How to Make Coffee Taste Good Without Sugar or Milk

December 13, 2022

If you’re one of the 21% of people that add sugar to their coffee, or one of the 89% of people who add milk or cream… I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t have to be that way!

Whether you’re looking to cut down on the calories or you’re doing it for health reasons like looking after your heart of your teeth, putting down the sugar jar ain’t a bad move. Only problem is it’s not all that easy to find out how.

Search the internet and you’ll find a bazillion websites telling you to add freshly picked peppermint or some such. Quirky ideas that sound kinda rad. Until you bring the cup to your lips. (Protip: coffee and peppermint do NOT mix).

What I’m going to show you in the next five minutes is how to make coffee taste amazing without sugar or milk. How to make it taste less bitter. And more sweet. And let’s get one thing straight. This is NOT using tricks or shortcuts (or peppermint). I’m just going to show you how to brew damn good coffee. So good in fact, you won’t just get used to coffee without sugar, you’ll prefer it. 

How to make coffee taste good without sugar or milk

You can make coffee without sugar or milk taste good by learning how to brew top quality coffee. If the coffee tastes good enough, you won’t actually need milk, cream or sugar to make it taste drinkable. The best coffee doesn’t taste bitter. It also has a lilting sweetness and vivid flavors, although that depends on the coffee bean you use.

Here’s how to make fantastic coffee in three steps:

  1. Buy high quality coffee that is freshly roasted.
  2. Use the right equipment.
  3. Adjust your brew to eliminate sour or bitter tastes.

The best thing is: you don’t have to do all this at once. Even baby steps can go a long way to making your coffee without sugar not just drinkable, but kinda nice. And oh look! Not a single calorie added.

Now, I will go over these steps in a touch more detail. Even if you think you’ve got the idea, I recommend reading the next section (it’s the most important one!)

Step #1: Buy freshly roasted coffee beans

High quality freshly roasted coffee is the number one improvement most people can make to their coffee.

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 the “pop” that freshly roasted coffee has? That’s gone.

If you buy freshly roasted coffee and drink it inside that 30 day window, it’ll taste like nothing else. Smooth taste, less bitterness. Flavors you’ll barely be able to believe. Even with no sugar.

Here’s tasting notes I got from a website. Want your coffee to taste like that?

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 cool-looking Third Wave coffee places that roast their own beans. You’ll struggle to find fresh coffee at grocery stores or big retailers, sadly.

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.

If you take nothing away from this article, take this. Find a bag of fresh roasted coffee. Somewhere, anywhere. Buy it, and make your coffee as normal. It’s the best way to improve the taste of your coffee. And, I think, the best way to start drinking it black.

Fair warning: Boarding the freshly roasted coffee train has its problems. It’s a one-way ticket to not being able to enjoy the cheap coffee that your colleagues make at work any more.

Step #2: Use the right equipment

To make tasty coffee without sugar, you need the right equipment. This doesn’t mean shelling out half a paycheck on random coffee contraptions. It simply means following a few basic principles that I’m about to explain.

Firstly, most coffee brewing methods will make good coffee. Something like a French Press, an Aeropress, a Moka Pot or any type of Pour Over like a Chemex or a Hario V60 are all fine.

The problem comes with autodrip coffee makers. That $30 hunk o’ junk you picked up from the bottom shelf at Walmart will make coffee that tastes absolutely foul (unless you put some sugar in, of course).

Cheap coffee makers have a lot of problems. Temperature is one example. If the coffee maker can’t keep a consistent temperature then your coffee will brew totally differently one day to the next. As you’re about to see, that’s important in making good tasting coffee.

You can get started by picking up one of the brewers I mentioned. It’s easy to order online, too. Check out Amazon for a cheap French Press or the trendy Aeropress. If you absolutely must have an autodrip coffee machine, get yourself an SCAA-certified one. That means the machine is regulated to produce great coffee consistently.

Sidenote: espresso machines are cool, too. But a LOT of work. You’re probably not ready for them. Get a simple brewer while you get the basics down.

Do you need a coffee grinder?

A coffee grinder can really help make better tasting coffee, but I don’t recommend it for absolute beginners.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a good coffee grinder is expensive. We’re talking upwards of $100 to get something that can create a smooth, consistent grind that makes a quality brew.

You can pick up cheaper grinders, but the grind size will be inconsistent. You’ll get big chunks and tiny grounds. They extract differently and give you sourness and bitterness. Not what we want here.

The second reason is that it’s an extra step. We don’t want to get too complicated here. I want you to learn to make a quality brew, black or otherwise. You can add on the grinder later to take it to the next level.

So what should you do? For now, get your coffee preground by your roaster. It won’t be as fresh (although that first couple of brews will be!) But they’ll have a top-tier grinder so you don’t need to worry about grind consistency. At least for the time being.

Step #3: Learn how to “dial it in”

Coffee is a tricky drink to brew correctly. The coffee beans contain a number of sour and bitter compounds which you don’t want in your drink. The experts use a refractometer to measure the TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) and typically look for a 18-22% TDS for the best tasting coffee.

In simple terms, the sour tastes are when we don’t we don’t brew enough. And the bitter tastes are when we overdo it. So we want to brew the coffee more if it tastes a little sour, and brew the coffee less if it tastes bitter. Master this and your coffee will taste of perfection. With or without sugar.

Here are the main variables you are playing with:

1. Grind size
2. Water temperature
3. Brew time

Grind size. Keep this the same. If you’re buying from a roaster they’ll have preset grind sizes for types of coffee. Tell them you’re making it with a French Press and they’ll grind it for a French Press. Same every time. Easy.

Water temperature. Keep this consistent. Fancy folks use a temperature kettle. You can just take it a few second after the boil for mostly the same effect.

Brew time. Here’s where you need to experiment. Measure how long you brew for. Now taste your drink. If it’s a little sour, then up the brew time so it extracts more. If it’s a little bitter, shorten the brew time so it extracts less.

There you go, you’ve got a PhD in brewing coffee.

Is this a lot of work? It might seem it, at first. But once you get it down pat it’ll be like second nature. And the really important thing is that following these steps is how you make great coffee. And, most important of all, how you make great coffee.

Extra tips to brew tasty coffee without sugar

1) Give yourself a little time to adjust

No one likes coffee at first. Not because it is bad, by any means. But because your taste buds are going to instantly reject it, because they want sugary, sweet goodness.

When I started drinking coffee — to deal with the crushing reality of my first office job — I loaded every cup I made with sugar. Three or four teaspoons. I loved it.

One day, the sugar ran out. Now I made my coffee without any at all. And my sweet caffeinated treat now tasted foul. The days went by and I just got used to it. When the office kitchen was stocked up with sugar again, I ignored it.

Point being… drinking coffee without sugar is gonna be weird at first. Stick it out. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

2) Find the best coffee

The best way to find out how good black coffee can taste is to find the best coffee shop near where you live. Try the best black coffee. It’ll give you an idea of what you’re aiming for.

Do a little Google search for coffee places. Not espresso though, you want brewed coffee. As that’s what you’ll be making yourself. Go for a breakfast one weekend and get the black coffee. See how they do it. You can even ask for tips!

I would get the “adjustment” phase of drinking coffee without sugar out the way before this though. Like I said, all coffee will taste godawful once you first stop putting sugar or milk in. You just gotta push through.

3) Brew a coffee straight after buying your beans

When you buy your coffee beans, try going home and making a coffee straight away. This is another way to get an idea of how good the coffee you can brew is.

Assuming you bought your beans and got them ground up, those first few hours the coffee will be super fresh. And the coffee you brew will be at its best. It’ll be a good test to see if buying a grinder is worth it for you.

My story on how I stopped putting sugar in my coffee

The following story is long. So long and winding that I nearly didn’t put it in this article. In fact, I advise you to skip it (there is an abridged version just above here). However, I enjoyed the memory that writing it brought me, so here it is.

I used to hate the bitter taste of coffee until I began my first adult job. The office where I worked had a vending machine. One of those where you buy a 50c hit of caffeine to get you through the day.

Soon I was hooked. I ordered my coffee sugary and milky. I looked forward to my tasty treats, and the buzz eased the pain of sitting for eight hours looking at spreadsheets.

One day, disaster struck. The option to buy coffee with milk and sugar was faded. Sold out.

But I couldn’t give up on my caffeine now. I needed it. So I ordered the next best thing, the option for coffee with milk. After all, how bad could it be?

As the plastic cup touched my lips, I felt a sense of crushing disappointment. It was bitter, acrid, musty. Tasted like someone had stubbed a cigarette in my mouth.

The worst part? I couldn’t quit coffee now. So I kept ordering it. Day after day. The same soulless, sugarless coffee. The company I worked for didn’t see the need to restock the vending machine. That day. Or that week.

The funny thing is… I don’t remember when they restocked it. But I do remember thinking I didn’t mind the coffee with milk any more. Actually, I kinda liked it. It was just what coffee tasted like.

When I tried my old order, with the sugar in, just to see what I was missing? Urgh! It was sickly sweet. I couldn’t drink it.

The point of my rambling story is this. Removing sugar from your coffee will taste weird at first. Your body will reject it. Your tongue will hate it. But it’s a temporary thing.

Stick with it, and you’ll get used to it. And then you can enjoy coffee just the same, along with knowing your not putting loads of high calorie, unhealthy sugar in your system every day.

What next

Coffee that you look forward to drinking without sugar is a simple game. It comes down to a few basic things. If you’ve got a quality bag of beans and a way to brew them, you’re 90% of the way there.

If you still don’t have a brewer, it might be able to help you out. If you like the thicker tasting French Press then check out Amazon for my favourite option. Bear in mind you do get a little grit in the bottom of your cup with that method.

Maybe you’d prefer a trendy option like the Aeropress. This is a cool way to make coffee. No grit, too. And it gives you a clean tasting brew.

Last thing I’m gonna recommend is a Chemex. This one looks beautiful and is a large size, so you can easily make coffee for 2-3. Although you do need to buy filters for it.

Whatever you choose though, will work. Just get something and get brewing. There’s my advice.

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