If you're an espresso aficionado like me, you probably love its rich flavor, that cozy feeling it invokes, and the shot of energy it provides.
You probably also know that creating a perfect cup requires a delicate balance and technique. What if you're doing all of that but are still ending up with overly-bitter coffee?
Aside from throwing the espresso machine out the window, I have a surefire guide here to help. If you're wondering, "Why does my espresso taste bitter?" look no further!
Unlocking The Mystery: 7 Culprits Behind Bitter Espresso
Made from finely-ground coffee beans, espresso is always going to have a somewhat-bitter flavor profile.
However, if it has a sour taste or is more bitter than the norm, it’s likely due to one or more of the following culprits behind the unpleasant taste.
While the taste is somewhat subjective, this is a surefire way to like your espresso.
1. No More Bad Beans
Perhaps the easiest fix is using good coffee beans! Many people think that it’s the dark roast beans or a certain brand of specialty coffee causing the intense flavor.
Old coffee beans, in general, will contribute to poor-quality coffee.
If you're using coffee beans that result in undesirable flavors and are wondering if they are what's making your coffee taste bitter, smell a coffee bean or two. If they have a pleasant aroma, it likely isn't the culprit in causing coffee with a bitter taste.
Just make sure that you always use fresh coffee beans, and you should be in the clear! I always make sure my coffee beans are frozen, sealed closed in a glass container, or that the coffee bag is completely closed off.
2. Grind Size Matters
The coffee grind makes a big difference in whether your espresso has a bitter taste or not. I recommend using finely-ground coffee (but not too fine!) Try to aim for a slightly finer granule than salt.
Even just a slightly coarser grind size will end up with a bitter-tasting espresso, and I'm assuming you don't want that, or you wouldn't be here!
A good coffee grinder will help with this and is also an important factor. I recommend investing in a ceramic burr grinder.
3. Find The Right Coffee-to-Water Ratio
It definitely took me a couple of months of brewing daily to find the perfect balance of water and coffee.
If you don't use enough water or too much coffee, you'll end up with a sour espresso shot. This is known as "under-extracted coffee."
If you use too much water or too little coffee, you’ll end up with bitter, over-extracted coffee. We want to land in the middle, using a 1:2 ratio of coffee: water.
4. Time’s Up! Remember Not To Over Brew
Over-brewing or brewing your espresso for too long can also create an overwhelmingly bitter taste.
When you brew coffee for too long, it extracts more of the bitter compounds, which can create sour espresso. Try reducing the brew time to create a smooth espresso taste every time.
Most baristas across the coffee industry, including myself, believe the ideal espresso extraction time is about 25-30 seconds. For regular coffee, 4-5 minutes is more appropriate.
5. Over Extraction Woes
Over-extraction is the most common reason for why espresso coffee tastes bitter. This happens when you remove too much of the soluble flavors from the coffee grounds.
Fruity and acidic notes are extracted first. Sweetness and balance are next, followed by bitterness.
You can even test this yourself. Pull a shot of espresso as you normally would, letting the first half pour into one glass and the second half into another.
Taste the first, then the second. You'll undoubtedly notice that the second is much more bitter.
6. Water Temperature Must Be Just Right
Using too-hot water can predictably end up with a bitter shot. To make a good espresso shot, aim for the hot water to hit between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.
This means that it's just under the boiling point. If the water temperature is too high, it can extract the tannic acid, which causes very sour espresso.
On the other end of the spectrum, if your water is too low, your coffee may have a sour taste.
7. Clean Your Dirty Equipment
I was lucky enough that my first experience with brewing espresso was at a local cafe with a super strict manager who made sure we cleaned the coffee machine all the time.
Well, I didn't feel lucky at the time, but it did instill good habits to avoid built-up coffee oils that could create metallic, bitter, or astringent flavors.
This is often blamed on bad coffee beans when a large percentage of the time, it's simply caused by dirty equipment.
As a side note, if you really want your espresso machine to function at its best and last as long as possible, it should be cleaned regularly.
You may be thinking that you don't have to clean your espresso machine frequently, as you don't use it that often.
However, an inactive machine can collect coffee oils just as rapidly as one used regularly, as water isn’t passing through the different parts.
This flow of water actually helps prevent potential blockages that could otherwise cause channeling and/or uneven extraction.
Bitter Espresso Begone: Rapid Remedies To Try!
If your espresso has an overly-bitter taste or you’re sick of dealing with sour coffee, know that it doesn’t have to be a complete loss.
There are some remedies you can try to make bitter-tasting coffee more palatable.
A dash of table salt definitely isn’t the first option on most people’s list, but it can actually help fix bitter coffee.
Just use it sparingly, as too much salt will affect the overall taste in a negative way.
If you’re someone who already prefers a sweeter brew, you’ll find that sugar can help fix bitter espresso.
Just like with salt, you don’t want to go overboard, as you can make it too sweet.
Add Cream or Milk
This has been my go-to for years. If it’s my first time at a cafe and I don’t know how well they make their espresso, I just ask them to add some milk or cream.
The fat content in both offers a fuller taste and does a fantastic job of neutralizing any sour or bitter taste.
Brew It Again (Don’t Give Up!)
I’ve found that in life, in general, making the extra effort to try and improve something will be rewarded in one way or another.
The same goes for the espresso brew. If you feel like you're following all the steps but are still wondering, "Why does my espresso taste sour?" or "Why does my coffee taste burnt?!", it's likely your technique.
As I mentioned earlier, these things do take a while to perfect and get just the right balance.
Don’t give up! An espresso machine is like a bike. It’s a different experience, depending on the bike and who’s riding it.
You want to make sure you’re leading the Tour de France of coffee enthusiasts - making enough coffee to create a delicious cup every time.
How To Perfect The Espresso Flavor Once and For All
If you're still asking yourself, "Why is my espresso bitter?" follow these tried-and-true steps to yield a perfect espresso shot whenever you want.
Choose your dose based on the basket of the portafilter in your espresso machine. For single baskets, aim for 7 to 10 grams of ground coffee.
For double baskets, go for 16 to 18 grams of coffee grounds.
This is the total weight (in grams) of your shot of espresso.
Always weigh coffee in grams rather than volume, as the volume can change based on the coffee beans used and other factors.
Fresh coffee beans produce more crema and weigh less than older ones. You'll see dose and yield displayed as a ratio, measuring coffee grounds (input) to liquid espresso output. A brew ratio from 1:1 to 1:3 is typical.
Remember when we talked about how making a perfect cup of coffee relies heavily on the brew time?
Your shot should pull between 25 and 30 seconds, and you can ensure this by changing the grind size so water travels through the coffee bed within this timeframe.
Adjust the grind size to fine-tune the shot time. You'll want a more fine grind as your coffee beans get older.
Tamping makes coffee even, so the water travels evenly through the "puck" of espresso to extract flavor nicely.
Make sure the coffee is even before applying any pressure. After tamping with slow and gentle pressure, make sure there are no gaps or loose spots in the coffee.
5. Pull the Shot
Now, you can insert the portafilter into the group and pull it into place until it’s nice and snug (but not overly tight). Place your cup on the drip tray, pull the shot, and start the timer.
Common Questions About Bitter Espresso
Why does my coffee taste sour?
If your espresso tastes sour, it’s likely due to under-extraction. Not enough flavor compounds were removed from the ground coffee beans during the brewing process.
What to do if espresso tastes burnt?
To avoid bitter espresso or that burnt taste, it's likely because the grind is too fine, the tamp is too hard, there's too much coffee, or they're overly-roasted coffee beans.
Does espresso get bitter if it sits?
Your espresso will get bitter if it sits. It doesn't matter if you use medium-roast coffee beans, dark-roast coffee beans, or even good-quality beans. Once the crema dissolves into the coffee brew, it will create a burnt coffee taste.
Why is Starbucks espresso bitter?
Starbucks makes its coffee bitter because it's more concentrated, and their brew ratio is different. They use more grounds than the average coffee shop, resulting in an intense espresso.
How hard should I tamp espresso?
You should apply anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds of pressure when tamping espresso.
Pull The Perfect Espresso Shot!
With good-quality coffee beans, proper brew ratio, correct grind size, and attention to detail, you can enjoy regular, non-bitter coffee all the time.
While it may take a bit of work, I promise that I am evidence that if you put in the effort, you’ll reap the rewards with a smooth espresso pour. Good luck!