Bitter Coffee: Why It Happens and 7 Ways to Fix It

Coffee is more than a caffeine-delivery vehicle. It should be enjoyable, with flavors, aromas, and textures that make you smile instead of testing your resilience. If your coffee is too bitter, it can ruin an otherwise enjoyable experience.

But I have good news! There are several steps that you can take to make less bitter coffee. By following these practical tips, you’ll improve the overall quality of your coffee — all using the natural flavors of the coffee bean without the need for unhealthy sweeteners or artificial additives.

Should Coffee Taste Bitter?

A little bitterness in your coffee can complement the acidity and sweetness of the coffee, enhancing the complexity of the brew. Some attempts to decrease bitterness can actually make your coffee sour, which is a much less pleasant taste. Bitter flavors are only a problem when they become overwhelming or when they pair poorly with the other flavors in the cup. 

Why Is My Coffee Bitter?

A person tasting bitter coffee from a coffee mug

Bitter-tasting coffee can be caused by two main factors: bad coffee grounds and over-extraction.

Bad coffee grounds

When coffee grounds go bad, they lose many of their sweeter, more complex flavors — leaving behind a bitter taste that doesn’t deserve the honor of being included in your morning brew.

Some coffee is overly bitter even before it’s been sitting around in your pantry for a month. The type and quality of the coffee beans matter quite a bit. Cheap coffees are typically cheap for a reason.

Over-extraction of coffee grounds

All coffee grounds have the potential to make bitter coffee, no matter how sweet or complex their flavor profiles.

The goal of the brewing process is to extract as much of the good flavor as you can while leaving behind the majority of the bitterness. Too little extraction leads to sour coffee, and too much extraction leads to bitter coffee.

How to Make Less Bitter Coffee

Stop buying pre-ground coffee

Ground coffee goes bad much faster than whole bean coffee. The main factors that make coffee beans go bitter — light and oxygen — hit coffee at its surface. Since grounds have more total surface, they suffer more from each of these factors.

You should still shield your coffee beans by storing them in a sealed container in a dry, dark place. Even in those conditions, though, ground coffee will lose nearly all of its freshness in hours or days instead of the weeks or months that properly stored beans can last.

If you want less bitter coffee, you need to buy whole beans and learn how to grind your own coffee grounds.

Use the right grind size

Types of coffee grinds, laid out from coarse extra coarse grind to extra fine grind

Coffee grind size affects the amount of extraction that occurs, with finer grinds extracting faster and more completely than coarser grinds. Make sure that your coffee grinder is set appropriately for your preferred brewing method. If you are making drip coffee, you should be using a medium grind.

People tend to spend more money on their coffee maker than their coffee grinder, but your grinder can actually have a bigger impact on the quality of your coffee. If you are grinding your coffee with a blade grinder, you’re going to get a range of grind sizes, which will result in the finer grounds being over-extracted and the coarser grounds being under-extracted.

You can get an excellent coffee grinder for a very reasonable price, and it will do wonders for the quality of your coffee.

Use more coffee grounds

Adding more coffee grounds to a coffee filter

There’s a common misconception that bitter coffee is strong coffee. This misconception leads people to think that they can make their coffee less bitter by adding fewer grounds when brewing. But this actually makes the problem worse.

If you don’t have enough grounds, the water will over-extract the grounds, grabbing the bitterness that should be left behind in a proper brew. A good coffee-to-water ratio for drip coffee is about 1:15 to 1:17. That means that for a single 8-ounce cup of coffee, you should be using about 1.5 scoops of coffee grounds. 

If you want a simple way to find the right amount of coffee grounds to use, I’ve shared my coffee-to-water ratio calculator for just such an occasion.  

Buy better quality coffee beans

Low-quality coffee is more bitter for a couple of reasons. First, the beans you are buying at your grocery store are likely not fresh. They’ve been sitting in warehouses or on shelves for far longer than they should have been. Some companies use packaging that keeps their beans fresh longer, but most cheap coffee beans are not stored for long shelf life.

Even with fresh beans, the quality and type of coffee beans impact the bitterness. Robusta beans are commonly used as a filler in cheap coffee blends. There are good uses for Robusta, but it is more bitter than Arabica beans. Even within Arabica, there are various grades of quality, and cheap 100% Arabica blends are not using high-quality beans.

Coffee manufacturers use a lot of tricks to cover low-quality or stale coffees. Some add flavorings to mask the bitterness. I’m not saying that there aren’t good flavored coffees, but you won’t find them on a typical grocery store shelf. Other coffee brands add small amounts of quality coffee — allowing them to market their coffee as, for instance, Kona blends even though the flavor of the Kona coffee beans is entirely lost in the sea of terrible coffee.

I’ve dedicated much of this site to helping people discover quality coffees from around the world. These coffees do tend to be more expensive than Folgers or Maxwell House, but you don’t have to break the bank to find coffee beans that will make your coffee more flavorful and less bitter.

Change the brewing temperature

Steam rising from hot water in a coffee maker

The hotter your water, the more it extracts from the coffee. If your water is too hot for your brewing method, you’ll over-extract the beans and get bitter coffee. 

Most drip coffee makers don’t let you control the water temperature. If that’s the case, there’s not much you can do with this tip. If your brewing method does allow you to adjust the temperature, try something slightly cooler than what you’ve been using.

In the case of drip coffee, 195–205 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal range for your hot water.

Clean your equipment

A bottle of vinegar in front of cleaning brushes and sponges

Coffee leaves oils and residues behind that introduce a stale coffee taste to future batches. Water also leaves mineral residues that impact the quality of your brew. Your pot should be cleaned after each use like any dish, but you also need to descale your coffee maker regularly.

In most cases, you should be descaling your machine about once a month for maximum freshness. If you have particularly hard water or you use your coffee maker multiple times a day, you may need to descale even more frequently.

Try a new brewing method

The typical drip coffee maker just doesn’t make particularly good coffee. Automatic pour-over coffee makers are just as easy to use, but they control the brewing process much better — consistently making better, less bitter coffee.

If you’re feeling brave enough to go beyond drip coffee, there are several other coffee brewing methods worth trying. Some of them, like pour-overs, can be more complicated. Others, like espresso machines, tend to be more expensive.

However, you can get a wide range of easy-to-use coffee makers for under $100.

Better Not Bitter

Coffee should be a delicious, complexly flavorful part of your morning routine. If your coffee is bitter, it’s probably because of low-quality coffee beans or over-extraction. Fortunately, these are problems that you can fix with the above tips. 

Nobody should have to deal with bitter coffee. If you think that’s all there is to the coffee world — and you don’t believe that any of these tips can help — here’s my request. Go buy some good-quality Costa Rican coffee beans, a burr coffee grinder, and an AeroPress. Make one cup of AeroPress espresso with freshly ground beans, and I think you’ll see how smooth, sweet, and delicious (and not bitter) coffee can be.

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