Bitter Coffee? Adjust your grind!

July 25, 2008

Kitchenaid Pro Line Burr Coffee Grinder
I’ve written previously about the importance of using the proper amount of coffee (hint – most instructions you see tell you to use too little), the proper temperature and the proper grind to avoid a bitter (or sour or burnt-tasting) cup of coffee. But where do you go when you’re doing it right and it still isn’t good?

The other day I was in Starbucks, and decided to take home a pound of their Pike Place Roast — one of the few brewed coffees from Starbucks that I’ve ever liked. I’d had it brewed in the store many times and enjoyed it, but this time I was out of beans at home and wasn’t in the mood to roast, so I figured I’d try some at home.

To my surprise, my first pot with Pike Place had a very unpleasant bitter, almost metallic note to it. I’d never experienced this in the store, so I knew this wasn’t right.

After thinking about it a bit, on the next pot I adjusted my grinder (a Kitchenaid Pro Line Burr Coffee Grinder – a stunningly good grinder for the money, for everything but espresso) one notch coarser.

The result?

Excellent — maybe even slightly better than Starbuck’s press-pot version.

Here’s the reason I coarsened the grind — bitter notes in coffee are almost always the result of “over-extraction” — trying to take too much flavor out of the bean. The “good flavor” is only in about the first 3/4 of the flavor that CAN be extracted — the last quarter contains all of the harsh bitter notes. Two things can cause over-extraction — not using enough ground coffee (about a cup for 8 cups of coffee), or grinding too finely. The more finely you grind, the more surface area of the bean you expose for extraction. By going slightly coarser, I caused it to extract less, and left the bitter note in the used-up grounds, not in the cup.

(FWIW, this is also why you’ll always get a better cup of coffee from a (properly adjusted) burr grinder than from one of the “blade” grinders — the burr grinder will produce very consistently sized grounds, while a blade just “chops” and always leaves some very large pieces and some very small pieces — as a result, you don’t get as much of the “good flavor” out of the big pieces, and you get bitterness from the tiny pieces)

Have you found anything new lately to improve your coffee experience?

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4 Responses to “Bitter Coffee? Adjust your grind!”

  1. cindy pan on August 31st, 2008 3:05 pm

    Mr. Lawson – could you recommend a good drip coffee maker that sells for something less than the $200+ Capresso? Can i get away with buying a kitchenaid burr grinder and then a basic coffee maker? thanks for any suggestions….

  2. Chuck Lawson on August 31st, 2008 3:40 pm

    Hi Cindy;

    I’m in the process of looking for a good one myself, since my last favorite (a Starbucks Barista Aroma Grande) was recalled awhile back.

    Lots of basic coffee makers are good, although a few of them may need a little help.

    The two big issues are usually:

    1) Too low of a brew temperature
    2) Not room in the brew basket to hold enough ground coffee.

    You can check #1 with a kitchen thermomenter — the brew temp (check the temp in the brew basket a few minutes into brewing) should be 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s lower than this, you can try filling the brewer up with hot water instead of cold to see if that will shift it warm enough to solve the problem.

    For #2, you should be using approximately an ounce (dry measure) of coffee grounds per cup (6 oz “standard” coffee serving, how most brewers are measured) of brewed coffee. If the brewer can’t hold this much without overflowing, try lowering the amount of coffee you brew to what the brew basket can hold — for instance, just brew 8 cups of coffee in a 10 cup brewer if it can hold 8 oz of ground coffee.

    If you can finesse the brewer to brewing coffee with the right amount of grounds at the right temperature by trying tricks like this, then I’d say by all means try the Kitchenaid burr grinder with it.

    In the “espresso geek” community, you often hear it said that the grinder is more important than the espresso machine, and it’s not unusual to pay more for the grinder.

    The same is largely true with brewed coffee, too — once you’ve got the right temperature and the right amount of grounds, most everything else on a coffee maker is “features” — a vacuum carafe, timer tricks, maybe a steam wand — all things that might be handy (and add to the cost or sophistication), but not really necessary for the basics of producing a good cup of coffee. A good grinder takes a bit more precision engineering, which tends to run the cost up a bit.

  3. kimmay brown on September 4th, 2009 8:24 am

    i just want to know why is it called a bitter coffee

  4. Sidney on July 22nd, 2012 10:58 am

    Hi, thank you for the info above. I have been told to clean & sharpen your bur grinder run rice through the grinder. Do you know if this is true. If not what are your suggestions? Thank you

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