Coffee Tasting 101: Is Bitterness Misunderstood?

Coffee Tasting 101: Is Bitterness Misunderstood?

The late night coffee at an out of town diner has become a movie trope. What do we know about it?

It’s steaming hot. It’s often black. And it’s usually bitter. Over countless films in countless diners, we’ve watched characters go through major life experiences or rue their decisions over coffee.

I guess it’s always bitter in these scenes to show it’s a necessity, right? It’s the only coffee available and they need the stimulation for whatever movie magic is coming next in the plot.

Well, we don’t have a big decision to ponder, so we can relax and enjoy the coffee tasting experience…with a little bitterness on the side.

Yes, that’s right. In this post, we’re investigating the role of bitterness in coffee and asking whether the movies know something we don’t. Is bitterness bad or good? How do expert tasters experience it? What does bitterness do for coffee’s taste?

A Quick Introduction To Bitterness

Spoiler alert. Bitterness isn’t always negative for coffee’s taste.

The only reason it’s a trope in the movies is because the diners are portrayed as being quite dated and retro.

One way to demonstrate this is to have them serve coffee from an old roaster or hip pour and, let me tell you, neither make great coffee.

The movies aren’t a great place to learn about coffee because bitterness is a crucial component of the world’s best blends.

The finest, most satisfying coffees would taste very different without this element. It helps flavors mesh together, balances acidity, tempers sweetness and generates richness.

Bitterness is very important for coffee tasting. So, let’s learn about its role and how to appreciate it. If you haven’t read the previous coffee tasting articles in this series, you may want to go back and catch up first.

Is It Good Or Bad Bitterness? How Do I Know?

Bitter flavors in coffee can come from any one (or several) of twenty one possible sources. This is not a guess.

Professional coffee tasters have researched bitterness extensively and come up with a list of origins. They include caffeine, proteins, alcoholic substances and specific types of acid.

Of these origins, chlorogenic acid is thought to be the most common cause of bitterness in coffees. Particularly in over-extracted coffees, it gets ‘over added’ and results in a bitter flavor that’s strong enough to drown out any sweetness. So, over roasting is probably the commonest reason.

When chlorogenic acid gets heated above 425 degrees, it splits into phenyl indanes which are very bitter chemicals.

It’s why professional roasters tend to avoid overly dark, heavily extracted coffee.

They stay beneath 425 degrees to avoid creating that late night diner coffee that’s so bitter it sticks to the roof of your mouth. It’s something to try at home if you find your own coffee strays into over bitterness.

Reduce your brewing time. Taste test. See if it makes a difference.

It’s worth mentioning just how easy it is to create undesirable bitterness in home-brewed coffee. Using water that’s scalding hot, picking the wrong grind size for the beans and/or brewing for too long can create unpleasant flavors. None of these faux pas add extra bitterness to the beans.

They allow too much of the coffee’s existing bitterness to come through during brewing.

Recognizing the Right Kind of Bitterness

The pleasant, desirable bitterness in coffee contributes to its richness, depth and silky smoothness.

When combined correctly, it can go a long way towards balancing out and making up for other imperfections such as too much sweetness. Without any bitterness whatsoever, coffee can be pretty bland. It certainly misses a layer of complexity.

As with acidy and sweet flavors, it’s easiest to taste and understand bitterness when we associate it with the coffee’s other characteristics.

You should also take care not to confuse acidity and bitterness. Though experienced in similar ways, they are not the same thing and play distinct roles in a blend’s flavor profile.

One quick way to tell if your coffee is bitter or acidic is to take a sip as you would if you were coffee tasting. Sip just once slowly. Allow it to linger.

Then, let the coffee wash over your tongue and down your throat. Acidity and sourness tend to occur right away on the front section of the tongue.

Bitterness is more likely to affect the back of your tongue and take a few seconds longer to build. While this isn’t the case for every coffee, it’s a neat trick.

Some Tasting Tips for Bitterness

If you’re having problems tasting, return to our magic question. Ask yourself, what does this remind me of?

Also, try to taste with an open mind. Just the word bitterness can make us imagine negative things. Yet, lots of the foods we love – beer, chocolate, etc – are characterized by bitterness.

Some common coffee flavor profiles including bitterness are chocolatey, licoricey, spicy, winey and woody.

In some cases, you’ll notice a satisfyingly bitter coffee delivers an almost grapefruit- like flavour because it generates that indelible mouthfeel.

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