Remember the first time you ever tried coffee?
I do. I remember it being an intensely bitter and unpleasantly flavored drink. Ten years later and I’m completely obsessed with the stuff. Life, eh?
The thing is… coffee is a bitter drink and is even more so when it is poorly brewed or made using cheap ingredients. That’s why we shove all that cream and sugar and milk over it to make it palatable.
So, how do you make black coffee that tastes good?
The first thing to realize is that most coffee made and sold, even in coffee shops, is pretty mediocre, and is made palatable with the addition of copious quantities of cream, sugar, milk and other accompaniments.
Making good black coffee is done by following the principles of making good coffee period. The key points are to use freshly roasted coffee beans of a good quality, using a grinder to grind them up yourself, monitoring the brew and adjusting to avoid bad flavors like sourness and bitterness and having a solid method of brewing coffee.
If that seems like a lot to take in then don’t panic, it’s normal. I’ve separated each of those points into a more digestible form in this article, and even doing 1 or 2 at a time can make a big difference.
And full disclosure: I drink practically every single coffee I make black and I actually prefer it that way.
And it wasn’t always like this, I needed the sugar at first to make my morning caffeine hit drinkable and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to give up the drop of milk that balanced my coffee out, but here I am…
So hopefully that makes me qualified to give a decent enough rundown of the steps to get your coffee brewing so good that you’ll want to drink it black…
1. Buy Freshly Roasted Beans From An Independent Roaster
I don’t know where you, the dashingly handsome reader of this article, is coming from in terms of your current coffee setup. Perhaps you’re an instant coffee drinker, or maybe you pick up some preground coffee from the grocery store.
Whatever it is, the biggest change you can make is to get your beans freshly roasted from somewhere that knows what it’s doing. This is where the magic is. Walk down the coffee aisle at any store and you’ll see bags and boxes and cans of coffee, preground or whole bean… all of it stale.
What many people do not realize is that coffee has a ‘peak flavor’ that lasts for between 15-30 days. After this, it will retain some of the general inherent tastes of the bean but will lose that ‘pop’ that freshly roasted coffee has.
Most experienced coffee drinkers will taste stale coffee and get a sense that the coffee you make out of it is lifeless and mediocre.
Why does this make black coffee taste better? Well, have you ever noticed the tasting notes that come on the side of the bag? Here’s a snapshot of something I got recently:
Have you ever had a coffee that tasted like that? Well, it’s entirely possible. Coffee has an amazing amount of flavenoids that can create amazing fruity or nutty or sweet or floral tastes that can turn your black coffee into a wonderland of flavor.
And what’s more is to tap into all this good stuff you need to drink your coffee black, adding cream will just drown out all those awesome tastes!
Fair warning: Getting on board the freshly roasted coffee train can ruin coffee for you. It’s a one-way ticket to not being able to enjoy the cheap coffee that your colleagues make at work any more.
So how do you know coffee is fresh? Well the key is to look for a roast date somewhere on the bag. This indicates that the roaster cares about the freshness of the coffee and intends to sell it inside the window of peak freshness.
No roast date? It’s probably been sat in warehouses and shipping containers for months before you’ve got your hands on it.
The best places to find fresh coffee are independent roasters or sometimes cool-looking Third Wave coffee places that often roast their own beans.
You can find places pretty easily online by searching “coffee roasters [your-location]” and coffee is so popular at the moment that every town or city will have a few places you can check out.
2. Use A Decent Method Of Brewing
I’m including point 2nd because it’s important and necessary before you can do step 3 (which is really, really important), but it’s actually quite a small point and most coffee drinkers are already doing ok.
Most methods for brewing coffee are fine. Whether you’re using a French Press, Pour Over, Moka Pot, Aeropress or any other single cup coffee maker, these will do the job just great.
Espresso machines are cool too, but the depth to the art of making espresso is a little outside the scope of this article.
The problem comes with autodrip coffee makers. If you’re using a $30 hunk o’ junk that you picked up off the bottom shelf at Walmart then you’re in for a bad time.
Cheap coffee makers struggle to create the conditions that are necessary to brew and extract coffee well and are a roadblock to good coffee. You may as well disregard this whole article if you insist on using one of these.
To illustrate the problem a little, one common issue is temperature. You need the temperature to be within a certain level (195-205°F broadly speaking) and you need that temperature to remain constant.
If this doesn’t happen then the extraction does not take place properly and you cannot rely on the coffee machine producing good coffee. (I’ll get on to the massive topic of exraction in part 3, stick around…)
If you need to get a new coffee maker then a French Press is a good place to start as they are cheap and it’s probably the most simple method to get to grips with, particularly when it comes to extraction as I’ll explain in part 3. (Also makes damn tasty thick-n-creamy coffee…)
Here’s a perfectly serviceable one on Amazon that is reasonably priced…
If you simply cnanot tear yourself away from the convenience of having an automated coffee machine then you want to look into SCAA certified coffee makers.
This is the gold standard for autodrip coffee maker as the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) regulates certain conditions that mean the coffee maker is capable of making coffee properly. You might find my roundup of the best ones useful.
Do You Need A Grinder?
Equipment check: you’ve got some high-quality freshly roasted beans and a decent thing to brew the stuff in. So how do you grind up those coffee beans?
The thing with grinders is that producing a consistent grind size takes some good engineering. The burrs that grind the coffee beans as they spin round need to be carefully designed so that the chunks are of an even size but also that not too many fine, powdery pieces of coffee pass through.
Take a look at this photo using my Feldgrind grinder. This is considered a ‘good’ grind. You can see that most of the chunks are an even size and while there are some fines (it’s practically impossible to stop all fines as they pass so easily through the burrs) there’s not too many.
Now let’s look at a cheaper grinder. Do you see how little consistency there is? This kind of a grind is referred to as ‘dust and boulders’ and means your coffee is more likely to contain undesirable flavors such as sourness or bitterness.
The issue is that the starting point for a grind is higher than most people think it should be. Point being that $30 thing you got off Amazon just ain’t gonna cut it.
You’re looking at over $100 for something that will be considered passable for making good coffee.
If you’re ready to make the investment then this is considered the go-to automatic grinder and is a very popular model.
You can also push the boat out a bit and get something really great that will last you decades if you’re willing to go with the hand crank grinder where you grind it up yourself.
If you’re not ready, then I recommend getting your coffee pregounrd for now. That doesn’t mean shopping at the grocery store for the stale stuff, you’re still going to buy the high-quality coffee from an independent roaster. But what you’ll do is ask them to grind it for you in their (presumably) top-tier grinders.
Go back home and make your first brew immediately just so you’ve got an idea of what freshly ground coffee is like. Make it black, remember what we’re doing here… Doing this is a good acid test for if you want to buy your own grinder.
The coffee willll still be decent for a couple of days and have some ‘pop’ to it for about a week perhaps.
3. Learn The Process Of ‘Dialing It In’
Tea is a nice and easy drink to brew. You’ve usually got a ready made tea bag that can be placed in a mug with some hot water and all the delicious compounds will be absorbed into the water.
After a few minutes, give or take, you’ll have a tasty drink waiting for you. Coffee is not like tea.
When you add your hot water to the ground coffee the compounds in the coffee begin to be absorbed into the water which creates the drink, coffee.
We call this process extraction. Extraction is measured in TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) and can be masured by an expensive little device called a refractometer – although you certainly don’t need one of these to make great coffee.
At the earlier stages in the process, many of the compounds that extract are highly acidic. A TDS of less than 18% can result in a sour tasting drink because of these compounds, and may also taste thin and watery due to not enough of the coffee having been absorbed into the drink.
At the later stages in the process, many of the compounds that extract are bitter. A TDS of more than 22% can result in a bitter tasting drink because of this and over-brewing is probably the most common cause of ruined coffee.
So when you make coffee you need to make sure that your extraction hits this 18-22% TDS. This is where the magic happens and your coffee comes alive, you notice the awesome flavors within the coffee beans that are not drowned out by unpleasant sourness or acrid bitterness.
You’re essentially playing with 3 variables:
1. Grind size
2. Water temperature
3. Brew time
So if you’re coffee is a little acidic then you need to extract more so maybe you brew it for longer. If your coffee is tasting a touch bitter then it’s extracted too much so you make the grind size a little coarser.
Here’s a great website that gives you a rundown of flavors in a much more in-depth way. It’s called the coffee compass and is a great go-to to how to adjust your coffee when you taste those negative flavors.
Is this a lot of work? Yes. And to be honest, fo,r a lot of people it’s easier to just accept that their coffee won’t taste amazing and balance out those negative flavors with loads of cream and sugar and there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s what you like.
But if you really wanna get drinking black coffee… then this is the way to do it.
4. Accept it will be unusual at first
I remember taking the sugar out my coffee very well. It was well over 10 years ago now, and the only reason I did it was because the office ran out of sugar and I was way too lazy to sort the problem out myself. So I went without.
The coffee I started drinking was weeeeeird. It tasted less like a sweet treat and more like a ‘grownup’ drink, if you get me. The first cup or two or three, I wasn’t sure if I liked it.
But then I began to adjust. My new coffee, still with a healthy dash of milk in it, had become the new normal and I started craving the taste of it instead. A few weeks in, I’d forgotten that sugary coffee was even my jam for so long.
And when some enterprising soul replenished the stocks of sugar, I tried it again but couldn’t go back! The taste was ruined to me now!
The point being that your taste buds are going to initially reject the change whatever you do. You’ve probably come to associate that coffee taste that’s loaded with cream or whatever with the awesome buzz you get from coffee, and it’s going to be a little jarring at first. Stick with it though, and you might be surprised at what happens…
Tip: Try Some Coffee At A Good Third Wave Coffee House
So I wrote this article with the kind of person in mind who wants to upgrade their coffee drinking to the point where they want black coffee.
It’s really just a collection of solid advice about home coffee brewing and how to make your coffee nicer.
What I only realized after spending the 4+ hours writing these 2000~ words was that there’s an easy way to check whether you like black coffee when it’s made well and that’s to go somewhere that makes it well!
Now I’m not talking about heading into your local Starbuck’s, I don’t recommend the coffee there for reasons that I’ve gone into before.
You want to look for somewhere that knows what it’s doing, using freshly roasted beans and takes an artisanal, Third Wave approach to the process of making coffee.
There’s plenty of these places about, but there’s also plenty of places about that make average coffee, so try to be discerning.
My general thoughts on finding a place that does coffee is to look for the bags of coffee they sell and see if they have a roast date on them. Also, if they offer brewed coffee like from a Pour Over or French Press or Aeropress that’s a good sign.