As it turns out, this is asked frequently enough, and I believe my background in psychology and coffee will be able to shed some light. Many of the following strategies will probably make a purist winge about how you’re “ruining the coffee”, but I see it more as guiding new people to the promised land. So, how can you like coffee more?
Find the most bitter coffee you can stand. Milk-based coffees are a good start, same for adding flavors. Babystep your way closer to pure coffee. Over time, you will come to love dark-as-the-void coffee.
But let’s start with the first and most obvious question:
Why should you bother trying to enjoy black coffee?
There are only five flavors, far as we currently understand taste:
- Savory / Umami
Most people do not like bitterness from the jump, and savory/umami is more of a registered texture and wholeness to the food. That means that, of these tastes, you may only be able to enjoy three: sweet, sour, salty.
Wouldn’t you agree that it’s a shame to cut off an entire domain of experience because you didn’t develop a taste for it?
By improving your enjoyment of coffee, you will also unlock the domain of bitterness overall. Dark chocolate, cranberries, green tea, and cruciferous vegetables – if you can get into black coffee, you’ll also learn how to enjoy a variety of other tastes.
Not to mention that it’s not great to consume large amounts of sugar on a daily basis.
As well, coffee is one of the most widely available, widely enjoyed beverages, and the most common source of antioxidants in the North American diet.
If you’re going to be drinking coffee regularly, you may as well learn to enjoy it.
As one guy said to me, “you don’t like coffee; you just like sugar and cream.” I wanted to prove him wrong, and so I spitefully came to enjoy black coffee. Whatever gets you there, right?
1) Exposure Therapy
Coffee is bitter, which most people don’t like. In fact, we’re almost universally pre-programmed to gravitate toward sweet things. Babies will choose sugar water over plain. Ever wonder why?
As it turns out, we are designed to dislike bitter flavors because bitterness is often associated with poisons. This paper makes a good point that all substances can be poisonous if consumed at high doses, but more common poisons, such as ricin, progoitrin, cyanide, and saponin, are all bitter. The paper goes down the rabbit hole of why we respond negatively to bitterness, which isn’t just limited to poisons – decaying meats are also bitter, apparently. Quite an interesting read!
But, like most disliked things, the more you face it, the more bearable it becomes; conversely, the more you back down or avoid a threat, the larger it looms. This extends beyond the realm of coffee.
My long-winded point: some things require repeated exposure to get over, including acquired tastes or even fears.
Beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, and tea – all generally require a history of choking them down before they become enjoyable. I’ll try to say this without an eye-roll: yes, some people will like any/all of these things on their first taste, but that’s not normal. Most people get pulled in through their social groups or by enjoying the effects.
My best friend’s younger sister hated coffee, but he and I both loved it. Every time I was over at their house, a fresh pot would be brewed.
With the intent to welcome her into the fold, I would make sure she took a single sip of coffee every time. Hot, black coffee. At first, she hated it. Blech! Bitter!
Given enough exposure, your disgust signal weakens, and you can start to develop a taste for it. The easiest way to recreate this is to get coffee from cafés that require you to add your own cream and sugar.
Pause before you add anything, and take a couple of sips of the dark-as-my-soul coffee. Maybe a dash of milk to cool it off, but just make sure you try it before you add sweetness.
Over time, you will come to like it.
Expose yourself to black, unsweetened coffee in small doses over time and teach your tongue/subconscious that it is an acceptable, safe flavor. Most of behavioral learning is some sort of input and positive or negative outcomes. Knowing this, you can come to like plenty of things you otherwise couldn’t imagine.
2) Try Different Forms
Espresso-based, milk beverages are generally easier to enjoy. Lattes, cappuccinos, and whatever else can be stepping stones to the end goal, also using the above method.
This is probably the more enjoyable method for getting accustomed, but I’ve always been the type to jump into the pool. This method is the slow wade into the shallow end and will get you there, but will take longer and may end up with more displeasure overall.
Whatever suits your temperament, you’ll end eventually up in the same position. With this approach, you’ll need to make the jump to Americano or other forms of black coffee, but at least other forms will prepare you first.
Start with milk-based coffee drinks to slowly ease yourself in. Eventually, you’ll have to make the jump to darker brews.
3) Avoid Drinking Coffee with Sweets
If you get cake, cookies, or anything remotely sweet while drinking coffee, then you’ll definitely have a harder time enjoying the coffee.
Biscotti, sugar cookies, baklava, and other beverages are often served with coffee. Each can help to pull out the stronger flavors of coffee – if you already are accustomed to it. But in general, I find they actually dull your ability to wander through the various layers of the coffee. Pretentious, but true.
Sweet things will make the coffee taste even more bitter. You may be better off eating a piece of 100% cacao chocolate to prepare yourself. The more bitterness you expose your tongue to, the faster you’ll come to notice the nuances and enjoyable difference between them.
4) Try “Cupping”
In my Coffee 102 post, I discussed how to talk about coffee, but the first part covers how to taste coffee and the language surrounding that. While you may not care about the language side, I still recommend trying the method used by pros: cupping.
It’s a simple procedure; you merely need several spoons, several small mugs, and two or more kinds of coffee. If you use the tasting sheet provided in that post, you will soon be able to evaluate each brew.
This is probably the fastest way to develop your ability to properly taste and enjoy coffee.
Follow the pro’s lead and focus on the differences between coffees so you can distinguish good coffee from sludge. Hint: most chain coffee places will be serving you mediocre, stale drip coffee. Unless they’re grinding it in front of you, chances are it’s not very fresh.
5) Make It Taste Good
No duh, right? But what I mean to say is start with something you can bear to consume. There are a number of tricks you can play with to make it more appealing, some of which are uncommon.
If you haven’t already, take a look at my post, What makes coffee taste bad? It covers the basics of what can go wrong when brewing it yourself.
Perhaps you are so fresh to coffee that you don’t want to invest in any equipment for fear that you’ll never like it. Here are a series of tricks to use in your babystepping toward the goal of unadulterated coffee:
Experiment with the various factors
Coffee is simple, and can generally be reduced to three categories: water, coffee, and equipment. Each will affect the outcome of your drink, and it can vary by a fairly significant amount.
I explored these three categories with my giant post, Coffee 101, and I invite you to check it out. Though it is a bit of a beast, you can use it as a resource to jump around and look up what you need as you go.
Condensed milk, honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, creamers – all of these will make it more bearable. However, I recommend against using sugar because it will take even longer to learn to enjoy unsweetened coffee.
Sidebar: Want to hear one of my shameful secrets? I used to drink what we Canadians infrequently call a “quad quad”. It’s derived the more common “double double”, which refers to the amount of sugar and cream added (2:2).
A standard large (20oz) double double form Tim Hortons (our national pride/shame) has 24g of sugar (6 tsp), so a quad-quad would have 48g (12 tsp). It was basically coffee-flavored liquid sugar.
I did eventually graduate down from this point, though I’m not sure it’s the best choice because it did take me years to get down to black.
Condensed milk is pretty awesome, though. Especially in Vietnamese coffee.
Things with fat almost always taste better than their fat-free alternative. A dollop of cream would be enough to make the coffee more palatable.
Whether it’s cold brew or iced coffee – both will taste less bitter because cold tends to dull harsher flavors. Cold brew is a great compromise, though a bit more expensive.
Instead, I recommend getting black iced coffee. You’ll notice that it’s far more bearable than the hot version. If you doubt this, consider the difference between ice-cold beer/coke and room temp. The cold version is far better.
A personal favorite for me, since I work to avoid sugar, is cold coffee with cream and a dash of vanilla extract. It tastes vaguely like marshmallows (surprise! marshmallows are actually vanilla flavored).
Here’s a post for syrups that would also blend well with cold brew, if you decide that sugar is a necessity.
Flavors and Spices
Cacao, cinnamon, vanilla extract – these are the more common additives in the average home. As mentioned in the previous heading, I am not against experimenting with extra flavorings.
Again, there are purists who believe that this is just taking away from the coffee experience, and perhaps they’re correct – if you’re drinking primo stuff. Otherwise, I don’t see anything wrong with elevating a bad or mediocre brew by adding flavors of your own choosing.
Another shameless plug: it’s easy to make your own syrups, which work particularly well with cold coffees since syrups blend easier.
Flavored beans can be quite good, and they can help ease you into pure black goodness.
Be mindful that you should never use flavored beans in a burr/disc grinder, as you will have the flavored oils/syrups rub off on the grinder and it will subtly taint whatever is passed through the machine.
That being said, flavored brews are not a bad way to cut out some of the sugar while making the coffee easier to swallow.
Add a Dash of Salt
Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, there is some value in using salt in creative ways. To make something sweeter, adding sugar isn’t always the answer – salt can be more effective!
As well, check out a quote from this paper published in Nature:
“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”
Or in plain speak: salt weakens bitterness and can strengthen sweetness.
Given that coffee’s “problem” is that it’s too bitter, a dash of salt can go a long way.
The core message of all the above is to take baby steps.
Like most unpleasant things, it’s easier if you trick yourself into moving forward. I treat myself as though I’m the employee of my brain. I know what must be done, but then I’ll be too lazy or resistant to do what I know I should do.
Trick yourself, use various approaches to continually expose yourself to the flavor, and teach your tongue that this flavor is acceptable and even desirable. Craft your palate and temper it like an old-timey artisan.