5 reasons your coffee tastes bad

It is my job to work with a lot of different people, and obviously part of what I do is to try and teach people to diagnose the faults from tasting their coffee. Though there are a myriad of different variables in espresso the reason I get a terrible coffee is usually down to one of these:

1. The machine is dirty

I would say a comfortable 95% of espresso machines in the UK are filthy. It is a rare and delightful thing to find a shop where they understand that portafilters need cleaning, baskets need a regular scrub, that backflushing can happen during the day and the blocks and dispersion screens should be taken down and scrubbed as often as possible. A machine cannot be too clean. The taste of dirt is quite particular, leaving that harsh, ashy bitterness in the mouth for some time after tasting the shot. It really is quite unpleasant and often the same establishment will keep everything else spotless, but for some reason neglect the machine.

2. Grind too coarse/Grinder Ignored

This one has a fairly simple explanation – all too often grinders are set by coffee suppliers and then the staff are told that it is set, and not to touch it. Within an hour or two of a busy day the grind is miles off, and no one does anything about it. Understanding a grinder is not a difficult thing! Too many coffee suppliers come back to the shop, find a gushing pour and claim that someone has been playing with the grinder. This is simply not the case. Half the time the grinder has had so little attention that the collar is stuck fast. The mentality of “don’t touch” is also the reason there are a huge amount of dull burrs out there.

3. The coffee is stale

The customer rarely gets the full information on the lifespan of whole bean or coffee ground for espresso. I suspect that this is because this information is inconvenient to the suppliers, and also to the contract roasters. Its cheaper and easier to buy and grind in bulk. Yesterdays grinds are a deeply unpleasant thing to taste, but one disadvantage coffee has is that it is brown already so no enzymatic browning can take place. You chop up an apple and leave it – it turns brown and you throw it away. The fact that ground coffee vaguely resembles instant (which lasts forever!) an looks no different as it stales, means that freshly grinding coffee never enters people’s heads.

4. The coffee is simply of a poor quality

Sadly the UK is driven by value in terms of quantity, not quality. People treat coffee as if it were all the same and therefore will switch suppliers for a small saving on the case price. They never ask themselves “why is this cheaper?”, “how are they saving the money?”. Coffee suppliers use this demand from customers for cheaper coffee as an excuse to supply poor product. Instead I would like to see them educating and justifying the price of their coffee. “It is more expensive, and this is why, this is what you get….”

I think we are a long way from this here – though there are a few roasters who are producing some genuinely exceptional coffee. What is reassuring to see is that those who choose the path of quality are finding it easier to grow in a market saturated with garbage.

5. People do not taste their own coffee

It seems obvious to me, and to most people reading this, but very few cafes and coffeeshops regularly taste their own coffee. There is no better quality control, and in the same building bartenders will be tasting cocktails and chefs tasting food but the espresso machine’s quality goes down to trust. As an owner you cannot rely on the feedback from your customers – when was the last time you actually took a coffee back and complained? People will hate your coffee, struggle through it and then never come back, or at least start drinking something else.

Tasting your coffee will give you the information to diagnose the above problems, it will mean you and your staff can be proud of what you do and what you serve and that you regularly enter the mindset of a customer visitng your establishment, which many people fail to do.

There are many more reasons for a bad cup, but I think if we could just get those 5 fixed the leap in quality would be dramatic.

[tags]Espresso, Coffee Shop, Cafe, Coffee[/tags]

13 Comments 5 reasons your coffee tastes bad

  1. Dan Stenqvist

    Hi James!
    Thanks for your comment on my blog! I think your new blog looks great and your articles gives me inspiration to push myself even harder behind the machine and for my writing at my blog!

  2. Stephen


    Good post. So regarding the poor quality coffee. In today’s industry, how many farms exist in the world that could supply high quality coffee in bulk. I know more and more farmers are focusing on quality but if a large company wanted to improve their quality, are they restricted by perhaps a low no. of large scale quality farms?

    Or were you referring more to roasting practices?

    steve (still writing that e mail, oh and will you be in Trieste in November?)

  3. blueskiesfade

    Ooo a blog about coffee. I think I love you. Coffee is the all important super drink of our times. I can’t even think about starting the day without a fresh cup of steaming black coffee without feeling sad. I need coffee to survive.

    I’m currently enjoying a blend called Santos and Java and it’s just like heaven on my tastebuds. When that runs out it’s onto the Pure Columbian.. *happy sigh*

    Can you recommend any good coffees?

  4. Freddy

    Well I am not going to be a hypocrite and say that I have never traveled down the starbucks path, drinking there Misto / Cafe au Lait. Eww I hated myself for it. I felt as if I just received my members only snob card, and now the rest of the snooty social club felt the need to come converse with me about how they love there starbucks, and asking me how long have I been drinking it like it was the best kept secret of the land, making fun of everyone who hasn’t made the cross over to starbucks, speaking to me as if they were the teacher and I were the student mentoring me of the different types of flavors. Then talking about starbucks as if it were an oasis for the coffee drinking community,. I get fifteen minutes of quiet time and I made the mistake of going into one of these automaton coffee shops. Needless to say, since that mind boggling experience, I like to think that I have been on the front lines of the anti starbucks movement. So for everyone who feels the same as I do and for all of you starbucks fans, here’s some food for thought — have you seen the new Eight O’Clock coffee commercials at http://www.eightoclock.com? Eight O’Clock Coffee’s Original Ground Coffee was preferred over Starbucks® House Blend Ground Coffee in blind taste tests — beat that! :)

  5. Alistair

    I couldn’t agree more, 5 very valid points. On the question of stale coffee, when is coffee past its best? Most large roasters give 12 months life (the Italians try to push it to 24 months), smaller roasters sometimes stamp 6 months. Surely if we want to start promoting the fact that coffee has a very short life we should be saying 4 weeks and then throw it away! It seems as an industry everyone (even those who know better) like to hide from the truth. Saw a bag of Monmouth coffee in my local deli the other day, on the back it said best consumed within 4 weeks of roasting, the roasting date was 5 weeks ago. I pointed this out to the owner and I was told that the coffee had only just arrived that week! Freshly roasted, but not necessarily freshly consumed!

  6. jim

    Stephen – it is a combination of lazy roasting and buying on origin alone – no traceability just the Mexican that whoever has in stock that comes out cheaper on the comparison sheets.
    I think there are enough farms doing a good job, and that would obviously increase if the demand was there allowing them to justify the necessary spend on the process.
    And yes, I will be in Trieste in November. Quite tempted to go and see the nice people at Illycaffe whilst I am there too.

    blueskiesfade – you want to try http://www.hasbean.co.uk – everything there is exceptional.

    Alistair – In a sealed bag, with a valve, then up to three weeks is tolerable. I respect Matthew Algie for putting on a roasted date, and a date three weeks after under the title of “The gates of espresso heaven close on:”

    Sadly coffee is driven by cost, which means it will always be bought and sold in bulk, often in unnecessarily large quantities.

  7. blanco

    i dunno, jim. water? where’s the mention of pure, fresh water? you could certainly lump “stale” in there under “poor quality” (along with many other poor quality issues. but water just seems like something we all need to keep close eye on.

  8. Dan

    I can say, with no fear of contradiction, that the coffee in the UK is usually amongst the worst in the world.

    This is particularly frustrating because we have a proliferation of really good quality espresso machines and grinder in cafes and restaurants nut there is little or no knowledge, training or care to go along with them.

    The vast majority of Brits, customers and staff, have no concept of what constitutes Espresso, Cappuccino either as parts or a whole. I can genuinely say that in the UK I have NEVER seen a decent espresso pour (always a gusher or a dripper), decent beans (always a fully hopper of grounds), or a properly constructed cappuccino (milk with froth scooped off the top of the pitcher anyone!)

    You all know what i’m talking about .

    Whew, nice to have a rant, but really, aaaarhh!!

    And i’m not sure if this will ever change. Customers accept it and shop staff don’t know any better.

  9. cat!

    Well, Let me tell you the simplest secret why coffee taste so bad!!!! It is not coffee at all. It has neither taste nor aroma of a real coffee. I have tasted every brand of coffee, including Starbucks, even tried so-called Organic coffee. You know what ?They all taste horrible. Either you buy from Aldi or from World Market, they are all the same. They are either tasteless bitter-tasteless, or simply taste like smoked cigarette tobacco. What it is , I think is some kind of a hybrid (mix of grass and artificial coffee beans). As of why you might ask me does coffee beans looks like beans and smell like coffee before you brew them? My best bet is that manufacturers simply spray those beans with a coffee aroma and beans are curved into beans.
    Should you even wonder about why coffee taste so horrible?
    It is fraud!Just like majority of tasteless -artificial, plastic American food is. Do the vegetables and fruits smell and taste like they should? Of course, not! They are completely tasteless and don’t even have any aroma. Why? because they were inorganically grown, irradiated, and genetically altered. Thus, everything taste like a grass. Nutritional value? Zero!
    As saying goes, ” One apple a day , keeps a Doctor away!”. Really? May I correct this, ” One apple a day from American supermarkets, brings a Dentist on your way!”. Even apples are tasteless, they are so tough that unless you have some strong teeth, biting into apple guarantee you a broken set of teeth.
    When I visited Italy and Austria, I was a coffee addict. Their coffee as well as food is organic , well-cooked. They have a simple vending machine , just like we have in offices with about 7 different types of coffee. They all taste different and are absolutely delicious. One small cup of coffee and you are completely waken up! During the Era of the Soviet Union. Ukraine also had a great coffee. One could have gone to any cafe and get a real coffee.
    So, as for the USA !!!! When food is artificial, nothing taste right ! Nutritious value is zero. You want a good food, than you might want to visit European deli, be prepared to have a wallet with hundreds of dollars. Everything is very expensive there.

  10. Raymond Washington

    I like your comment on starbucks coffee. It seems to smell like wet cigarrettes. I remember when I was a kid and my grandparrents would perk coffee and you could smell it all the way down the street. Today you could stick your nose in a can of coffee and smell nothing. The main reason I began drinking coffee is because of the flavor and aroma. What is going on? America is being cheated out of a good cup of coffee. I could pay ten dollars for a can of coffee and it would not be any better than the can I spent three dollars for. Knowone doesn’t seem to know what coffee is anymore. What the heck!

  11. LTT Vending

    Your blog rightly identifies at that is bad with bean to cup coffee. Unless you’re visiting a barsita coffee shop it is impossible to get a consistant quality of bean to cup coffee, you are very right most people don’t realise that coffee beans begin to go stale after just three day, and to properly clean a bean to cup machine takes about an hour a week!! This is why bean to cup coffee machines are not suitable for busy professional offices where staff satisfaction and customer impressions are of upmost importance. It is vital to recognise that beans to cup coffee is not neccessarily the highest quality and that sometimes a high quality freshly ground coffee, that is prevented from going stale and therfore degrading in taste would be a more suitable hot drinks solution for most office locations. The Flavia Creation 400 coffee machine does just that, serving up to 25 coffee shop quality hot drinks, with a maximum time spent cleaning per week of 10 mintues! That’s what makes the Flavia 400 the UK’s best selling office coffee machine

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