Troubleshooting Guide for Coffee Brewing

Troubleshooting Guide for Coffee Brewing

There is nothing quite like an excellent cup of coffee that is fresh and full of flavor.

However, there is also no bigger disappointment than having a cup of coffee that tastes too bitter, sour, or is just lifeless.

Brewing disappointing coffee can happen to the best of us, even the best coffee brewers out there. It can be especially frustrating if you are unsure of why the coffee tastes bad; where the brewing process went wrong.

That said, if you can learn the troubleshooting coffee skill, you can learn what went wrong and how to either correct it or avoid it entirely next time.

By the end of reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Brew less bitter coffee
  • Brew less sour coffee
  • Make your coffee naturally sweet
  • Determine the grade of your beans

To begin, let's start by looking at the first step of troubleshooting the coffee brewing process.


Understanding that extraction is the determining factor will help you to troubleshoot your coffee; it is the key to coffee flavor.

The act of brewing coffee to make a liquid is a catalyst for what we refer to as extraction. This means that the water is pulling out components from the ground coffee. (Acids, sugars, oils, and the compounds that add to bitterness).

However, during the brewing process, all of these components are extracted at different times.

During this process of extraction, the acids will be the first to be extracted; followed by sugars, and then the bitter aspects of the coffee.

During the extraction process, there is a part that is the sweetest.

This spot has been extracted just enough to proved a nice blend of sweetness, oils, and flavor to round out the acidity.

  • Under extraction - If there has not been enough time, under-extraction can occur. During this stage, the acids will be too concentrated and you will be left with a sour coffee that can leave your mouth feeling dry.
  • Over Extraction - When you extract too much from the coffee grounds, these needed acids and natural sugars will dissolve too much. What you are left with is a bitter coffee that lacks a robust flavor and depth.

What we are after is the middle ground; commonly referred to as the sweet spot.

Troubleshooting your Coffee: A Guide

To troubleshoot your coffee brewing process, I will be going over some common issues and provide what the solution can be.

When you are tasting your coffee to determine what went wrong, make sure that you are doing so mindfully, to determine what extraction level the final product is at.

As with most troubleshooting, only try one solution at a time; over-correction can be just as bad. One troubleshooting fix per brew will allow you to determine where the coffee brewing process went wrong.

Once you have done this a few times, you will start to get quicker and better at it.

Bitter Tasting Coffee

This can be from a few different errors, so let's look at each one separately.
  • Over-extracted coffee - you pulled too many components from the beans, so next time you will want to reduce the amount of brewing time. To do this, either brew the coffee for less amount of time or use coarser coffee grounds. (Remember to only try one fix at a time).
  • Your Coffee Beans are too Dark - darker roasts like Vienna, Italian, and French roasts are always far more bitter than they should be. This is because of the roasting process; at high temperatures, the chemicals will break down into bitter compounds. For a brew that does not have any bitterness, we suggest a lighter brew of coffee.
  • Low-Grade Coffee Beans - Low-grade beans will generally not be grown properly, not processed correctly, known to be more bitter. The highest grade for coffee beans is specialty-grade, which is what we suggest using for your coffee brews.

If you are using high-quality coffee beans, then the issue most likely is with the brewing process. Try to utilize one of the fixes that I mentioned above, one at a time.

It may take some trial and error with small adjustments to get the flavor just right, but with the time you will be able to perfect your coffee brew.

Sour Tasting Coffee

While a little acidity adds to the overall flavor of your coffee, too much can make it taste sour.

As you can imagine, this is not what we are going for when we are trying to get going for the day. The reason for sour tasting coffee is most likely from it being under-extracted. When brewing, not enough components were released from the coffee ground.

Next time you brew some coffee, try one of these fixes:

  • Brew longer
  • Use finer coffee grounds

Additionally, your coffee beans could be roasted too light, or considered to be under roasted.

This type of coffee can tend to lean more on the acidic side. One sure-fire way to diagnose this issue is by the sourness always being followed by a flavor of grass or hay. However, your beans may not be too sour.

A lot of people when tasting specialty coffee for the first time may discover that it is too sour for their palette.

This is mainly because they are used to tasting lower-quality coffee beans that are overly bitter. For this reason, specialty coffee is made to have more of an acidic taste to compensate.

Simply give your taste buds some time to adjust and you will be able to fully enjoy specialty coffee. While it is possible, it is not very common that you find a coffee bean that has been under roasted.

It's more likely that the coffee is simply under-extracted.

Boring and Dull Tasting Coffee

Sometimes even when you have all the components of making a great cup of coffee in a place, it just doesn't taste as it should.

This can be the most devastating cup of coffee out of all; simply because its hard to tell what is wrong. When the coffee is either bitter or sour, it's easy to determine which steps need to be taken; but with this, these fixes aren't as apparent.

Let's go over some of the causes.

  • Over-extracting during brewing - not all over-extracted coffee with is necessarily bitter. Sometimes it can just be bland, boring, and lifeless. This is because the bitter compounds that are extracted later mix with the early acids to cancel each other out and simply create a coffee that has no real flavor. To fix, try extracting less.
  • Bad quality of water - this can be tricky because if your water either has too many or too few minerals it can make your coffee flat. Usually, the issue will lay in too many minerals. To fix this, use filtered or bottled water and see if the quality of the brewed coffee increases.
  • Dirty Equipment - well-used coffee gear can collect oil and micro-grounds will can slowly decrease the flavor of your coffee. Eventually, the flavors will meld into something that just does not taste appealing and can overpower the good in your coffee. Clean your equipment to see if the issue gets resolved.
  • Inconsistent coffee ground size - When there is not a uniform coarseness to the coffee grounds, everything can extract at different levels. Some grounds will brew too long and become bitter, while others will just be leaving the overly acidic phase. This can create a flavor that is not balanced and can be bland, while at the same time bitter and sour.
  • Low-grade or stale coffee beans - bad beans or stale beans just won't give you the flavor of fresh and high-quality ones. If you are making sure that your beans are fresh and specialty grade then you won't need to worry about this.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to mess around with, and it can be confusing at first.

That said if you experiment and employ the necessary steps that we have gone over you will be able to come to the root of the problem, and eventually the solution.

With this comprehensive guide, you should have everything that you need to get that great cup of coffee.

It is going to take some trial and error and multiple brews, but with these steps, you can perfect your coffee and make your day that much better. And I'll let you in on a secret:

High-quality coffee beans are far easier to troubleshoot than low-grade beans. Because they are more forgiving, getting that perfect cup of coffee is easier.

Additionally, they are so rich that you can easily tell when a slight adjustment has made the change for the better.

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