Coffee... It can be so delightful and at the same time, so frustrating. There are so many variables at any given time, that when something goes wrong, finding the culprit can seem a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. That is why we have put together this simple troubleshooting guide to help you figure out what changes are needed to get your brews as good as they can be! In this guide, we'll look at some common issues you might come across, and what we would do to fix them.
Hint: Don't pour it out, let's try fix it!
First things first - if you are trying to make improvements to your coffee, a proper coffee grinder is absolutely essential. If you aren't able to adjust your grind settings, then most of the solutions put forward in this blog post are inaccessible to you. If you want to know more about this, check out our in-depth article discussing why a coffee grinder probably is the most important piece of coffee brewing equipment you'll ever buy! If you're looking for a coffee grinder, check out our range of grinders here. It. doesn't need to be fancy or expensive, it just needs to be adjustable
Secondly, measurement is everything. You don't need much, a scale and a timer will serve you perfectly (a thermometer is also a great addition and would be useful, but it isn't essential). By measuring your variables, you'll know exactly what you've done in your brew and be able to make intentional, specific and informed changes in order to brew your coffee better next time.
And lastly, if you're trying to make tweaks and improvements to your brew, try only change one thing at a time... If you make too many changes all at once, you might end up overcompensating and making your coffee taste even worse, or some changes might improve your brew while other changes are introducing new problems. Making individual changes allows you to assess the specific impact of that change and decide whether it made your brew better or worse. Once you've done this a few times with a few different coffees and in a few different brews, you should start to get a natural sense of how to improve your brews.
*bear in mind that coffee is complicated. While this guide is a great start to fixing your brew recipes, we can't make any guarantees.
Sour Tasting Coffee
This is one we hear all the time as it's especially prevalent in lighter roasted specialty coffee. Good quality coffee is often prized for its vibrant acidity, however, brewing acidic coffee can be a lot less forgiving than other coffees. When it comes to brewing acidic coffee, it's imperative that you brew it in a way that highlights the coffee's sweetness and body. This will balance out the acidity and take what was sour and make it delicious.
Just think of the sour coffee as sucking on a lemon, and the well-balanced coffee as drinking homemade lemonade... both are acidic, but one is delicious.
More often than not a sour coffee is a result of an under-extracted brew and the main cause of under-extracted coffee is usually your grind setting. This is another reason why having your own adjustable coffee grinder is so important! If you're looking to increase extraction, try grinding your coffee a little finer.
Using freshly ground coffee beans can make an enormous difference
A couple of other ways you can address under-extraction (although to less of an effect) are temperature and time. Often times we're told to brew coffee off the boil (88ºC-95ºC) however if your coffee is coming out sour, you're probably dealing with a lighter roasted, high-altitude coffee that often does well being brewed as hot as you can. As for time, if you brew your coffee for longer, this can also help to increase your extraction. Unfortunately, time can't be addressed independently with all brew methods - for example, if you're brewing espresso or pour-over your brew time is directly related to your grind setting (a finer grind will result in a slower brew and a coarser grind results in a faster brew).
Another aspect that can result in sour-tasting coffee is the coffee itself. While many people love their vibrant and acidic coffees, these coffees just aren't for everyone. However, that doesn't mean that you need to resort to low-grade, dark roasted coffee, it just means you need to learn to select your specialty coffees with acidity in mind.
Choose your coffee according to what YOU like
One of the biggest factors in the acidity of your coffee is going to be the altitude at which the coffee was grown. Lower altitude coffees are almost always less acidic. It's also worthwhile to consider the coffee's processing method. Natural coffees tend to have a lot more body to them which in turn, can help to balance the acidity out. If you tend to have a hard time with acidic coffees, we'd recommend trying a low-altitude, natural process. You can expect low acidity, with lots of body, and flavours of chocolate and nuts - what's not to like?
Overly Bitter Or Astringent Coffee
When it comes to coffee that is exceptionally bitter, the most common culprit is actually the coffee itself. The darker a coffee is roasted, the more intense and the more bitter the brewed coffee will be. While certain steps can be taken to mitigate the amount of bitterness in the final brew, the bitterness is inherently a part of the coffee and there usually isn't much you can do about it. If you're looking for an inherently sweeter coffee, look for medium to lighter roasted coffee from a reputable specialty coffee roaster. Pop into your local cafe and have a chat with your barista, he's sure to have some advice.
A bad brew can also contribute to the overall bitterness of a cup of coffee. If the brew is to blame for your bitterness, over-extraction is probably to blame. Similarly to under-extraction, you can address over-extraction by adjusting your grind size (grinding a little coarser) and brewing your coffee a little faster. If you're dealing with a darker roasted coffee, it. can sometimes help to intentionally under extract a little bit in order to try and mitigate the bitterness.
Weak Or Watery Coffee
The is nothing worse than taking that first sip of coffee, first on a cold and frosty morning... and it just tastes like dirty dishwater. No flavour... No texture... No Body... Just water, but way worse.
Luckily enough, this can be one of the easiest things to fix. Just use more coffee! happens when your ratio of water to coffee is too high. If you're brewing filter coffee, a good starting point for your ratio is 60g of coffee per litre of water (eg 15g for a single 250ml serving) and for espresso, 1g of coffee for every 2g of yielded espresso (eg. 17.5g of coffee yielding a 35g espresso). Lighter roasted coffee can sometimes be a little harder to extract and will often need a slightly higher dose to get a nice full-bodied cup and very dark roasted coffee and vice versa.
Another major factor that contributes to watery or weak coffee is channelling. This happened when your coffee is ground too fine for water to pass through. What ends up happening is the water will create a narrow channel (kind of like a crack in the coffee bed) and flow through that channel instead of flowing evenly through all the coffee. Although this issue is most common with espresso, it can happen in brew methods such as AeroPress and Pour Over as well. The first step in avoiding this is to make sure you are using the correct grind setting. If you're happy with your grind setting, taking a few minutes to make sure your bed of coffee is well-prepped before beginning your brew can make a world of difference. For espresso, this means a firm (just firm, you don't need to smash the espresso puck into oblivion) and an even tamp. For filter coffee, this means making sure there are no clumps in your bed of coffee and giving the coffee a proper bloom.
Although it is less common, an extremely under-extracted coffee can also taste very watery and unpleasant. If you've tried to increase your dose and still find the coffee to be weak, try grinding finer and making sure you are using hot enough water.
Coffee Tastes Flat, Bland Or Uninteresting
While there is a reason for this, and it is possible to prevent it, if your coffee has already turned flat or bland, it might be a little too late to fix it...
If you know the coffee you're drinking and it usually pops with vibrant flavour, the most likely reason for your coffee tasting bland and flat is that the coffee you are drinking has turned stale. When it comes to specialty coffee, you have a much shorter window of when that coffee will be at its best - as a general rule, we say our coffee is best consumed within 6 weeks of its roast date. As it goes beyond the 6-week mark, you'll find that all those interesting flavours begin to fade and the coffee begins to seem a bit flat. You can try dosing a little higher (using more coffee in your brews), and while this might bring back some intensity, it won't quite be the same.
The best thing you can do is invest in an airtight container (Preferably one that has a vacuum seal) and store your coffee correctly. Although it's. not guaranteed, this might keep your coffee tasting fresh for a few extra weeks.
How you store your coffee can have a significant impact on how good your brewed coffee tastes.
On the other hand, if you're not familiar with the coffee and it falls into the category of bland, flat and uninteresting, it might just be that it is poor quality or lower-grade coffee. Find a barista at a cafe you love and have a chat about the types of coffee you enjoy; I'm sure they'll have some great suggestions for you!
At the end of the day, coffee is far more complicated than this blog post makes it out to be but, using this as a starting point means that you are on a journey to experiencing some delightful and wonderfully delicious coffees... And you'll probably experience some coffees that are about as cooperative as a toddler who has just had his third espresso.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on what you're brewing and if you have any tricks or tips on how you get the best out of your brews!