Is espresso not supposed to taste bitter?

Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.
ronz
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Postby ronz » Sat Dec 25, 2010 3:42 am

Hi, I am new to home espresso making but not new to espresso. This is my first post.

My "habit" started about 5 years ago and I have helped keep the doors of my local Peets open with my daily large iced lattes. I figure I have given them perhaps $7,500 in 5 years. My desire to create a home espresso setup started when I thought it would be so much cheaper to make my own espresso. (NOW I am not so sure, but it seemed a good idea at the time).

I set about looking for that "cheap" entry level espresso maker. I saw the Gaggia Baby with the big red Christmas bow on top at the local coffeehouse, just $399 (or whatever it was). A few hours of internet research revealed the corrosion inherent in an aluminum boiler that would plague most inexpensive espresso makers, and the minimum price of entry for a decent (as in 10 year + longevity) espresso machine went north. The Rancilio Silvia seemed to fill the bill as entry level. I am a perfectionist and want that "perfect" shot. I read a lot of reviews on this site and others, watched those entertaining Chris Coffee and Seattle Coffee Gear videos and talked myself into an $1800 espresso machine. Then reality hit - I am the only espresso drinker in the house (my wife doesn't even drink coffee). I would have to sell her on the idea that I was buying this little machine to make coffee that equaled the replacement cost of a new refrigerator, AND a new stove, AND a new dishwasher - all to fill cups not all that much larger than a thimble. Oh, but I need a grinder too - not one that cost 50 bucks with a little whirly blade - no, one that cost several hundred dollars in ADDITION to the $1800 machine. Not likely to be viewed favorably by her, and I had to admit that perhaps it would be a little ambitious for our modest budget.

I called Dave at Hitechespresso.com in Southern California - he has installed PIDs on hundreds of Silvias and other espresso machines - I asked his advice and he recommended a Vario and a Silvia. He did not see the need to spend $500 more to get the "next step up" (the single boiler Quickmill Alexia) and suggested I match my espresso maker with the Baratza Vario. I also talked to a fairly local espresso machine shop (brick and mortar). The local seller indicated the Vario would not be likely to last because it was "plastic." I was all set to settle on the Rancilio Rocky grinder and buy it local and a non-PID-modified Silvia, but after reading reviews on HB, the Vario sounded better and better. So I sprung for the Vario and Silvia-with-PID package from Dave. Bought at the last minute before Christmas; the Vario has arrived and I am waiting for the Silvia which I guess will arrive sometime next week (Dave needed time to install the PID). In the meantime I have purchased a real tamper, steaming pitcher, thermometer for the steaming pitcher, even a little espresso cup and saucer. Also purchased a half pound of "espresso blend" coffee beans from Peets to try out.

I am quite excited about learning to make decent espresso. I have a question about espresso:

I have tried straight espresso a few times at the local coffee shop. It always tastes very strong and what I would call... bitter. I have read that espresso is not supposed to taste bitter. (As I usually drink it in milk it does not usually matter and, in fact, I like the somewhat bitter taste). So, this bitter taste, is it all relative? Is it an acquired taste and a certain amount of bitterness comes in the cup - but it is not called bitter - unless it is unacceptably bitter? I guess that with my untrained palate I will not even know if I am pulling a good shot!

I am quite excited to be posting here. I spent hours researching, most of it reading various reviews and guides on HB. (Especially enjoyed the review of the Quickmill Alexia and the comparison with the Silvia). If anyone read this long post to the "bitter end" and wants to respond I would appreciate it.

:) Ron

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benm5678
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Postby benm5678 » Sat Dec 25, 2010 10:33 am

My best shots do not. Perhaps, tiny bit, but just as a background support role to all the other amazing flavors and aromas in the cup. Great espresso is something you can savor in the mouth, swirl it around... not have to gulp quickly as if it's medicine ;) Sounds like you got a grinder people have good things to say about for espresso... so good first step! I'd also recommend buying/making a bottomless PF to assist you in learning. Then, if your extraction looks good (indicating grind/dose/distribution/tamp are ok), and still sense bitterness, reducing brew temperature a bit will help... you can try doing that until you sense sourness -- this will give you a rough range of temperatures to play with... personally, I usually have more luck brewing on the lower end.

ronz wrote:I guess that with my untrained palate I will not even know if I am pulling a good shot!

I don't have access to any quality espresso outside my home, if you do that can help! But in time, you learn from your own 'accidents' and 'miracles' how truly amazing espresso can be... these moments will inspire you to pay closer attention to what variables helped achieve it.

ronz wrote:As I usually drink it in milk it does not usually matter

Of course dumping 4oz of milk on any shot will sweeten it up ;) ...but, I must say a cappa suffers as well from a poor shot hiding underneath... I usually don't like to make cappas, until I tasted the daily roast and dialed in as a straight shot.

Enjoy the new toys!! Experiment (with consistent approach) and taste as much as possible.

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Postby newmanium » Sat Dec 25, 2010 10:42 am

If you want to continue with iced lattes, you might look into getting a Nespresso. The espresso is decent for a milk drink, it's cheap and very easy. My coworker lived in Spain recently, and was surprised to see how popular it is over there.

And I also started at a Peets - I'm one of only two people who order straight espresso from my shop. One of the barista is really good, and I've had some delicious shots - but others pull it all wrong, and I've had some awful shots As well. Just saying, no guarantee on what espresso quality your local shop is pulling. If you can, see if there are any high end shops locally, really helps to know what a good shot tastes like (I'm spoiled in Portland).

Good luck! It's a fun hobby. Espresso used to taste bitter to me, now it doesn't at all - I assume my taste buds have adjusted.

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Postby howard seth » Sat Dec 25, 2010 2:16 pm

Hi Ron, I would strongly urge you to try a few espressos at "Verve" over on 41st street - about a mile south of Capitola Rd (where Santa Cruz meets Capitola) - if you have not tried Verve already - amazing place for espresso - may give you a "standard" for a non-bitter intense espresso.

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Postby hperry » Sat Dec 25, 2010 2:40 pm

newmanium wrote:If you want to continue with iced lattes, you might look into getting a Nespresso. The espresso is decent for a milk drink, it's cheap and very easy. My coworker lived in Spain recently, and was surprised to see how popular it is over there.


Might not be a bad approach. Nespresso is also making a $100 milk frothing accessory (seen at Williams/Sonoma yesterday) that's not as good as steaming, but does a surprisingly good "second best."
Hal Perry

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howard seth
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Postby howard seth » Sat Dec 25, 2010 2:58 pm

Ron - Another thought about Verve (if you go) - after drinking a few of their espressos: you can buy a bag of the same beans they just served you - to prepare in your home espresso set up - this will give a great comparison and indication of what to shoot for. I did a similar thing myself last Spring. I could not match their espresso in intensity and complexity of taste - theirs' is a very highly extracted 21 grams in about 1 oz of water. (I have settled, lately, with my machine for about 15-16 grams of coffee beans in 1 1/2 oz water.)

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Postby ethiopie » Sat Dec 25, 2010 5:40 pm

ronz wrote:Hi, I am new to home espresso making but not new to espresso. This is my first post.

I have tried straight espresso a few times at the local coffee shop. It always tastes very strong and what I would call... bitter. I have read that espresso is not supposed to taste bitter. (As I usually drink it in milk it does not usually matter and, in fact, I like the somewhat bitter taste). So, this bitter taste, is it all relative?
:) Ron


I learned on this forum ther are two Schools of espresso-thinking (a bit like Platonism and Aristotelianism, I guess).

1) Espresso is a beverage made of coffee beans with a certain technique (the Aristotelians?);
2) Espresso is a beverage made of coffee beans with a certain flavor profile (the Platonists?).

If you're an Aristotelian, then no: espresso isn't bitter. It is whatever combination of flavors you can extract from certain beans (certain roasts, grinds, temperatures, timings, ...) with your machine. Usually, there are bitter flavors involved, but they can be subdued (or dominated by sweetness, acidity, etc.).

If you're a Platonist - like I am - then it depends on the Platonic Ideal Taste you like to approach. For me that Platonic Ideal is - fairly bitter, even compared with many espressos served in Italy.

I wouldn't call a bitter taste "relative". But it's an acquired taste. We're born with a liking for sweetness, acidity, etc. - almost every child likes bananas, pineapple, etc. - , but you have to learn to appreciate bitterness. I'm not a specialist, but as far as I know coffee flavor is incredibly complex - even more complex than the flavor of wine. I think that people who avoid bitterness miss a lot of the complexity, but that's just me, of course.

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Postby PeterG » Mon Dec 27, 2010 3:37 am

Bitterness is a flavor attribute found in all coffee, to some degree, along with acidity, sweetness, umami/savory, and lots and lots of aromatics.

Bitterness in coffee comes from different places: the bitterness from alkaloids (the things that often make plants bitter), the bitterness that results from browning reactions (especially caramelization), and the bitterness of other compounds (like quinic acid).

Alkaloids: these are bitter substances often found in plants can be slightly toxic, often have a pharmaceutical effect, and are bitter. Theobromine, found in chocolate, is an example of an alkaloid. Coffee contains caffeine, which is slightly bitter, and trigonelline, which is quite bitter.

Caramelization: as sugar is browned, it acquires a bitter taste- often quite pleasant. Imagine plain sugar, then imagine sugar that has been slightly browned, then imagine dark caramel.

Other compounds: lots of stuff in the world is bitter. For example, coffee contains quinic acid, which is both tart and bitter.

Now then: coffee contains all of these bitter compounds and more. So bitterness is definitely a part of coffee's complex flavor. But, remember, coffee is complex: the bitterness may or may not be identifiable as a pronounced, forward flavor. When people say "this coffee is not bitter", they are saying that the bitterness has been balanced by the other tastes- sweetness, acidity, umami- even perhaps a touch of saltiness. Remember, chocolate, caramel, and many other foods also have bitterness as a component.

Hope that helps,

Peter G
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ronz
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Postby ronz » Mon Dec 27, 2010 1:11 pm

Hi all, and thank you so much for your responses.

I had a mishap on Christmas Day just as me, my wife and son were close to sitting down to open presents. I dropped something very heavy on my big toe. (No it was not the Baratza grinder!). I spent a good part of the day in emergency at our local Dominican Hospital (the only medical services to be found on Christmas Day) getting x-rays and stitches. They did a wonderful job, but I was still not feeling well yesterday, so, I am back on my computer today.

Honestly, I did not expect so many thoughtful replies!

Ethiopie - You have reminded me that all tastes are relative, and to assume that there is one single espresso taste that is "perfect," or that each person who drinks espresso wants to find the same taste in the cup, would not be accurate. Also, I agree, that a certain bitterness is desirable. For example, Without bitterness, sweetened chocolate would probably just taste like sugar and lose its complex taste.

benm5678 wrote:I'd also recommend buying/making a bottomless PF to assist you in learning. Then, if your extraction looks good (indicating grind/dose/distribution/tamp are ok), and still sense bitterness, reducing brew temperature a bit will help... you can try doing that until you sense sourness -- this will give you a rough range of temperatures to play with...

Nice recommendation, I will buy a bottomless PF. I really want to learn to make great espresso, even if it sometimes hides in milk. I also think I will like straight espresso if well made. I have had some really bitter lattes at times from the local coffee shop, perhaps the espresso would have been really bitter if straight, so it would seem the best latte starts with the best espresso shot.

newmanium wrote:If you can, see if there are any high end shops locally, really helps to know what a good shot tastes like

I will do that.

howard seth wrote:Hi Ron, I would strongly urge you to try a few espressos at "Verve" over on 41st street

Howard, I will definitely give Verve a try! I also like your suggestion about buying the type of beans that they are serving up if I like what I am drinking.

Hperry and Newmanium - I looked into the Nespresso concept and was tempted, but again, want to move away from just lattes and explore straight espresso; that it why I headed for the more expensive setup.

PeterG wrote: ... bitterness is definitely a part of coffee's complex flavor. But, remember, coffee is complex: the bitterness may or may not be identifiable as a pronounced, forward flavor. When people say "this coffee is not bitter", they are saying that the bitterness has been balanced by the other tastes- sweetness, acidity, umami- even perhaps a touch of saltiness. Remember, chocolate, caramel, and many other foods also have bitterness as a component.

That is kind of what I expected ... when a reviewer says that the espresso is not bitter, the comment does not mean no bitterness, just that the bitterness is balanced out (like the taste we expect in hot chocolate, for instance) and does not overwhelm the other subtle flavors.

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Postby Marc » Tue Dec 28, 2010 10:04 pm

I think Ronz hit the point.

Coffee will always have bitterness from the caffeine, but it needs to be balance, if not, it's likely to be bad