Troubleshooting Your Brew

Often, when I am selling a bag of coffee beans to someone, or when I am out on the town sampling our brewed coffee, customers will remark that their at-home coffee doesn't taste as good as when a barista makes it. By asking a few questions, I am usually able to get to the bottom of the issue and offer corrective action. I thought, why not write this stuff up for 24/7 reference? Let's talk about what's wrong with your cup of coffee.

  1. It's Too Weak
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This is, far and away, our main quality control issue as wholesalers. Sometimes clients try to cut costs by using less coffee and end up turning 90+ point Specialty coffee into diner-y swill.  They might save about a dime on a commercial batch of coffee and they end up selling a lot less of it because it does not taste good.

For small-scale home brewing, start with a ratio of about 1:16 and adjust to taste. That is to say, if you’re using one ounce of coffee grounds, you should use 16 ounces of water to brew. Investing in a digital scale, on which you can put your whole Chemex or dripper cone or French press to measure what you put in, is the best way to go. Or, you could use two rounded Red Rock-logo coffee scoops of whole bean coffee to roughly equal a dry ounce. There’s bean size variation between different origins and roast levels, so it won’t be exact, but, as my old violin teacher used to say, it’s close enough for rock and roll. If you need a free scoop, we’ll give you one, on request, with your purchase of a bag of coffee!

  1. It’s Bitter
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This is caused by one of two things. The first is that your coffee is roasted too dark or burnt.  If you want to know how deep my feelings get about roast level, click here. But I’m just going to get real here: Red Rock Roasters is not roasted to the point of being bitter. Our darkest roasts have an Agtron reading of about 47—which is to say, medium-dark, in the context of American Specialty coffee.

But if we’re talking about coffee that’s not burnt, and it’s still bitter, the culprit is most likely overextraction. Overextraction means either that your grind is too fine for your brew method, or that you’re steeping your coffee for too long. At our high altitudes in Albuquerque, it’s not really possible to have water that’s too hot for brewing, as water boils at 202°F here. That's an excellent temperature for brewing coffee.

So you'll want to look at grind particle size. If you're trying to use a medium, auto-drip grind for a French press, you're likely going to get overextracted coffee. The longer coffee grinds are in contact with water, the coarser you want them to be. A French press brew time is 4 minutes. For a small pourover, you're aiming for 2.5-3 minutes, including dripping time. An espresso shot should last 25 seconds. For French press and Cold Brew, you'll want coffee ground to the consistency of Kosher salt. For drip, a grind like table salt. For espresso, you want it like fine sand that holds a peak when you pinch it, but not pulverized like flour. See the pattern?

Here is a grinder that can help you accomplish a variety of even grinds.

Take a look at this chart from I Need Coffee for visual representation.

You might also be leaving your coffee steeping for too long—if you make a pourover by dumping all your water in at once, you'll likely get bitter coffee.

Lastly, if you have an auto brewer with a hot plate, it could simply be burning your coffee over the course of the morning. Get a thermal carafe if you can.

  1. It's Sour

This might be another roast problem: Third Wave coffee is often underroasted to an objectively baked level. That can make it very sour, with light body, superficial origin character, and grainy flavor. If your coffee is not defectively roasted by a "craft" roaster with two months' experience, you might have a different, altitude-related problem: underextraction. Home coffee brewers in Albuquerque often get no hotter than 195°F, which is the absolute minimum for acceptable coffee extraction. Water that's less hot than this will lead to sour, flat coffee that's lacking body. This is also what happens when a brewer spouts water too fast or when your grind is too coarse for your brew method—like if you used a super chunky grind for a dripper cone with a paper filter.

If that's the kind of coffee that comes out of your coffee maker, you might want to try using a manual pourover or French press, because you get to control water temperature. See my favorite pourover dripper here.

You might see some improvement grinding your coffee finer to slow things down and give that lukewarm water a chance to extract.

  1. It's Stale

As you probably know, Red Rock Roasters has always put the Roast Date on every bag of our coffee. Buy your coffee within a week of this date, whenever possible (if you want something really fresh, just ask us what we've roasted in the past day or two). All our retail bags sold in grocery stores are nitrogen flushed for extended shelf life. Store your coffee in its original bag or fancy vacuum storage container, in a cool, dry, dark place. Kitchen cabinets were made for coffee storage.

But if your coffee's fresh and it still has an off flavor, your brew equipment might be coated in rancid funk. Click here for cleaning instructions.

  1. You Haven't Yet Found the Right Coffee For You
This man has found the right coffee for him. I made this in Photoshop. My mom thinks I'm funny.
This man has found the right coffee for him. I made this in Photoshop. My mom thinks I'm funny.

Maybe you drink dark roasts because you like your coffee "strong," but would actually prefer the flavor of a medium roast brewed with a little more coffee in it. Maybe you drink light-medium roasts because you are an astute observer and have assimilated the message that that is "correct" to do so, but you'd actually prefer the molasses sweetness of a Full City roast. Maybe you drink Indonesian coffees because you're looking for lower acid and robust fruitiness, but have never tried a natural (sun dried) Brazil.

Visit our roaster or come to our classes/tours to get exposed to new and different origins, roast styles, and brew methods! Sign up for our newsletter (click here and scroll a bit) to keep abreast of events!

- RL