We’ve all been there; you’ve just pulled what you think is the perfect shot of espresso, only to find that it tastes incredibly bitter. What gives?
Bitter-tasting espresso is a quite common issue, In fact, some people belief that espresso is supposed to taste bitter.
But is that the case? Or is there a factor inside of your espresso brewing process that’s not quite right and causing that nasty and bitter taste?
So, is espresso supposed to be bitter? Espresso isn’t supposed to be bitter. The reasons that can make espresso taste bitter are:
- Incorrect Grind Size
- Uneven Grind Size
- Water Temperature
- Low-Quality Beans
- Stale Beans
- Dirty Equipment
Don’t worry, though. There are a few simple ways to fix your bitter espresso, and we’ll go through them all so that you can achieve that smooth and mellow coffee taste you’ve been looking for.
Read on to learn how to fix bitter espresso…
Table of Contents
Is Espresso Supposed to Be Bitter? (More Info)
Before we dive deep into this article lets first take take a closer look at the main question and see if espresso is actually supposed to be bitter.
As we mentioned above, espresso isn’t supposed to taste bitter. If your espresso does have a bitter taste then it’s time to do some troubleshooting. The best way to do this is to change or tweak one part of the brewing process each time you pull a shot of espresso until you get a balanced shot.
If you try and change too many things all at once then sure, you will have a good chance of pulling a shot of espresso that isn’t bitter tasting, however, you will also more than likely cause other taste issues by changing all those other variables that were right before but are now way off.
What Is Good Espresso Coffee Supposed to Taste Like?
The first thing you notice about espresso is the strong, rich aroma. And then, of course, the taste. To the uninitiated, espresso can be bitter. But that isn’t supposed to be the case.
Honestly, the taste of your espresso could vary depending on any number of factors, but a good shot of espresso will always have a few key features:
Good espresso should have a strong and intense taste with a creamy texture and sweet, caramel-like notes. It should not taste overly bitter, sour, or acidic.
The ideal espresso flavor is achieved through the careful and precise control of several variables, including grind size, water temperature, brewing time, and more. Even the slightest variations could dramatically change the way your espresso tastes.
Why Does My Espresso Shot Taste Bitter?
Struggling to create that perfect flavor when you pull a shot? If you’re noticing an overpowering bitter flavor in your espresso shots, then it’s time to start troubleshooting.
There’s a lot that can go wrong in the brewing process, and there are a lot of variables to fine-tune to create a smooth and sweet espresso and an all-round good coffee.
The main thing is to be patient, and like I mentioned before, only change one variable at a time so you can see where the results are coming from.
Let’s go over the variables that can cause bitter-tasting espresso…
1. Grind Size
Grind size affects the taste of your espresso in a few different ways. First, it affects the surface area of the coffee beans that are exposed to water.
The more surface area, the more extraction you’ll get, and the more flavorful your espresso will be. Second, it affects the contact time between the water and the coffee beans.
The longer the contact time, the more extraction you’ll get, and the more flavorful your espresso will be.
So how do you know what grind size to use for your espresso? The answer depends on a few different factors.
However, the generally accepted size for espresso is a fine grind as opposed to a coarse one.
Your beans should be grinded to around 0.3mm as a starting point and have a texture similar to powdered sugar.
This increases the surface area of the coffee that comes into contact with the hot water, which in turn creates a bolder and stronger taste.
To get the perfect grind size for your particular machine, you’ll need to do some experimenting. Start with a fine grind and adjust a little finer or even coarser as needed.
If you want to fully understand the coffee grind sizes then head over to our grind size article with charts here…
Here’s our grind size chart that shares the grind size you need for espresso:
2. Uneven Grind Size
If you’ve ever tried to make espresso at home, you know that getting the grind just right can be a bit of a challenge.
If the grind is uneven (the grinds are all different sizes), then you have less control over the flavor of your espresso and will certainly have a shot that is likely to taste bitter.
This is due to the fact that different-sized grinds will extract at different times in the brewing process and therefore some grinds will be over-extracted while others will be under-extracted.
Pulling a great shot of espresso that doesn’t taste bitter largely relies on your grinds being uniform.
So how can you avoid uneven coffee grinds? The best way to avoid uneven coffee grinds is to invest in a good quality coffee grinder. A burr grinder will produce a more even grind than a blade grinder, and this is the only way you can expect to produce a grind that is uniform and of a high enough quality for espresso.
Keep in mind that although burr grinders tend to be pricier, they’re definitely worth it when it comes to consistency.
Here’s an example of the difference between blade grinders and burr grinders…
Over-extraction is a common problem that can occur when making espresso and this can leave your brew tasting bitter and undrinkable.
Coffee beans are full of compounds that contribute to flavor, aroma, and body and the extraction time greatly affects these compounds and the flavors they provide.
When you extract too much from the beans, you end up stripping away all the good stuff, leaving behind only the bitter, astringent compounds and coffee that’s near undrinkable.
Two of the main over-extraction factors are:
- Brew Time
- Tamping Pressure
You want to avoid brewing for too long, start with a brew time between 25-30 seconds and experiment from there. If your espresso is too bitter, cut the extraction time slightly.
If you brew espresso grinds for more than 30 seconds then you are highly likely to over-extract the grounds and pull a bitter shot.
Tamping pressure is also important to the extraction of your espresso. Tamping either too hard or even too soft will make the shot either too easy or too hard for the water to pass through the grounds and will ultimately affect the level of extraction and possibly leave your espresso tasting bitter.
The right pressure for tamping is somewhere between 20 to 30 pounds and this amount of pressure is widely known used by baristas (although this is obviously difficult to judge exactly how much pressure you are using).
The bottom line is, to try and be consistent with the pressure you use when tamping and treat any changes in tamping as you would any other of the variables.
4. Water Temperature
It’s no secret that water temperature plays a vital role in the quality of your espresso. But did you know that the temperature of your water can also have a big impact on the taste of your coffee?
If you use water that’s too cold, your espresso will be weak and watery. But if you use water that’s too hot, your coffee will taste bitter and burnt, and likely be over-extracted.
The reason this happens is that the hotter the water, the deeper it penetrates into the coffee grounds and it pulls not only the compounds we want but also many unwanted compounds too.
The perfect water temperature for espresso is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and go for the lower end of the temperature range.
5. Low-Quality Beans
Have you ever wondered why your espresso doesn’t taste as good as the ones you get at the coffee shop?
If your espresso seems to taste bitter no matter how much you tinker with your machine, water, and grind size, then it might have something to do with the quality of the beans you’re using.
Coffee beans are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest quality. The vast majority of beans used in espresso are grade 3 or 4. But if you’re using lower-quality beans, your espresso might not taste as good.
The reason for this is that lower-quality beans generally have more defects, which can affect the flavor of the espresso, since low-quality beans also tend to be much lower in flavor and aroma than their higher-quality counterparts.
A good way to inspect the quality of your coffee beans is to check for:
- Different shapes & sizes
- Cracked beans
- Spots (quakers)
- Insect damage
If you notice lots of the above when checking your coffee beans then it’s a sign that the beans a low-quality and they aren’t going to produce a high-quality espresso brew.
6. Stale Beans
Any coffee lover knows that when coffee beans go stale, they lose their flavor, aroma, and natural coffee oils as well as produce unwanted bitter flavor profiles.
The fresher the roast the better, and the longer you wait before brewing your beans, the weaker and more “off” the flavor will get. This rule also applies to ground coffee too.
Stale beans can also make your espresso more acidic, which can be harsh on your stomach.
So how can you tell if your beans are stale? One way is to smell them: stale beans will have very little aroma.
Another way is to grind them: if they grind up into a powder rather than proper grounds, they’re definitely stale.
Ideally, you want to purchase beans that were roasted around 2 weeks ago, and consume them within 2 weeks. This will ensure they are fresh when you purchased them and still fresh when you consume them.
Purchasing from a roaster that provides you with a roast date is key here as well as only purchasing a small number of beans at a time.
If you find that your beans are starting to go stale, don’t despair. There are a few things you can do to extend their life.
First, store them:
- in an airtight container
- in a cool, dark place like a pantry cabinet.
But it’s always best to avoid having them go stale in the first place. Again, don’t buy more coffee than you can reasonably drink before the beans start to go stale, and be sure to store them properly for the best results.
7. Dirty Equipment
If you’re a fan of espresso, then you know that a good cup of coffee starts with fresh, clean equipment.
But what you may not know is that using dirty equipment can actually harm the quality and taste of your espresso and could be the reason for that bitter-tasting shot.
When espresso is brewed, the water that is used to create the coffee is heated to a very high temperature.
This water can then pick up oils and other residues that are left behind on the equipment. These residues can then transfer to the espresso, affecting the flavor.
Too much of this residue can result in a foul-tasting cup of coffee with a bitter taste.
So, if you’re looking for the perfect cup of espresso, be sure to start with clean equipment. Of course, you should always properly wash your equipment after each use, but you should also consider cleaning your scale, spoons, and grinder too.
It’s also recommended to clean your espresso machine every 200 shots or so, to keep the buildup of hard water and coffee residue from seeping into your espresso.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the equipment you need to keep clean:
- Shower screen
- Grinder (bean hopper)
- Grinder (blades)
- Coffee machine (backflush the machine)
Which Method Makes Espresso Taste Less Bitter? (We’ve Tested Them)
Sometimes you pull a shot of bitter coffee and it’s a bit too bitter; that’s just the way life goes! And there’s no use wasting your hard work if you don’t have to!
There are ways to save a shot of espresso, even if it’s more bitter than you’d like. The next time you get an espresso that doesn’t live up to expectations, try adding one of these:
When you take a sip of a bitter cup of coffee, the first thing you may think of doing is adding some sugar.
And it’s true, a bit of sweetness can go a long way in cutting down the bitterness in your coffee.
This one may seem counterintuitive, but we promise, it works! Just add a pinch of table salt into your coffee if you’re detecting too much bitterness.
The salt helps neutralize the bitter flavor. But be careful—you don’t want to add too much salt and have it overpower the flavor of your coffee. Just a small pinch is all you need!
One of the easiest ways to mask any flaws in your espresso? Turn it into a latte! Or a cappuccino, or a macchiato… you get the point.
Milk helps mellow out the bitterness in your espresso, and it gives your coffee a smoother, milder taste. You can add cold milk or hot steamed milk to your espresso, whichever you prefer. You can also decide if you’d like to sweeten it with sugar, as well.
Cream (and flavored coffee creamers in general) are much thicker than milk and do a better job of masking the bitterness in your coffee. But keep in mind that creamers can mask all the coffee flavor in your coffee, too!
We’ve actually made a full article that shares if you can add creamer to espresso. We tested the process out and documented it in the article, you can see our espresso and creamer article right here…
5. Coffe Syrups
One easy way to add some sweetness to your coffee? Syrups! There’s an enormous range of flavors out there, so you’re sure to find the one that hits the spot.
There are also sugar-free coffee syrups if you’re worried about consuming too much sugar in an effort to cut back the bitterness in your coffee.
Honey is a great natural sweetener that has a milder taste than table sugar. It can be a great way to help balance out the bitter flavors in your espresso without completely overpowering the coffee taste.
7. Vanilla Extract
While vanilla won’t make your coffee any sweeter, at least not on its own, it will provide a nice mellow flavor and aroma to help counteract the bitterness of the coffee. Combine it with some sugar or honey for a lovely and gently sweet flavor!
Which Method Makes Espresso Taste Less Bitter? (We’ve Tested Them)
Ok, so above, we shared some ways that you can save a bitter espresso shot but which of these methods actually takes away that bitter taste?
Well, we did a little experiment where we purposely pulled 6 shots of bitter espresso by increasing the brew temperature to high.
We then added one of the ingredients to each shot to see how well they reduced the bitterness of the shot.
The results are below, we gave a score from 1-5 (5 being the best) based on how well the ingredient tool away the bitterness as well as if the shot still tasted like espresso afterward.
(Remember this is just our opinion, but it should give a good indication of what to expect)
I used 2 teaspoons of sugar. I found that it Took away the bitter taste to a certain degree, however, I would need even more sugar as I could still taste the bitterness.
The salt did actually take away the the sharp taste slightly but I could still taste the bitterness coming through.
Totally took away the bitterness and tasted really cine, however, it must be noted that once you add creamer the drink isn’t really an espresso any more.
No bitter taste after adding the syrup, but again it’s worth noting that the flavors of the syrup not only take away the bitterness but also take away the natural flavors of the espresso.
Surprisingly, the honey didn’t change the bitter taste too much and I think a lot more than the 2 teaspoons I used would be needed.
6. Vanilla Extract
The vanilla extract changed the bitterness of the espresso the least out of all the methods I tried and I would only use this method as a last resort.
Adding steamed milk to the espresso certainly took away that bitter tasting shot. By doing this though, you are basically creating a latte and no longer have an espresso.
Sitting down to a bitter-tasting espresso certainly isn’t the way you want to begin each morning.
It’s important to understand that even the most experienced home baristas pull a few shots of espresso that aren’t on point from time to time and learning how to troubleshoot and adjust the shot takes time and is all part of the process.
Identifying the various factors that can cause your espresso to become bitter is the first step before changing one variable at a time until your espresso is back to being a cup full of bliss once again!
Just be patient, have fun, and enjoy your early morning espresso!