Tell me if this sounds familiar: your well-intentioned family and friends know you’re into coffee, so they make a point of gifting you some coffee-like beans. Though, in their well-intentioned goodness, you now have some low-quality, preground matter that resembles coffee soil. Or maybe you just had stale beans left in your cupboard. Perhaps you’re visiting a cottage, buying truck-stop joe, or far from any roasters. Whatever the case:
How Can You Make Bad Coffee Taste Better?
Besides cream and sugar, optimize your tools, method, and water. A pinch of salt can mask acrid, bitter flavors; Try other sugars, such as honey or condensed milk; Make it cold – our tongues don’t work as well with cold things.
1) Fix What you Can
If you’re the barista on hand and you’re working with bad coffee, perhaps consider the various factors that you have under your control. Here’s a post on common problems that occur, and here’s a post that goes in-depth on the core elements of coffee.
The easiest fix would be to grind fresh (see the next section), use better water (soft, filtered, cold (before boiling)), and make sure your equipment is clean. Suggestion #9 will also offer a tip on prep.
2) Buy Whole Beans
Let’s face it: most of the coffee you’ve been drinking has been processed and ground up in a different location – and that means it’s day old
bread coffee. Stale, stale, stale.
If you’re the one making and buying the java, then I would recommend buying whole bean (not preground) and grinding it fresh for each cup.
If this is within your power, it will go a long way to increasing the quality of your brew.
General Freshness Windows
For coffee stored at room temperature, you want to keep it out of sunlight in an airtight container.
Do not keep it in the freezer if you’re going to be taking it out frequently, as the condensation cycling will cause it to dry out the coffee. Only use the freezer if you’re going to be keeping it there for an extended period… like for weeks or months.
|Form||Time until Stale|
|Green Coffee||1+ years; it’s debatable, and apparently “aged coffee” is a thing.|
|Roasted, Whole Bean Coffee||A month (10 days is said to be maximum flavor).|
|Ground Coffee||1-2 days; some would argue hours.|
|Brewed Coffee||Until it is cold (roughly 30min); 4 hours (in a thermos).|
3) Cold Coffee
The effect of temperature on taste has been studied quite a bit, and I was satisfied with this study when it showed that there was a significant reduction in the ability to taste both salt and sugars at lower temperatures. My own experience verifies the same for bitter beverages – just try drinking room temperature beer.
If you have the proper equipment and drive, cold brew coffee will likely be your better option. But if you don’t want to plan ahead, don’t have the equipment, or are simply served bad coffee, then your better bet would be to pour it over a glass of ice and drink it that way. Mediocre black coffee on the rocks isn’t bad.
In short: your tongue don’t work no good when it’s cold. Take advantage of this.
As stated in my article on how to enjoy coffee black, there’s research that shows that salt works by blocking bitterness and enhancing nicer flavors, such as sweetness. Here’s the direct quote:
“Our data show that, in addition to adding desired saltiness to food, salts potentiate flavor through the selective suppression of bitterness (and perhaps other undesirable flavors), and the release from suppression of palatable flavors such as sweetness.”
How much you should add is up for debate, but some recommended less than 1/8 tsp (0.5g) table salt per liter of coffee made.
5) Sugars: Syrups, Honey, Condensed Milk
Sure, you could go with white sugar. It is super common and basically free – but you need a lot of white sugar to make terrible coffee taste good, especially without cream. I know from years of having terrible percolator coffee at one of my jobs.
No, I recommend honey or condensed milk for more nuance and heft. Condensed milk also works as a whitener – it is milk after all – and it has been used in countries where they normally drink pure robusta coffee – known for being particularly strong.
If it works for them, it’ll work for you.
If you’re feeling mildly adventurous, you can make your own syrup. It’s easier than it sounds: equal parts water and sugar and a flavor, boiled together and reduced. That’s really all there is to it, just boil it down until it’s thick enough. Or you could just reduce orange juice in the same way – I was quite impressed with that flavor in coffee.
If you want more instructions on syrups, check out my syrup post (I tried them all myself, which shouldn’t need to be said, but with so many content mills out there, it’s difficult to know what’s legit and what’s rehashed BS).
6) Butter, Cream, Creamers
I was about to label this as “dairy”, but many creamers shockingly don’t use milk. What’s even in those? I generally avoid them for that very reason, but if it’s your only option, it might be worth considering.
Butter can be quite tasty, but it only works out if you blend it in a blender. I found the magic bullet worked well because it’s sealed. Traditional blenders can work, but blending a small amount of hot liquid can spray it everywhere (speaking from experience, sadly (No, I don’t look like two-face)).
If you don’t blend it, as I didn’t when I first tried to make “butter coffee”, it will end up as some gross layer of melted fat on top of the still-black coffee. Butter mustache… yum!
If you blend it, it’s nice and creamy, much like when you add cream. The flavor may work well with particularly acrid or bitter coffee.
Cream is a no-brainer. The higher the fat, the better, in terms of flavor.
7) Brew With More Coffee
Stale coffee, supposing that’s the issue, is often flatter, weaker, and a wisp of its true potential. As such, tossing in a higher ratio of beans can make up for some of this weakness in flavor. I generally recommend 60g/L, but in this situation, maybe pump it up to 80g-100g/L and see how that works out for you. Be mindful that the caffeine will still be just as present, though.
8) Try Different Roasts
This is mainly for those who live in rural areas and can’t get decent coffee without paying out the nose. During this pandemic, I’ve been stuck in rural Ontario, so I feel your pain.
If you’re forced to buy Nescafé or some other blah mass-marketed first-wave coffee, then I recommend playing with different roasts. Some may be more appealing, most likely the dark roasts because, as I’ve said a million times now, they tend to forgive more of the nuances of coffee and just taste like the roast.
It may not help much, but it’ll probably be noticeable.
9) Boil and Pour
If your machine is bunk, then you may have better results by boiling the water yourself (again, cold, soft, filtered) and pouring it over the grounds by hand. Hell, you can use the broad strokes of pour over technique with a standard drip machine.
10) Add Espresso
I know, I know, it’s a bit of a long shot that you’ll have espresso available if you’re drinking bad coffee, but it can help to recover the flavor of good coffee by making it a red/black/green eye ( respectively 1, 2, or 3 shots of espresso in drip coffee, FYI).
No TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) this time because the headings carry the day on this one. That and the bolded paragraph at the beginning.
In short, you have options, though they never will compare to a well-made cup with good coffee, quality water, and skill… but sometimes you’re on your last dime, hungover, waiting for the bus, and there just so happens to be some free boiler-plate coffee nearby. Should you find yourself in this situation, think of me and remember some of these handy tricks.
A comment on the main photo:
There’s a distinct lack of high-quality photos of bad environments or unhappy people. This is the closest I could get to a truck stop or hinterlands, though it’s actually in Japan and probably quite nice. No knocking them, honestly. I’d love to find photos of markedly displeased coffee drinkers. They definitely exist, someone just needs to capture them on film.