I can't do it :-( Every shot of espresso tastes bitter

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
daggerNC
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#1: Post by daggerNC »

I know you guys have seen so many of these posts from a newbie (about 7 weeks) because I've read as many of them as I can digest. Doing the fire hose with YouTube videos and the wealth of FAQs and guides posted here. I just need some guidance to get an enjoyable espresso shot.

My setup/history: Started with a Calphalon Temp iQ machine with built-in grinder (wife liked the looks..) but never could get good shots. So, time to step up my game, and bought a Lelit Anna TEM (PL41 with PID) and a 1Zpresso hand grinder, and started to get closer to the 2:1 ratio in 25-27 seconds, but saw enough variability and "bitter" shots, that I replaced the 1Zpresso with an Eureka Mignon Silencio. I also bought tampers and WDT and grouphead brushes and two digital scales (@0.1g accuracy) and bought a Lelit naked portafilter (I hate this uses a 57mm grouphead instead of 58mm - a lot harder to find accessories) so I could visually see/get real time feedback (and squirties all over the place has been fun but have learned to tame those). I know a number of seasoned pros here say "don't go by time or ratio - you need to go by the look of the pour and stop at the blonding point" etc., etc., and/or go by taste, but I've gone thru 5 lbs+ of beans, and can't get close to good by the numbers, so not even close to being able to judge by site (though I've tried a couple of times, and same old spitting ensues..).

I'm buying local fresh roasted beans - majority are single origin and I like lighter roasts (different bags of light and some medium roasts), so less than 14 days old when I use them. I've tried a couple of blends, but no changes really (after I go thru the dialing process). I just have not been able to achieve a "perfectly balanced, sweet cafe espresso with no bitter aftertastes"! David Schomer says the espresso should taste as good as it smells right after grinding --> take a sip and swirl it around in your mouth and then do the whole shot and "enjoy" the sweet aftertaste that will last - yea, right..

The Lelit double basket (14-18g per manufacturer) is used and I've tried varying the amount, from 14g up to 18g; I'm using a PID set temp of 200-201*F but have tried ranges of 198 to 203*; the gauge is hitting 9 to 9.5 BAR; I am able to dial in a 2:1 ratio in the 25-28 second range, but other than I'd say three times I've spit out every shot pulled as most are bitter (though a few that were fast/closer to 20 seconds I did get a more sour note and spitting ensued). I measure out the beans +/- 0.1g's. I WDT the grinds, then use a distributor, then tamp to 30-40lbs and polish. I've gone to the two local roasters and had great discussions with their employees and tasted their shots (1 has a beautiful LaMarzocco 2 group, and the other roaster had a 2 group Gaggia machine) - but I have to say they were drinkable but not espresso organism shots I read so much about. I've gotten so frustrated that I'm starting to question if I even like coffee after drinking it for the past 3 decades...

I try to keep all the variables as constant as possible and change only one at a time, but I'm hitting the ballpark numbers and I'm expecting to get at least tolerable shots, but it's just not happening. This about the only positive I can think of if I were to get Covid-19 --> loss of taste and I could actually drink my own espressos! I need a reset, but just don't know where to start. The wife is asking when will I start serving her some latte's? Any encouragement and suggestions would be much appreciated. Thank you in advance. (And thanks for letting me vent a little...)

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Jeff
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#2: Post by Jeff »

Remember that coffee is bitter, like chocolate is bitter. The trick, as you note, is to balance that with other flavors.

Medium and lighter roasts are generally more challenging than medium-dark roasts to extract well. If you haven't been able to reliably pull shots you enjoy from a "classic" espresso roast, that might be a good place to start. There are lots of recommendations out there, from people whose tastes run from dark roasts, through classic Italian blends, to those who also enjoy medium and lighter roasts.

I seldom get a "great" shot when I go to a cafe. The days of those creamy, chocolatey, shots in cafes seems to have disappeared a decade or so ago, at least in the "third-wave" shops and roasters. It's just a style that isn't as popular in the US as it once was. You can also ignore those "espresso porn" photos and videos, as that look comes with those older-style roasts. Even back then, they looked great, but the taste seldom matched the visual appeal. Pulling a medium-light roast, I get close to no crema, no tiger-striping, and a comparatively anemic, ugly view from the bottom of the portafilter.

Sour vs. bitter can really be a challenge, even with a lot of experience. Sometimes they both present themselves in the cup.

Medium-light and lighter roasts, in contrast to "classic espresso" blends, often benefit from a week or two of rest. With the light roasts I get from Europe, I don't pull them until a month after roast. They tend to be overly acidic if I pull them too soon. Not really mouth-puckering like a lemon, but harsh. Definite possibilities of bitter/sour confusion, along with astringency (drying sensation, like a tannic, red wine).

It looks like you're in NC. I've read great things about Black & White Roasters, though I have not tried them myself. I recall people that often pull lighter roasts trying their blends and enjoying them. If you're nearby one of their cafes, that might be something to try.

Sib

#3: Post by Sib »

daggerNC wrote:I've gone to the two local roasters and had great discussions with their employees and tasted their shots (1 has a beautiful LaMarzocco 2 group, and the other roaster had a 2 group Gaggia machine) - but I have to say they were drinkable but not espresso organism shots I read so much about. I've gotten so frustrated that I'm starting to question if I even like coffee after drinking it for the past 3 decades...
Perhaps you just don't like espresso, and prefer milk drinks/filter/some other form of coffee?
How often have you drunk an espresso and thought: "That was lovely!"..?

Smitward

#4: Post by Smitward »

Since you're in NC, Gray Squirrel in Carrboro has a classic style espresso blend that is easier to dial in for me than some of the stuff from counter culture or little waves. I really like both counter culture and little waves but the Main Street blend from Gray squirrel is a great blend that you can really get to taste the sweetness in. Now that I tasted it there I can sense it in other coffees much more readily. What I didn't totally understand when I first started was that learning espresso is as much about learning to taste as it is about learning to brew.

daggerNC (original poster)
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#5: Post by daggerNC (original poster) »

Sib wrote:Perhaps you just don't like espresso, and prefer milk drinks/filter/some other form of coffee?
How often have you drunk an espresso and thought: "That was lovely!"..?
Fair question, as I think I only tried pure espresso once or twice before, at that was a long time ago and it wasn't very good back then. But I've had some really outstanding latte's and Cappuccino's in the past. So, I may never wind up being a pure shot-only kind of espresso drinker, but I need to learn what constitutes a really good tasting espresso before I start to dilute it in the milk based drinks. Thanks.

daggerNC (original poster)
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#6: Post by daggerNC (original poster) »

Smitward wrote:Since you're in NC, Gray Squirrel in Carrboro has a classic style espresso blend that is easier to dial in for me than some of the stuff from counter culture or little waves. I really like both counter culture and little waves but the Main Street blend from Gray squirrel is a great blend that you can really get to taste the sweetness in. Now that I tasted it there I can sense it in other coffees much more readily. What I didn't totally understand when I first started was that learning espresso is as much about learning to taste as it is about learning to brew.
Thanks @Smitward for the Gray Squirrel recommendation, I'll try to get some from them. My local roasters (I like to support local if I can) are Cultivate (Fuquay) and 5StarRoasters (Holly Springs), and I've tried their espresso blends and wasn't successful, and have been trying a number of single origins from them, but as my Thread title suggests - still getting too much bitterness (for my acknowledged limited educated espresso taste buds).

jasiano

#7: Post by jasiano »

daggerNC wrote:Fair question, as I think I only tried pure espresso once or twice before, at that was a long time ago and it wasn't very good back then. But I've had some really outstanding latte's and Cappuccino's in the past. So, I may never wind up being a pure shot-only kind of espresso drinker, but I need to learn what constitutes a really good tasting espresso before I start to dilute it in the milk based drinks. Thanks.
I think you have sort of nailed it on the head yourself (along with the previous poster).
Pure espresso without milk/lots of water to dilute it by its nature will have bitter notes, and acidic notes, and sweet notes... in varying proportions. What you perceive as overly bitter maybe just the taste of that bean anyway.
I would probably suggest going to your local trusted cafe, ordering an espresso from them and seeing if you like the taste from theirs - if yes, then you could dial in your home setup with that specific/exact bean. If you don't like the taste regardless, and find it bitter etc... perhaps just work on dialling in a milk based drink that you DO like.

Yes, there is an art and science to getting a 'good' espresso shot, but you may find that even then the taste is not to your liking. There is no shame(? not sure that's the right word here...) in just going for making good lattes/flat whites etc instead
-Jason

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spressomon

#8: Post by spressomon »

You just haven't found the right beans...

And, chasing light or even many medium roast beans looking for a big sweet espresso...is going to lead you to your opening post. You state "you like light roasts..." then go on to say every shot tastes bitter and lacking in sweetness; there is the connection. Do you cook? Familiar with the Maillard reaction? Same thing applies to coffee beans. And, despite slick marketing language and colorful bags with over the top flavor descriptors, I'd venture to guess only 20%-ish of the roasters out there really know what they are doing.

For me and my equipment, the lighter the roast the finer I grind and the longer I pre-infuse. Some PI goes to 25-seconds before the first drop. I'll sometimes let PI go to 10-15grams in the cup before going to full brew/full pressure. Not sure the Lelit you have has this capability. But light roasts bring challenges all their own. So I suggest getting aligned with a darker roast level from a reputable roaster and getting some good beans properly grown, sorted, processed and of course roasted...probably Brazil is a good place to start.

I used to be a big fan of Redbird (various)...but I can still pull a shot of Brazil Sweet Blue that is like drinking a sweet medium dark shot of chocolate espresso that is almost devoid of acidity and certainly anything that conjures up citrus of any kind. Trick is lowering the brew water temp...like down into the low 190's. Delicious as a ristretto, great to 1.5 and very good at 2.0.

George Howell Alchemy is another good bean blend to play with. It will deliver chocolatey fruit notes...
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daggerNC (original poster)
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#9: Post by daggerNC (original poster) »

Thank you @jasiono and @spressomon. I have some "roast to order" beans coming in which includes a Brazil and one of my personal favorites - Papua New Guinea. Hoping I do find "the right beans" for me! I have tried a few darker roasts, including a very dark roast (my opinion) where all the beans were all shiny with oil spots on them. Tried a number of pulls with those, but I could taste the heavy "roast" flavors (I guess I would use smokey and very dark chocolate maybe baker's chocolate notes). Thanks for the Redbird and George Howell recommendations!

OK, I have a question for those reading thru this thread: How many of you who don't drink regular coffee (drip, press, P/O) black, but like/are drinking straight espresso shots??

Jeff
Team HB

#10: Post by Jeff »

I drink almost exclusively straight shots.

My personal preference and taste tend to medium-light and lighter beans. I was only about 50/50 with a typical, mid-range machine in pulling them successfully. They're just harder to get a balanced cup from than medium or medium-dark roasts. Finding a coffee you enjoy, that works well with your water, grinder, machine, and taste is the key. My list of "never again" coffees is a lot longer than the "that was good" list. Even when I was regularly pulling darker roasts, many that others raved about I didn't enjoy. Some that I enjoyed in the past changed as roasters changed, even with the same name on the bag. It is really a personal preference, like wines, beer, or Coke vs. Pepsi.