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6 Common Culprits When Your Cup of Coffee is Crap

A look at where to point the finger when your coffee is a stinker.
By Tony "Tonx" Konecny|
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We always emphasize that making great coffee should be easy when you start with great beans — don’t lose sight of the just-add-water simplicity behind all the brewing burlesque of fancy gizmos and fussy-looking techniques.

But with so many brew methods and tools to choose from, you can miss the forest for the trees when trying to sort out why your kitchen coffee isn’t tasting quite right. We’re going to set aside all the specifics of our favorite coffee nerd rabbit holes and talk instead about some big picture basics. Here are the six biggest culprits to blame when your cup isn’t up to snuff.

6. Dirty grinder or gear

It seems obvious, but even coffee professionals often screw this one up. Keeping things clean pays off. Grinders in particular are prone to accumulating coffee dust and oils and it only takes a small whiff of rancid or stale flavor sneaking into your new brew to make it taste off. Regularly brush out grinders and clean the burrs often according to manufacturers instructions. We’re users of these pellets from Urnex which you can put through the grinder regularly.

5. Getting the ratio wrong

Whether you like your coffee weak or strong is partially a matter of personal taste and somewhat about the style of roast and bean you brew with. But if your brew strays too far from outside the zone or you’re winging it every time, crummy cups can appear. If you’re not measuring your bean dose and measuring your water it’s pretty easy to be inconsistent and end up outside the ideal range. Bringing a gram scale to the party might seem fussy at first, but you’ll find that it actually saves you from having to having to think too much while you brew.

4. Bad timing

Whether you’re doing a delicate pour over, dumping water in a french press, or just dropping grounds into a drip machine basket — good coffee is always about timing. Get accustomed to using a watch or timer when doing manual brew methods, and checking the total brew time on autodrip machines whenever you make a change to your dose or grind. Generally most filter coffee methods should land no shorter than 2:30 and up to around 4:00 (and usually on the longer side for autodrip machines or larger batches). The rule of thumb for immersion brewing is thought to be at least 4 minutes and that’s a good place to start. The biggest error in manual brewing and pourovers is getting to the finish line too fast resulting in an unbalanced cup, underextracted, bitter, unpleasantly acidic.

3. The wrong grind

You want your coffee grounds to be relatively uniform in size with no dust that might overextract and create bitterness and no boulders that’ll barely give up the juice. If using one of those choppy whirling blade grinders rather than a burr grinder, unevenness and dust is a given — but you can try and mitigate by dosing a little higher than normal and brewing a bit faster. If you’ve got a cheaper burr grinder that seems to be crushing more than cutting the beans, consider investing in an upgrade.

If you’ve got a good burr grinder and your ratio, timing, and water temperature are all close to being in the right zones, this is when you can start to make adjustments to grind size. Go finer if the coffee’s feeling weak, underextracted, lacking in a balancing bitterness on the finish. Try coarser if things are a little astringent or pinched in the finish or the flavors aren’t opening up.

Coffee flavors change and reveal themselves as coffee cools but a pleasant mouthfeel and finish is often a useful first-sip indicator of whether you’ve found the right grind setting.

2. Wacky water

If you’ve checked all the boxes above, it’s time to start giving the side-eye to the ingredients. Coffee is mostly water so the water better be good! There are many things can make your local water less than ideal for coffee brewing — too hard, too soft, an odd balance of minerals, weird contaminants. As a rule, if you don’t like drinking the water plain, don’t brew coffee with it. Simple filtering (like a Brita pitcher) is often enough. If you suspect your water is an issue, try brewing a batch with bottled drinking water which is typically closer to the coffee nerd’s ideal TDS and hardness (in Southern California the readily available Crystal Geyser brand has been a reliable reference water).

1. The beans

If you’ve got good gear, you’re grinding fresh, and your ratio, grind size, water, and contact time are all in the zone… and the cup still sucks — it’s probably not you, it’s the beans.

Even the most reputable roasters have a habit of leaving some stinkers on their shelf and seem comfortable slipping by with mediocre batting averages in their day to day production roasting. Of course they’re more than happy to keep you rolling the dice with something else from their bloated offering list under the guise of helping every customer uncover their oh-so unique and peculiar taste. Don’t fall for it!

At Yes Plz we put out only one single product every week and do our darndest to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be — painting the biggest possible bullseye of deliciousness for your home brewing. Each week we work up a new and nuanced release from the best available green coffees from top farms. It’s a different approach than other roasters and we love the results. And if you’re not getting good brews with our beans, we’ll go the extra mile to diagnose and dial-in your brewing to help you get the best possible cup — and even suggest other roasters if you find our style isn’t the right fit. Give us a try and taste for yourself!

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