When we talk about the taste of coffee, we often use two words: strong coffee and bitter coffee! Most people look for the former, and I have yet to meet a person who actively seeks the latter. Interestingly, several coffee connoisseurs describe Starbucks brew as being bitter. Yet, it’s among the most popular coffee cups in the galaxy. This question then becomes legitimate – why is Starbucks coffee so bitter?
Starbuck coffee is so bitter because they tend to use dark roast coffee beans that have a bitter flavor. Dark roast coffee beans are easier to get a consistent flavor than light roast coffee beans, which is a big reason why Starbucks prefers them.
But before we go into more details, we should start with what gives coffee its taste? And why does one brand differ from another?
Read on to find out good answers to these questions, in addition to some fun facts about your favorite beverage.
Where Does the Taste of Coffee Come From?
The distinctive flavors and aromas of coffee come from a bunch of factors. And it’s the sum total of how they all come together that gives each cup of coffee its unique character. Here’s a summary of the basic reasons why your coffee tastes the way it does.
The Type of Beans
Coffee can only be planted in a few geographic locations worldwide. It’s a lean strip of land North and South of the Equator generally known as the ‘Bean belt’. That’s because coffee plants are extremely picky when it comes to climatic and soil requirements.
And even within these specific lands, another important factor sets apart different varieties of coffee types. This critical factor is altitude. The coffee plants that grow on high elevations are often rich with fruity and flowery tones, and we know this type as Arabica Coffee.
Author Note: The other type that grows on lower heights are known to have a harsher earthy taste. They’re also loaded with a lot more caffeine, which gives them a distinct bitter aftertaste. This is the Robusta coffee variety.
While Arabica and Robusta coffee make up the majority of the coffee bean types, there are two more types that you might come across. All-in-all, there are four main varieties:
- Arabica coffee, Coffea arabica
- Robusta coffee, Coffea canephora
- Liberica coffee, Coffea liberica
- Excelsa coffee, Coffea liberica var. dewevrei
Most coffee makers opt for a mix of several types of beans. This is like blending primary colors to come up with richer secondary hues.
Sometimes economics and realities of scale control this process. Arabica coffee is much more expensive than Robusta coffee, and it’s also harder to procure in large amounts. That’s why mega producers work with realistic mixes of the two types.
The Roasting Profile of the Beans
The coffee we drink is mostly roasted. The ‘raw’ alternative is green coffee, which is a very different beverage.
Coffee roasting is simply cooking the beans. Subjecting them to various temperatures, pressures, roasting times, and finally drying methods. These parameters change the final taste, smell, and texture of the coffee beans the same way a BBQ grill does to a steak.
If you put it too close to extra hot coals, it gets charred quickly. If you place the grid too far from a weak pit, the meat takes forever to cook, and never really gets done the way you want it. The same principle applies to roasting coffee.
This combination is like a chef’s secret recipe. But there are some broad categories most people agree on:
- Light roasts
- Medium roasts
- Medium-dark roasts
- Dark roasts
And even within these basic varieties, there are subdivisions related to the roasting technique and the origin of that specific profile. So you could also find Light City roast, Medium American roast, medium-dark full City roast, and Dark Espresso roast. That last one would come up again in this narrative, so keep it in mind!
Light and medium roasts are known to maintain the fruity and flowery tones of rich coffee. As the beans go through further roasting, they tend to lose these characteristics. Dark roasts often leave an aftertaste and a bit of a charred flavor in the coffee.
The Grind Size of Coffee
That’s because the different surface areas of the grains extract in unique manners as they mix with water. For example, a coarse grain is preferred for preparing cold brew. The overnight extraction works well with this grade.
Espresso, on the other hand, favors a fine grind. The sudden exposure to pressurized steam needs a full interaction with the coffee grinds to render its taste.
Interestingly, the type of coffee grinder also matters in the final taste of the brew. A conical burr grinder is better than a blade grinder. That’s because the coffee beans are ground more uniformly in the burr. Also, they don’t suffer from excessive heating, which happens with the blade.
The Extraction Time
Turkish coffee and Espresso take a minute to prepare, while a cold brew takes a whole night to extract nicely.
Coffee extraction time is simply how long you leave the coffee grains steeping in water. And there’s a sweet spot for that, depending on all the previous factors we mentioned. There’s such a thing as over-extracted or under-extracted coffee. And they both taste stale and muddy.
Acidity, sweetness, viscosity, and bitterness are direct results of how much of the coffee dissociates into the water.
Author Note: This is a matter of taste and to some extent culture. We like what we’re used to having in our homes. But not just that. There’s also the diner at the corner, college vending machines, and of course, Starbucks!
Water Temperature, Flow Rate, and Pressure
This combination of extraction parameters is directly related to the previous point. Higher temperatures are associated with sweetness, a fuller body, and generally higher extraction. They do have a tendency to leave a bitter taste though.
A high temperature is also used to give a more ‘roasty’ flavor to a light or medium roast. Espresso machines are known to heat up the water above the normal drip or stovetop ranges, in addition to pressurising the steam. The flow rate is quite high though, so the actual extraction time is so low.
This ‘shot’ of extraction renders a very special flavor profile for Espresso-based coffee beverages. This is pretty much the method used at Starbucks.
The Brewing Apparatus
There are plenty of coffee-making pots and machines, and each one renders an almost completely different coffee drink.
The French press, Moka pot, Turkish coffee pot, drip coffee maker, or Espresso machine, are all available options. Each one would give you a different brew, even if you used the same coffee type, brand, and grind size.
The Freshness of the Beans, Roast, and Brew
Coffee starts oxidising the moment the coffee cherries are picked from the tree. That’s why the processing of these fruits and subsequent drying start right away.
There are several stages that the coffee beans go through until they reach our cups. So how much does storage time affect the taste of coffee? A lot! You might have tried a fresh package of coffee, and one that’s been in your pantry for months. The differences must’ve been stark.
The freshness of coffee is a deciding factor in how rich or stale the brew would taste. A simple example is the coffee pot at work that’s been extracting for half an hour. It always tastes stale and muddy because it stops being fresh after 10 minutes. Espresso becomes bitter in 5 minutes.
The Barista X-Factor!
As you might’ve noticed, there are a gazillion and one factors that get together and create the taste of your coffee cup. That’s why no two people can reproduce the exact same flavor. Baristas often develop their own style and magic touch.
It’s an undisputed fact that one barista would serve you a bitter cup, while another makes a heavenly one, using the same materials.
In the big brand places like Starbucks, Tim Hortons, and Dunkin’ Donuts, these processes need to be as precise and replicable as possible. The success of the brand pivots on this.
The Story of Starbucks
The first Starbucks shop saw the light in 1971 around the historic market of Pike Place in Seattle. It was nothing like the Starbucks we know today, and it even had different owners.
The founders of the first Starbucks; Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl, were good friends who had a lot in common. They belonged to academia, appreciated literature, and had a deep passion for good coffee and tea.
A chance meeting with Alfred Peet, who was a Dutch immigrant led them to the fantasy of opening a prime-quality coffee shop. And they aptly chose a logo and a name from Moby Dick.
The big transformation in Starbucks came about in 1981 when Howard Schultz bought the enterprise. He remodelled the business towards the cafe style he saw and loved in Milan. Espresso based drinks, a friendly staff, and endless beverage selections created the Starbucks of today.
Why Is Starbucks Coffee so Bitter?
Starbucks uses a blend of prime quality Arabica coffee beans with Robusta beans. They mostly opt for a dark roast that leaves little of the original flavors of the coffee beans. There’s been a new selection of single-origin coffee, but it’s still in some shops only.
It’s worth noting that only a handful of house roasters are involved in this process. And one of them was Howard Schultz himself.
Several coffee experts believe that this choice guarantees a consistency in the taste of coffee. Since the nuanced fruity and flowery notes of Arabica coffee have plenty of inherent variability. This might be acceptable and appreciated in a small coffee shop in a posh area. But not so much in a brand chain.
Author Note: The dark roast is also a part of the Espresso experience that Schultz had in Milan. It’s not so surprising then that he replicated that flavor along with the machines and ambiance. This is why Starbucks coffee is so bitter
This blend is dependable and renders a strong cup of coffee. But, it’s also quite bitter. However, the fans of the Starbucks brand don’t seem to mind that at all.
Coffee can taste sweet, chocolaty, fruity, or with hints of caramel. So if you were wondering why is Starbucks coffee so bitter, while it could be offering these tasty nuances? The answer is the roast.
The Espresso style that Starbucks chooses for its beverages, with its dark roasts, carries with it this bitter taste. Still, millions of people worldwide gladly drink it every day! Now you know why Starbucks coffee is so bitter.
Stay caffeinated friends!