Is This Why Your Espresso Tastes Bad?

You get to the bottom of your last bag of coffee beans, that you were enjoying immensely, sad times! However, you have a brand new bag of coffee beans that you excitedly open and pour into your hopper, anticipating more great tasting espresso, and... it tastes awful, even sadder times!

Photo of a man pouring coffee beans into his bean hopper.

You decide to go back to the beans you were using previously, and you vow never to use those terrible tasting coffee beans again in your life!

This is a lot more common that you may think, and strangely, it's more common with high quality, freshly roasted coffee beans than it is with "normal" mainstream big brand or generic brand beans.

If this has ever happened to you, you may be surprised to hear that it's not the coffee beans!

This is most common when people have switched from their normal supermarket mainstream coffee beans, to buying freshly roasted beans, and in some cases it can happen with the first bag, while often it happens a few bags later.

So what's the crack here, if it's not the coffee beans, why does one bag of coffee suddenly taste terrible when you were happy with the espresso you were getting from the last bag of beans, or why when you switch from "normal" beans to freshly roasted, would you find that it doesn't taste as good?

The main cause is:

Using a Portafilter Espresso Machine as a Bean to Cup Coffee Machine

This is the most common with integrated grinder espresso machines, such as the Sage Barista Express and Barista Pro. 

People switching from "normal" coffee machines, bean to cup coffee machines, to integrated grinder traditional espresso machines often use them in what I call "set & forget" mode, where they might do a little bit of adjustment when making their first coffee, and then rarely or never change the settings after that.

It's important to understand if you do want to use your integrated grinder machine in this way, you can (and I'll explain how shortly) but you have to do a couple of very specific things, and most people miss these things, which is why they end up disappointed with the quality of the coffee they're making.

So what tends to happen is that the first couple of bags of freshly roasted coffee beans they get after switching, aren't too far off being within the realms of properly extracted with their set & forget settings, but then they get a bag of beans that is very under or over extracted (usually under) with their settings, and it tastes very wrong.

Integrated Grinder Doesn't Mean Bean to Cup

Photo of a bean to cup coffee machine and an integrated grinder espresso machine.

Traditional, portafilter espresso machines are capable of the best tasting espresso, but they need dialling in, with every different bag of coffee beans you use.

You can't just dial in once with the beans you start out with, and then leave the settings as they are. Well, you can, but only with "mainstream" commodity coffee beans, for reasons that I'll illustrate shortly.

Dialling in means to tweak the grind size and other parameters to improve the extraction. 

Some people (quite a lot of people, it would appear) decide to switch to an integrated grinder espresso machine such as a Sage Barista Express or Barista Pro, expecting that they can use it exactly the same as they used their previous machine, and enjoy the better tasting coffee that these machines will apparently produce. 

It's really no wonder that people make this misunderstanding giving that a lot of the big retailers actually sell machines like the Barista Express and other integrated grinder machines as bean to cup coffee machines, by the way, but they're really not.

How are Bean to Cup Machines Different? 

Bean to cup machines are coffee machines that have technology to replace the barista, they offer vending machine type convenience, but use whole beans, so all the user has to do is put beans in the top and press a button.

There's a built in grinder, and a brewing unit, sometimes called the "infuser", and there's very little for the user to do other than keep the hopper and water tank full, and to keep the used coffee grounds bin and the drip tray emptied.

A photo of a bean to cup coffee machine brewing unit and internal grinder.

Bean to cup espresso is slightly different to traditional portafilter espresso, at least when we're talking about home machines, in that they tend to produce a less intense espresso. They're really geared up for long coffees, lungo & cafe crema.

If you were to drink espresso from a bean to cup machine, and espresso from a traditional portafilter espresso machine side by side, you'd probably find that the bean to cup version is less intense in both taste and mouthfeel. 

Many people want coffee closer to the quality they'll get from their favourite coffee shop, and this is often the reason for going for something like the Barista Express, but the mistake is in thinking that using this machine is just like using their previous bean to cup machine.

How to Use Integrated Grinder machines in Set & Forget Mode

As I mentioned earlier, it is possible to use espresso machines like this in set and forget mode, meaning you don't need to dial in each new bag of coffee, but there are a couple of specific requirements if you want to do this. 

The main prerequisite for using your machine like this, is you'll need to stick to mainstream, commodity coffee beans, so this is fine if that was what you were planning to do anyway. 

If you're using "normal" coffee beans and not higher quality freshly roasted beans, you can't really make these taste much different, no matter what you do with them.

What people tend to do, though, is to start off with the beans they would usually use, and they're generally happy with the taste.

But then they switch to freshly roasted beans, sometimes to find out what the fuss is all about, and often, the shot is severely under extracted, and it tastes really bad. 

So my main advice to anyone who wants to use their machine like that, is to keep buying your favourite "normal" beans, and don't worry about freshly roasted beans, or speciality coffee beans.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love you to buy our coffee, and I think most people would find that a well extracted shot of any of our coffee beans will taste way better than any bag of supermarket coffee, but using freshly roasted beans does mean you can't really use your portafilter espresso machine as if it were a bean to cup machine.

This doesn't mean that you have to go full tilt towards home barista geek, though. If you're using forgiving beans (I'll explain), just a couple of very easy tweaks with each bag of beans should be all you need to do, and it'll become second nature once you're used to it.

Why Can Freshly Roasted Coffee Taste Bad?

A fairy tale type illustration depicting a jack and the beanstalk type scene.

I'll create a little fanciful story to better illustrate this.

After Jack's mum axed down the giant beanstalk, they lived happily ever after only for a while, ironic I know. But then the golden hen did a runner, so they needed to start looking at earning some money.

Jack had a keen interest in horticulture, and the initial fairy tale missed the part where he bought a few magic plants back down the beanstalk with him. 

The beans from these plants had amazing magical properties, but Jack discovered that caution was advisable.

He learned that if you ground them with a mortar and pestle, (or is it pestle and mortar, I'm never sure) and brew them, if you get the brew right it'll give the drinker super-human strength and eternal youth.

He also learned, in a rather alarming manner, that if you get the brew wrong, instead of a magical elixir, you end up with a brew that will cause the drinker to swell up like a balloon & float off into the distance, like Harry Potter's Aunt Marge.

Little did Jack know that someone called Joe also had a similar encounter with some magic beans, but being very enterprising, Joe wasn't bothered about harps or hens.

He sneakily brought sacks full of these plants down the beanstalk with him while Jack had the attention of the giant, and he went about setting up a huge enterprise to produce & distribute these beans all over the magical kingdom of wherever the heck Jack & The Beanstalk is supposed to be set.

The beans that Joe was creating  were produced in such a huge commercial scale, that these beans only had a bit of magic left in them by the time they reached the buyer, simply because producing beans that are full of magic and preserving that magic all the way through to the cup just isn't as commercially viable.

On the positive side, the person purchasing Joes beans wouldn't be able to do anything wrong with them that may lead to adverse reactions.

On the negative side, the little magic left in these beans would only provide a very small amount of positive impact on the drinker, maybe a slight glow to the skin & a minor reduction in flatulence, but no eternal youth or superhuman strength.

Here we have what I hope is a helpful analogy to describe the difference between freshly roasted, high quality coffee beans, and mainstream coffee beans. 

Roasting is Where The Magic Happens

A coffee roaster with a magical graphic effect.

Prior to roasting, coffee beans are hard, greenish yellow uninviting little things that look a bit like peanuts, and wouldn't taste of much if you ground them and brewed them.

So much magic happens chemically when beans are roasted, but that magic can be lost in a couple of ways.

The main way it tends to be lost is by being roasted overly dark, thus getting rid of all the subtle nuances the bean had to offer.

The main reason commodity coffee is roasted in this way is because the batch consistency wouldn't be great otherwise, and big brands need batch consistency. The mix of beans is never exactly the same, if they didn't roast so dark, each batch would end up tasting quite a bit different.

The second most common way to lose this magic, is the staling process, caused mainly by oxidation.

With mainstream coffee, you have no clue when it was roasted as there's no roasted on date on the packaging. You also don't know how long the green (raw) beans were kept in storage after harvest before they were roasted, and with commodity coffee, this can be a few years or even more than a few years in some cases.

Sacks of coffee beans in storage.

When you switch from "normal" coffee beans, to freshly roasted high quality coffee beans, you're basically switching from beans that don't have much magic left, to beans that are still jam packed full of it. 

With coffee beans, thankfully this isn't going to lead to any kind of adverse reaction requiring a trip to the accidental magic reversal department. The only strong adverse reaction is likely to come from your taste buds.

Mainstream coffee beans don't have the same amount of "magic" remaining in them to allow the possibility for them to go very right or very wrong, and this means they're very easy to use, and generally speaking they lead to a "coffee like" taste, and in my opinion it's for this reason that people who've not yet experienced speciality coffee, tend to believe that "coffee just tastes like coffee".

If you're buying freshly roasted beans, they're still full of magic.

The positive side of this is that if brewed correctly, that can lead to amazing tasting coffee, possibly even coffee that tastes so good that it makes you question your beliefs entirely on what coffee is and how it can taste.

The negative side is that if brewed incorrectly, they can taste very bad, possibly making you question whether this speciality coffee thing is a complete fairy tale.

So, with this all said, what can you do in order to get better results with your magic, freshly roasted coffee beans?

Grind Finer & Pull Bigger Shots

Generally speaking, if you're switching from supermarket beans to freshly roasted beans, the problem you'll face is a very simple case of under extraction. 

The main problem is usually that the grind size is too coarse. If you choke the machine (no espresso flowing) then it's the opposite problem, this means the grind is too fine. But if you're switching from supermarket beans, the problem will usually be too coarse a grind.

You can tell that this is the case when you find that the normal grind time is leading to your portafilter overflowing, and to lots of coffee being trimmed off when you use the razor tool, if you use it. 

A good sign that the grind is too coarse, is too much coffee in the basket, a sign that the grind is too fine is your tamper dropping deeper into the basket. 

So if all you do is to take your grind a few clicks finer, this will help, but another thing that makes a big difference is ratio. 

If you keep the dose (the amount of coffee you grind into the basket) the same, but change the yield (the amount of espresso) you change the ratio, which is the relationship between the amount of ground coffee and the resulting amount of espresso. 

A "normale" espresso is usually around 1:2, 18g of coffee to 36g (or so) of espresso. A lungo is around 1:3 - 1:4, and a ristretto is around 1:1 - 1:1.5.

Three espresso shots, lungo, normale, ristretto.

Changing the ratio changes the extraction (how much of the compounds are extracted), and therefore the taste, but also the mouthfeel, and intensity. 

A bigger ratio reduces the overall strength and the mouthfeel, but extracts more of the compounds.

So to a certain degree you can control the extraction just by pulling a smaller or bigger shot, if the espresso tastes on the sour side, pulling a bigger shot will extract more so it'll taste less sour.

The reason you wouldn't want to control the extraction purely with ratio, though, is that you sacrifice intensity and mouthfeel by going too far with the ratio. So you may increase the ratio in order to reduce unpleasant acidity, but you may lose  texture and strength at the same time. 

A great way to approach dialling in is to use a combination of grind size and ratio to balance the shot.

If a shot tastes tangy, overly acidic, but the flavour is intense (bad, but intense), a slight increase in ratio in combination with an adjustment a tad finer on the grind size, could be all you need to do, to produce an amazing tasting shot. 

Use Easier Coffee Beans

The biggest shock when people are using their machines in set and forget mode, is when they switch to a light or medium roast single origin coffee bean, and the reason for this is that these tend to require more skill from the user in extracting more of that magic we've been talking about. 

Most people who're relatively new to speciality coffee, will probably find that they don't like the taste of a lot of the lighter roast beans as espresso, even if they do manage to dial them in well and extract a great shot. 

A good way to figure out if this is the case or not, is to get yourself to one of the coffee festivals, Manchester Coffee Festival, London Coffee Festival  or whatever coffee event is more local to you.

A photo of a shot of espresso being pulled onto a metal ball.

The photo above for example is one I took at the recent Manchester Coffee Festival, at the Sanremo stand. They were pulling really interesting shots using a light to medium roast single origin natural processed coffee bean, on the Sanremo You espresso machine.

If you go to these kinds of events you'll find loads of roasters, and you'll invariably find some who're using lighter roast beans for espresso, and you'll experience what these tend to taste like when properly extracted. 

If you find that you love this kind of espresso, then great, but just keep in mind that you may have to upgrade your gear and your home barista skills to get decent results with lighter roasts. 

If you prefer classic espresso profiles, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, caramel, nutty notes and so on, then you're in luck, because these kind of beans are more forgiving, as they're easier to extract. There's still a bit of skill required, but not as much as with getting great results with lighter roasts. 

In terms of our coffee beans, the easiest, most forgiving beans to dial in for espresso, are the beans found in our Beginner Home Barista Collection. 

Beginner Home Barista Collection

Use code CWNC25 for 25% off your first order

Three of the four beans in this collection are medium dark roast espresso blends. If you're used to supermarket coffee beans, they'll look slightly lighter in colour to what you probably think of as dark roast.

This is something you'll get used to as you move from mainstream to speciality coffee, as what small batch roasters call "dark" or "medium" is very different to what big brands would call medium or dark roasts. 

Fruit and Nut blend is a blend of two speciality coffee beans (Brazilian Mió lot 1930, SCA score of 84.5, and Costa Rican La Trinidad, SCA 85), it's just a tad lighter in roast level than the others, and this bean is just slightly more challenging than the other three. 

So with this collection you have the opportunity to "cut your teeth with the other more forgiving blends, before giving yourself just a little bit of a challenge in the form of the Fruit & Nut blend, which will generally involve a combination of grinding finer and increasing the ratio slightly, vs the other blends in the collection. 

If you're not interested in developing your home barista skills, and you're just looking for as tasty espresso as possible with as little effort as possible, then my recommendations where our coffee is concerned, would be these two:

Chocolate Brownie Blend

 

Chocolate Fondant Blend

These are both blends of the same beans, two Arabicas (Brazilian Santos & Ethiopian Mocha Djimmah) and Indian Cherry Robusta.

Chocolate brownie blend is a slightly smoother and more mellow blending of these beans, while Chocolate Fondant blend has more of the Ethiopian Mocha Djimmah at a slightly more developed roast, and as a result it has a slightly toasty note which for me just tastes like chocolate fondant, hence the name. 

If you're not sure, have a look at our bundle deal that combines both of these coffees (our two most popular coffee beans), and save money at the same time :-).

Chocolate Brownie & Chocolate Fondant Bundle Deal

If you're moving from "normal" mainstream coffee beans to freshly roasted beans, and you just want a bean that will give you great espresso with as little hassle as possible, I'd recommend these two, depending on how intense you like your espresso.

So to conclude, if you're using an integrated grinder espresso machine including (but not limited to) the Sage Barista Express, and you find that some coffees taste awful, you now know the most probably cause, and what you can do about it.