Bitter or Sour Espresso? There’s A Reason Espresso is a very complex beverage. There are more identified taste elements in espresso than in wine, and we know how wine connoisseurs can be. Anyone who has spent any time studying espresso, even on a basic level, has read that there are tastes like chocolate, blueberry, citrus, leather, oaky flavors, and so many more in coffee.
You can check the SCAA flavor wheel for the vast variety of language used to describe espresso’s flavor and aromas. But taste is what I am discussing today.
The two described extremes of taste on the taste side of the wheel are “sour” and “bitter.” Sour is fairly easy- lemon juice or citric acid (often sold as sour salt) works as a good household example of that. A good example of bitter might be unsweetened chocolate or, if you have some handy, gentian root extract. The interesting thing about these two flavor extremes is that they both exist in coffee, and even more so in espresso because of the extreme level of extraction that is necessary to create an espresso beverage. So how could we even drink it?
Jim Schulman, a member at HomeBarista.com, recently created a thread called, “Balance in Espresso is Intense Bitter and Sour Cancelling Each Other Out.”
In this article he discusses an experiment he used to demonstrate to his students the relationship between these two flavors. He showed that when these two flavors are present and relatively well balanced, and particularly when accompanied by an amount of sugar, they cancel each other out. When something is wrong in the process (and the list of ways to get it wrong is tremendous), one or the other flavor dominates and an unpleasant taste is the result.
As an example, a very light-roasted coffee that was meant to be used as a pour-over will have a dominant acidic flavor that might be pleasant, like unsweetened oranges, when mixed with the other coffee flavors. But that same coffee, used to create an espresso, might be overwhelmingly sour and may be unpleasant to drink. That same coffee, roasted just a little darker to mute the sourness of the acid and develop the bitter taste a little further might work well as an espresso. Roast, blend, age of the roasted coffee, brewing temperature, the quality of the water, coffee:water ratio, and more can all affect the flavor balance between bitter and sour. Even culturally, some peoples are brought up to enjoy bitter flavors more than we tend to be in western cultures.
A local acquaintance, when I told him I was making espresso at home, said, “Ewww… That’s really bitter, isn’t it?” It is clear that his earlier (and maybe his only) exposure to espresso was not a good one. Has it happened to you? Don’t forsake espresso for a massive, fat-filled, hot milkshake. Seek out other local coffee shops and try again. Your best bet is a small, independent shop and not a large chain store. The independent shops cannot depend on wide scale advertising, Their existence depends on the quality of their espresso.
On the other hand, I often hear from home baristas statements like, “I can make espresso as good or better then any shop near where I live.” Like any culinary skill, it takes time, practice, and patience to hone your skill and amass the experience needed. But like any other fine skill, it will be time well spent because you will have that ability the rest of your life.
So, if you have been avoiding espresso, or know someone who has because of what they have heard or experienced, there you have the reason why as well as a solution. Get an espresso machine, practice, and invite them over!