10 Possible Reasons Your Coffee Tastes Bad

You just ordered a coffee at your favorite cafe. Why is the flavor off?

Your day is ruined before it's even started. The culprit? A bad cup of coffee. You went into a cafe and ordered your usual, but for some reason that first sip tastes bitter, muddy, or otherwise "off." What was supposed to get you going is now holding you back, and it doesn't have to be this way. While just a little effort can result in a delicious cup of java, the lack thereof can create a mind-bogglingly horrid drink. Here are ten possible reasons the coffee drink you ordered tastes so grim.

The coffee beans are old

Coffee beans need to be as fresh as possible before they are brewed each morning. This is why a good coffee shop will order whole roasted beans and wait until morning to grind them. The beans begin to oxidize and lose their flavor as soon as they're ground, degrading in quality even after a day or so. Light roast coffee beans will deteriorate less rapidly than dark roasts, though ideally most ground coffee ought to be used within seven days. Turnover, then, can have a huge impact on how your coffee tastes—and if the beans are stale to begin with, there's a slim chance your coffee is going to live up to its potential.

Advertisement

The milk was steamed poorly

You hear your favorite words of the morning—"latte on the coffee bar!"—and excitedly retrieve your treat. However, you find that your first sip is only lukewarm, not hot. Though there's nothing wrong with politely asking a barista to correct this, you might wonder how you've fallen victim to a barely warm latte when you grabbed it immediately after it was made. If an espresso drink isn't hot enough, the barista simply pulled the steam wand too early, giving your latte insufficient time to heat up. As a rule of thumb, the steam wand should stay in the milk until the steam pitcher feels hot to the touch.

Advertisement

The milk is over-foamed

Just as the milk of a drink may not be warm enough, it can also get over-steamed, resulting in cloudy, airy milk instead of that thick, smooth, silky texture more suitable for latte art. If a drink is too foamy, it tends to cool off quicker and drop down into the cup the way beer foam can, given enough time. Unless you've ordered a cappuccino or a macchiato, over-foamed milk can detract from your beverage.

Advertisement

The drip coffee is burnt

A simple but significant factor that shouldn't be overlooked is the quality of the drip coffee that forms the base of your drink. Though it might seem impossible to mess up, coffee shops fall victim to burnt coffee if they aren't paying enough attention. A drip coffee pot, though pretty undemanding in its use, typically rests on a built-in hot plate to keep it warm until the next batch is made. If the pot is kept on there for too long, the coffee continues to be heated beyond its ideal temp. This results in burnt coffee, which can have an acrid, tinny flavor and watery consistency. Scorched coffee is the worst.

Advertisement

The ice melted too quickly

Perhaps unsurprisingly, ice plays a central role in how your iced latte turns out. Any espresso drink, even an iced latte, requires a starting point of hot espresso. When espresso fresh off the press is poured into a cup of ice and milk, it will begin to melt the ice immediately. Heftier ice cubes will take longer to melt, whereas tiny ones with more surface area will melt faster and water down your drink much more quickly. If you're ordering an iced drink, it often helps to do so in person, so the finished product isn't left waiting on the bar too long.

Advertisement

The cold brew bag sat in water too long

Reminder, iced coffee and cold brew are not the same thing. Iced coffee is exactly what it sounds like: drip coffee that has been cooled and served with ice. Cold brew is slightly more involved; it comes from a concentrate that is then mixed with water and served over ice. To make the concentrate, cold brew bags (bags of coffee grounds) will steep for approximately 20 hours in water to extract all their flavor and caffeine. Though times can vary based on the coffee beans used and how strong a particular cafe chooses to make its cold brew, over-extraction can still happen. This will make cold brew taste bitter, sour, or metallic.

Advertisement

The espresso is under- or over-extracted

An espresso drink needs the right balance of dairy and espresso. If there's too little espresso, the drink will appear lighter and taste too milky. This is the result of a shot not being pulled correctly. On average, espresso takes around 25-28 seconds to extract, and if it stops pulling at, say, 15 seconds, the shot will be shorter in appearance and taste super bitter. If it's left too long and gets over-extracted, the shot may be too watery, with a dull flavor. And if you prefer your shot of espresso served straight up, you're even more likely to taste the effects of over- and under-extraction.

Advertisement

The espresso was not properly measured 

Just as extraction time plays a huge role in how espresso tastes, proper measurement makes all the difference in the final product. Though it depends on the coffee shop, the amount of grounds needed to pull a double shot of espresso will typically measure about 18 grams. This contributes to how much espresso comes out when pulled; if this measurement is too far off, it can result in over- or under-extraction. Though it can take a little bit of extra time to properly "dial in" an espresso grinder, this is something that good baristas will adjust daily to make sure measurements are accurate.

Advertisement

Espresso beans are being used for drip coffee

At the risk of stating the obvious, different types of beans are used to make different types of coffee. Cafes will normally use a different blend of beans for their drip coffee than they use for their espresso, so as to diversify what they're serving. Though both are standard coffee beans as we know them, they are prepared differently in both roast and grind, which informs their flavor. If you regularly order drip coffee at your local coffee shop and notice a sudden change in how it tastes, it might be because the bean blend isn't the usual one, changed either intentionally or by mistake.

Advertisement

The espresso machine hasn’t been properly maintained

An espresso machine is an expensive piece of equipment—some standard commercial models cost upwards of $20,000—and it requires a lot of regular maintenance to function optimally. Proper cleaning at the end of each day of business is essential. A cleaning agent known as Cafiza is used to backwash the group heads (the part the espresso comes out of), which eliminates any excess oils or dairy residue that has found its way into the machine. Without this daily cleanse, the equipment might not work up to its potential and cause espresso shots to come out funky.

Advertisement

Recommended

Advertisement