Caution: Contents Magical

When I started researching how to make my coffee less bitter, I was surprised to realize it’s not one factor but a whole avalanche of reasons.

At first, I felt overwhelmed. But after lots of reading, I condensed how to make smooth coffee into a simple formula. I’ll cover each of these specific factors below so you can make strong coffee that doesn’t taste bitter.

Since starting Coffee Witch, I’ve come to appreciate that coffee making requires art and science. Thus, the smoothest coffee in the world is the result of attention to detail.

Some articles recommend adding a pinch of salt to the coffee grounds before brewing your coffee. This is ideal in a pinch (pun intended): when you have the coffee you have and simply need a slightly better cup that morning.

But we'll get to the source of why your coffee is bitter. I'll cover ten major factors that lend to bitterness, as well as how to fix each one so the richer aromas in your coffee can shine.

How to Make Less Bitter, More Strong Coffee

While there are many reasons coffee can be bitter, I've learned the five main factors are: freshness of the beans, coffee roast, water temperature, extraction time, and coffee-making method. Here's a quick formula for strong and smooth coffee:

Fresh(ish) Beans + Medium-Dark Roast + Favorable Method & Extraction Time = Strong-Not-Bitter Coffee

Fresh(ish) Beans

Fresh(ish) roasted coffee beans are going to make a significant difference in coffee bitterness. It’s ideal to brew coffee beans 4-11 days after they’ve been roasted, depending on brew method. Aiming for this sweet spot will aid in producing less bitter coffee.

However, it takes roughly three months (give or take) for the overall quality of the coffee beans to decline—given they’re in an unopened airtight bag. Once opened, the beans freshness will decline significantly quicker.

For this reason, it’s ideal to store your beans in, at best, a vacuum canister, or, more commonly, an airtight container that pushes air out.

In my experience, I’ve been able to create smooth coffee focusing mainly on using a medium roast and consistent coffee-making method. But if you’re looking to elevate your cup of coffee, change the variable of coffee bean freshness using the other two factors as constants.

Photo by Chintya Akemi Keirayuki on Unsplash

Medium-Dark Roast Beans

To make coffee that isn’t bitter, use a light roast. Since these beans are quite literally roasted less, they are far more influenced by the region where they were grown, which includes the climate, soil, and water. The flavors are often compared to acidic fruits, with a slight sweetness, and significant aromas in the fruit and floral family. They are better appreciated without cream or sugar, as the subtle flavors that make light roast coffee delicious would be lost.

To make coffee that is strong but not bitter, use a medium or medium-dark roast. This is the middle-way of coffee beans: balancing region and roasting process. Dark roasts are heavily influenced by the roasting process. You often hear, “full-bodied” when referring to dark roasts, which is essentially the strength we’re looking for. However, dark roasts are also the most bitter because they have been roasted the longest. Thus, a medium or medium-dark roast is ideal for coffee that’s less bitter but still strong.

Extraction Time & Method Used

Extraction time is dependent upon the method. The faster water moves through the coffee grinds, the less bitter the resulting coffee will be. (But too quick and the coffee might not be strong enough for you.)

It’s not recommended you use a stovetop espresso maker (such as the Moka Pot) if less bitterness is a priority. The water has to become hot enough for steam to push it up and through the coffee grinds; water that is too hot will lead to over-extraction, which causes bitterness.

Water should be heated between 195°F and 205°F. If you don’t use a thermometer, let the water boil but wait 30 seconds before using it.

Over-extraction is going to cause bitterness regardless of method. If you leave your french-pressed coffee sitting in the caraf, it will over-extract and become bitter. If you make coffee in a drip coffee maker and leave the warming plate on for more than a few minutes, it will burn the extracted flavors and produce bitter coffee.

You can choose a brewing method that lends to smoother coffee. The Aeropress and Chemex are two coffee makers well-known for producing smooth coffee. It’s easy to see why when you look at the extraction process:‌

The Aeropress can be used to make ‘espresso’ or a regular cup of coffee; either way, the standard extraction time is less than two minutes. With a Chemex (as well as many other pour-over coffee makers), you add some water to ‘bloom’ the coffee’s aromas, then pour the rest. If it takes more than three or four minutes for the water to drip through, your coffee grind is too fine.

The counterpoint to this is cold brew. Cold brew is made by adding cool water to coffee grinds and letting it extract for many hours, even overnight.  The extraction time is long but the cool water extraction produces a very smooth cup of coffee.

A high-quality espresso machine is always going to create the best strong and least bitter coffee available. It brings all the best elements of smooth coffee into a single process. However, a standard drip coffee maker can do a great job too.

It’s ultimately a matter of preference, especially when balancing extraction time with desired coffee strength.

Photo by Battlecreek Coffee Roasters on Unsplash

5 More Reasons Your Coffee Might Be Bitter (& How to Fix It)

Water Quality

If you’re still using tap water for your coffee, please stop. Yet even filtered water could be the culprit, depending on how it was purified.

For example: when I’m in Oregon, I use water from the tap that's purified by my Berkey filter and it tastes great. But when I’m in Iowa, I take trips to the grocery store to fill my drinking water bottles. The Berkey always makes my water safe to drink but it doesn’t fix the taste.

Amount of Coffee Grinds to Water (Ratio)

I made this mistake for years. I wanted stronger coffee, so I just added more coffee grinds—too many more coffee grinds. The result was a hair-growing brew with far too much pungency for most people, even me.‌

While I always recommend experimenting with the Golden Ratio (1 gram of coffee to 15-18 grams of water) to find one’s preferences, pay attention to your coffee-to-water ratio to ensure you’re striking a balance between strength and smoothness.

Coffee Machine Cleanliness

If your cup of coffee has slowing declined over time (or suddenly become bitter) but you’ve been using the same method and process: your machine or supplies probably need a deep clean.

To clean your electric coffee machine, you can use equal parts water and vinegar. Just make sure you run a clean water cycle afterward or your next cup will take like vinegar.

To clean other coffee makers, soak their components in equal parts water and vinegar for half an hour or so. Then rinse with soap and water until clean and free of vinegar smell.

Using Pre-Ground Coffee

Oxidation causes pre-ground coffee to lose its gases and oils, which greatly contribute to the aromas and flavors of your brew. When those flavors are lost, the inherent bitterness of coffee comes through far stronger.‌

You can procure a reasonably-priced electric grinder or easy-to-use manual grinder and whole beans to fix this issue.

Generally, however, this matters more if you don’t drink coffee everyday. If your freshly opened bag of coffee is gone within a week, bitterness won’t likely be an issue.

Arabica vs. Robusta

Robusta is very common; so while you may not realize it, you’ve certainly sipped plenty. Robusta coffee beans contain roughly twice as much caffeine as Arabica; they’re cheaper, easier to grow, contain less sugar, and come from a different part of the world than Arabica beans.

Arabica beans are often showcased in marketing, as they're considered the best-tasting beans. This is due to the brew’s acidity and smoothness. Thus, if you’re avoiding bitterness, it’s worth giving Arabica beans a try. Though they will cost more, it may very well be worth it.

Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

Let’s Review; To Brew Smooth Coffee, You Need:

  • Fresh(ish) coffee beans.
  • Light or Medium-dark roast (depending on desired strength).
  • Water temperature between 195°F and 205°F.
  • Favorable method and/or shorter extraction time.

Where your beans come from and which company or coffee shop roasts them will, of course, have a significant impact on the aromas and flavors of your coffee brew. But when it comes to creating a consistently strong cup of coffee that’s less bitter and more delicious: use this short list to remember what’s important.

Where did you drink the BEST cup of coffee you’ve ever had? I would LOVE to know!! Leave a comment below.


*Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commision if you purchase something. Thank you! Nonetheless, my opinions are entirely my own. Read the full disclosure here.