracted, taking too much flavor means very bitter coffee.

There are several things that might cause you to over-extract your coffee. So we’ll go through each in turn. Sadly you’ll have to use trial and error, changing one at a time until you find the culprit and get less better coffee.

Suspect Number 1: Over Steeping

When we leave the coffee grounds immersed in water, we call this brewing method “steeping”. Usually, this is followed by pressing the water through a filter to remove the grounds, such as in French press or AeroPress.

Steeping is a wonderfully simple way to brew coffee that yields amazing results, but you’re at risk of leaving your coffee grounds in the water too long. This “over steeping” will lead to the very bitter flavors that are extracted last from your coffee grounds to ruin the balance of your cup.

This is because the sour, citrus notes are the first to be extracted. Then the sweet, aromatic middle flavors, and finally the bitter ones. So if you don’t steep the grounds for long enough, you could end up with a watery or sour-tasting coffee.

But, if you steep for too long, your coffee will be very bitter as these flavors overwhelm the others.

Good-tasting coffee is when all the different flavors are in balance.

Solution: Reduce the Time you Steep for

When brewing French press coffee, you should be aiming for 4 minutes of steeping time. So if you’re guilty of walking away and leaving your grounds steeping for longer, then set a timer (you probably have one in your pocket) for 4 minutes and that should help.

AeroPress is a little more complex as there are so many different recipes for making great coffee. But if your coffee is consistently coming out bitter, try reducing the steeping time.

Timer set to 4 minutes beside French press coffee maker

Suspect Number 2: Too Fine a Grind

The grind size contributes to the extraction of the flavor from coffee in two ways:

Smaller individual coffee grounds have a large surface area relative to their volume. This means the flavors are extracted much more quickly than with larger grind sizes.

The smaller particles also slow the movement of water through the coffee puck in the case of espresso, or the coffee bed for pour-over. This extends the extraction time for these brewing methods.

So grinding finer not only speeds up the extraction process but also means the water is in contact with the grounds for longer too.

Fix: Grind Coarser

Anyone who has spent time on the r/espresso Reddit will know how weird it feels just to type “grind coarser”. But it is possible to grind too fine (for any brewing method) and coffee that is too bitter is frequently the result.

It doesn’t matter if you have a manual grinder or an electric one at home, try moving the coffee grind size a little coarser and see how the coffee tastes.

If you’re getting it ground for you in-store or by your roaster, simply ask for a coarser grind. Just keep in mind that if pre-ground coffee tastes bitter, it could be that the grounds are going stale and changing the flavor. As this happens much faster than with whole beans, grinding yourself will always yield better-tasting coffee.

Recommended Gear for Grinding Coarser

For more recommendations at all price points, check out our guide to the Best Grinder for French Press by clicking here.

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4. Wrong Coffee-to-Water Ratio

The ratio of coffee to water impacts not only the strength of the brew but the flavor profile too. It also varies for different brewing methods so there isn’t one hard and fast rule for getting the ratio right.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends a ratio of 18:1 for perfect coffee brewing. That’s 18g of water for every 1g of coffee. But you’ll find people’s preferences vary quite substantially from this.

For example, if you’re making French press coffee, you’ll probably want more coffee. But pour over will most likely be closer to the 18:1 ratio outlined by the SCAA. Use one of our coffee-to-water calculators so you don’t have to do the complex maths to work it out whilst avoiding bitter tasting coffee:

Simple Solution: Mix it Up

If you find your pour over or espresso too bitter, try reducing the amount of water you’re using.

Using too much water will result in over-extraction and a brew that’s a little weak, and very bitter. On the other hand, if you use far too much water then you’ll just end up with watery coffee.

If you’re steeping or using a drip coffee maker then try reducing the amount of coffee you’re using. With these methods, using a large amount of coffee compared to water will result in a very bitter brew.

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5. Water is Too Hot

The temperature at which you brew your coffee is very important. Not just because you might prefer hot coffee, but because the water temperature will greatly affect the flavor too.

Brewing coffee is a chemical reaction, and all chemical reactions are sped up by adding energy. In this case, hotter water means faster extraction which can lead to coffee being too bitter.

The ideal brewing temperature is between 195°F to 205°F, ideally around 200°F.

Check your water temperature with a thermometer, and if it’s too hot then it could be causing the bitterness in your coffee. If it’s boiling (212°F), then it can burn the coffee grounds resulting in your coffee tasting burnt and also very bitter.

Fix: Cool it Down

It’s easy enough to reduce the temperature of your water if you’re brewing with a manual espresso maker, French press, pour over, or AeroPress. If you have a temperature-controlled kettle, simply choose a lower temperature. Or leave the water longer to cool down after boiling.

If you want the extreme way to reduce bitterness with temperature, then you can make cold brew coffee in the fridge for 12-24 hours. This brewing method produces a very sweet-tasting coffee with almost no bitterness. But it’s for drinking cold and for the prepared.

If you have an espresso machine with no temperature controls then you have to hope that it isn’t the water temperature that’s causing bad-tasting coffee. As long as the machine isn’t burning the coffee you should be able to fix the bitterness with one of the other methods or you’ll need to get an engineer to look at it.

Similarly with an automatic drip coffee maker. Here, the most likely culprit of bitter or bad-tasting coffee is actually the hot plate burning the coffee after it’s been brewed.

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6. Dirty Brewing Equipment

Cleaning all your coffee equipment can be a drag. It’s very tempting to put it off continually as a lot of the mess isn’t easy to see. But if your coffee is tasting bitter, not having a clean coffee machine could be the culprit.

It might be old coffee grounds that are burnt onto your espresso maker’s shower screen. Or maybe they’re hanging around in the nooks and crannies of your French press or drip coffee machine. Wherever they’re hiding, they will make your coffee bitter.

Continually extracting more bitter flavor from old grounds or burnt notes from ones in direct contact with hot parts of the machine is guaranteed to ruin what should be a delicious cup of joe.

The Fix: Take a Bath

Perhaps the most obvious fix. But if your coffee brewing gear is dirty, then clean it.

Give everything a proper deep clean from the grinder through to the cups you use. Ensuring everything is sparkly and clean could be a very quick solution for bitter or burnt tasting coffee.

You should do a quick clean after each use to remove excess coffee grinds, then a more thorough clean daily. At least once a week you should deep clean your grinder and espresso machine if you use one. The goal is to remove all old coffee residue.

This may seem like a lot of cleaning, but if you want good coffee, you need clean equipment. Plus it will help your coffee maker avoid an early death. Many espresso machines come with specialized coffee machine cleaner to ensure it stays in great condition.

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How to Fix Bitter Coffee (Once it’s Served)

For those times when your pot of coffee, or just a cup, is very bitter but the caffeine need is too strong to throw it away. Or when you’re at a friend’s and throwing it away would be rude.

Whatever bitter situation you find yourself in, we have some tips on how to dampen that bitterness and enjoy your brew.

Infographic: What to do if your coffee tastes bitter

1. Add Milk/ Cream

Fat helps to balance out the bitter flavors of your coffee. So adding milk or cream is the most obvious solution but ice cream or even butter will help reduce the bitterness and make a bad cup more enjoyable. Espresso float anyone?

2. Add Sugar

This is another quick and fairly obvious fix.

Sweetness helps balance bitterness so a little sugar will take the edge off a very bitter tasting coffee. If you know someone who has to have sugar in their brew, maybe they’ve only ever had badly brewed coffee.

3. Add Salt

A little left field on this one but salt really works well to counteract the bitterness in coffee. Just a tiny pinch in an overly bitter brew can really bring out the sweeter notes and result in a delicious coffee.

Cà Phê Muối – salt coffee – is a national sensation in Viet Nam. A small amount of salt is added to the traditional strong, Robusta brew that the Vietnamese love. The result is a smooth, (naturally) chocolatey delight.

Cà Phê Muối, salt coffee in a cafe in Viet Nam
Cà Phê Muối in a coffee house in Viet Nam

4. Add Citrus

Adding something sour to your coffee is another way to help balance the bitterness. Whilst a wedge of lemon might be a little too much acidity for some, a slice of fresh orange can completely change the profile of your coffee.

5. Add Sweet Spice

This is more about tricking your brain than anything else.

Adding cinnamon, or another spice associated with sweet things, tricks you into thinking the coffee is sweeter than it is. All without adding any sugar. So a little hint of spice can save your coffee with no added calories. After all, there’s a reason the PSL (pumpkin spice latte) is so famous.

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FAQs

Which roast gives the least bitter coffee?

Using lightly roasted beans will make the least bitter tasting coffee.

Light roasts tend to be higher in caffeine content and acidity, giving a brighter, more citrus-flavored cup of joe. The darker the roast, the more bitter flavors will be present.

What are the best coffee beans to avoid bitter coffee?

Arabica coffee beans are naturally much less bitter in flavor than Robusta beans. So if you want to avoid bitterness in your brew, single-origin beans from Central America or Ethiopia tend to be sweeter and more aromatic.

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Final Thoughts

Drinking very bitter tasting coffee is a very upsetting and unpleasant experience that is best avoided.

Thankfully it’s easily fixed with a little touch of milk, salt, spice, sugar, or citrus.

However, fixing the route of the problem is more complex. You have to go through each possible culprit one at a time to improve a bitter coffee. But once you’ve found the issue, it’s almost always very simple to fix.

So, next time you’re scratching your head and wondering ‘why does my coffee taste bitter’, take a walk through these steps. In no time at all, bitter will be out and delicious cups of coffee will be back in.

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Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Matt's coffee obsession started in 2006 when working as a Barista. A tendency to turn up to work hungover kickstarted his coffee journey which quickly turned into a love affair. As he moved on to work as a Restaurant Manager and Sommelier, the obsession continued to grow. Now, his passion is helping others to enjoy better coffee at home.

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