In the wild, bitterness is usually a sign that something should not be eaten. But over the course human history, we’ve developed something of an affection for this chemical warning sign. We drink bitter beer and cocktails. We savor bitter greens in juices and salads. We swig grapefruit juice at breakfast. And some of us even adore the taste of bitter coffee.
What Is Bitterness?
We’ve all tasted bitterness, but what is it, exactly? Basically, it can be defined as a strong flavor or twinge of an aftertaste noted at the back of the tongue. If acidity is bright and lively, bitterness is its dark and moody cousin.
Human beings are very sensitive to bitterness, and we have been for a long time. There are 24 distinct genes for bitter sensitivity, which is more than we have for sweet, salty, or savory tastes.
Some people are “supertasters,” and it’s thought that they’re less likely to be interested in drinking bitter coffee or consuming other bitter foods or drinks. To them, bitterness can cause serious irritation. But for the rest of the population, bitter compounds can be tolerable, or even desirable.
Bitterness as Counterbalance in Coffee
Bitterness, in and of itself, is not what most would call a pleasant taste. But in combination with other flavors, bitter coffee can provide an interesting counterbalance.
A coffee with a bright, floral nose can be an even richer experience if there’s a certain amount of bitterness to add to its complexity. Bitterness can also make a coffee taste more full and robust, which is definitely a desirable quality.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Some coffee drinkers love an earthy cup of bitter coffee, while others prefer coffee that’s more acidic. But even for those who like their coffee on the bitter side, there’s a limit. And some varieties of bitterness are less desirable than others.
While a strong roast tends to make a coffee more bitter, those with a taste for it generally regard this type of bitterness as pleasantly substantial.
In contrast, even those who enjoy bitter taste sensations do not typically enjoy the type of bitterness that comes from over extraction during brewing. Coffee can also be made too bitter if its ground too finely, or if too much ground coffee is used to brew too few cups of coffee.
Best Coffee for Bitter Coffee Lovers
The coffee species Robusta is known for its bitterness. This type of bean is typically used to make instant coffee, but certain specialty coffees are blended with Robusta beans to provide a counterpoint to an especially bright bouquet.
And for those who love bitter coffee, some vendors offer pure Robusta coffee. So while Arabica is often seen as the superior choice, Robusta certainly has its share of admirers.