Is espresso supposed to be bitter or something?

Skeeedunt

Platinum Member
Oct 7, 2005
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A nice, pretentious, delicious coffee house opened up downtown a few months ago. Their brewed coffee is very good, and their mochas and cappuccinos are freakin great. One of my coworkers was raving about their espresso, so I had high expectations. I order up a double, and what do I get? Blech.

Ok, maybe just a bad day. Tried it a few more times... same thing. Bitter. Agonizing.

Seems like it's like this everywhere I go, too. Well, with one notable exception... say what you want about Starbucks beans - burnt, over-roasted, tasteless, unsophisticated - at least they're fresh. I'm no fan of their drip-brewed coffee, either, it's actually quite undrinkable. Yet their espresso is one of the few consistently passable cups I can get my hands on? I don't get it. I've had much better espresso elsewhere, but only on very rare occasions.

Am I missing something? Is this what espresso is supposed to taste like? Do people love that bitter, palate-clenching flavor? Perhaps I'm not describing it correctly, maybe bitter isn't the right word. Whatever the characteristic imparted by very stale beans, or steam-driven espresso machines, that's what I'm trying to describe. And it tastes like crap.

Lay it on me coffee masters.
 

Descartes

Lifer
Oct 10, 1999
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Coffee is always going to be somewhat bitter, but then so are a lot of other foods and drinks. The difference in a quality espresso is that the sweetness and acidity will balance the flavor profile so that the bitterness isn't so dominant.

You probably just went to a bad coffee shop. The overwhelming majority of coffee shops can't produce a drinkable espresso. If they're using a superautomatic, then the ability to produce something drinkable is almost inherently limited; if they're using a capable machine, then the barista is usually incapable of doing so. It's a lot more difficult than most people think, and the reality is that most places don't train their people properly. Either the machine is so hot that it literally burns the grinds into submission, the machine is dirty or they're using month-old beans. The freshness of the roast doesn't even matter in some cases, because they can't get anything else right either. The best beans in the world will be useless if you can't brew them properly.

So, no, it's not what espresso is supposed to taste like. A great espresso is as varied as wine, and you could get everything from a dark chocolate liquor taste to an almost cloying fruitiness. I've had espressos that tasted like everything from blueberry to mushrooms.

Where do you live? I can probably recommend a place in your area. The larger cities have great options. Chicago, New York, Portland, Seattle and a handful of other cities in particular.
 

Skeeedunt

Platinum Member
Oct 7, 2005
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I'm glad to hear it's not just my imagination. Too bad no one knows what they're doing (or just doesn't care) :(

I live in Sacramento, CA, any tips in the metro area would be well appreciated.
 

miri

Diamond Member
Jun 16, 2003
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You can tell how good/fresh a expresso is with the foam on the top, a good expresso will have a mm of foam on top, any break in the foam is a sign of the water not compressed enough or it has been sitting out to long.

Yes, expresso is supposed to be bitter and strong, it is basically concentrated coffee.
 

dighn

Lifer
Aug 12, 2001
22,820
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The first time I had espresso I had to really try to not throw up. then I ended up having the jitters during my exam (reason for drinking it). never tried that again. I suppose I just had bad espresso.
 

everman

Lifer
Nov 5, 2002
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A good straight espresso should not be overly bitter or sour, generally this can mean too hot or too cold water respectively, or the shot was run too long or short.

Coffee has more flavor compounds than wine, this results in a wide array of possibilities. A common flavor for espresso is like a very dark chocolate, not very sweet but pleasant and smooth.

I think most store owners don't even know what it should taste like, and certainly most people have never experienced great espresso. I don't have any good shops around here, but I roast my own beans and have a semi-commercial setup at home.

edited: meant "not very sweet"
 

AlienCraft

Lifer
Nov 23, 2002
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Originally posted by: miri
You can tell how good/fresh a expresso is with the foam on the top, a good expresso will have a mm of foam on top, any break in the foam is a sign of the water not compressed enough or it has been sitting out to long.

Yes, expresso is supposed to be bitter and strong, it is basically concentrated coffee.

the coffee foam, not the milk foam.

it can become bitter by being over brewed as well.
 

mrrman

Diamond Member
Feb 8, 2004
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maybe it was the roast...I have my own machine at home and my espresso is smooth and creamy( not creepy lol) not acidic tasting....i.e Starbucks is bitter and burnt
 

Descartes

Lifer
Oct 10, 1999
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Originally posted by: mrrman
maybe it was the roast...I have my own machine at home and my espresso is smooth and creepy not acidic tasting....i.e Starbucks is bitter and burnt

It's possible. Some shops roast fairly dark for their espresso, because they anticipate most customers ordering milk-based drinks. Since most places also use far, far too much milk in their drinks, a darker roast can sometimes provide more flavor to "cut" through the milk. The sweetness of the steamed milk helps balance out the bitterness while still retaining some flavor.

A proper shop doesn't do this for a variety of reasons: One, they don't use a lot of milk--a proper cappuccino is usually no more than 6 ounces, not 12 or more as you find in some places; two, they have a lot of customers that order espresso, so they make sure that the espresso itself is suitable. A good barista will usually do some tastings throughout the day to make sure everything is normal.
 

scott916

Platinum Member
Mar 2, 2005
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Originally posted by: Skeeedunt
I'm glad to hear it's not just my imagination. Too bad no one knows what they're doing (or just doesn't care) :(

I live in Sacramento, CA, any tips in the metro area would be well appreciated.


Supposedly Temple in between K & J on 10th is supposed to be decent, but I haven't made it over there yet. LMK...
 

biggestmuff

Diamond Member
Mar 20, 2001
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Caffeine is bitter. The longer beans are roasted, the less caffeine remains in them. When beans are over-roasted, there is very little caffeine, hence little bitterness.
 

Descartes

Lifer
Oct 10, 1999
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Originally posted by: biggestmuff
Caffeine is bitter. The longer beans are roasted, the less caffeine remains in them. When beans are over-roasted, there is very little caffeine, hence little bitterness.

It's not really that simple, unless of course you're talking about overroasted to the point of being almost ash. There's little left in the bean at all at that point.

I consider overroasting to be beyond the point where CO2 has pushed oils to the surface of the bean and those oils have been volatized. It's at this point where you lose a significant amount of flavor, but much of the caffeine remains. You have to continue roasting for quite some time before you subliminize (not sure if that's the right word) the caffeine, so the different is really minimal overall.

That said, it also depends on how you prepare your coffee. I measure my coffee by weight, so by that alone I will have a negligible increase in caffeine along with an increase in roast time and/or temperature. Those that measure by volume won't have this issue; in fact, they should have less caffeine, because when coffee is roasted the cells that contain the oils expand, and if you dry out the fibrous matter around these cells too much all the oil will essentially be pushed to the surface and thus volatized. In other words, the beans will expand. The CO2 comes from pyrolysis if I remember correctly.
 

IGBT

Lifer
Jul 16, 2001
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..never understood the attraction for over roasted dark coffee. Medium roast has the most complex flavor and highest jolt of caffeine.