That Stale Coffee Flavor

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee, Coffee Gear

yuckQuestion: There is a certain taste and smell that “cheap” coffee has once it’s brewed. Diner coffee has it, for example, or anywhere that sells lower-end coffee. However, sometimes, I will buy a bag of premium coffee beans i’ve never tried, and it has THE EXACT SAME TASTE! how is this possible?? personally, i always buy premium coffee and have a couple favorites. but sometimes, out of laziness, i will go to a store that is closer that sells, “premium coffee” for say, $12/lb and it tastes no better than the cheap stuff. as soon as i brew it, that smell wafts from the pot and i’m disappointed! do you know what i mean?


Hi Therese,
Thanks for the email, and I know what you mean all too well.  There are so many factors that can contribute to that stale coffee flavor, and you’ve touched on some.  Let’s look at three of them.

Diners: I doubt most diners spend a lot for their coffee or the gear or the process they use to brew coffee.  In this case, it could be cheap coffee, a cheap brewer, or the water they use.  I’m not sure if diners ever served good coffee.  A diner is a place that I would expect would advertise how cheap their coffee is – that’s a good sign not to expect much.  I don’t want a cheap steak, and I don’t want cheap coffee.


“Premium” coffee: Unfortunately, there is no regulation on use of the word “premium”.  It could be anything, and might even be stale before you buy it.  This is a tangent, but you’ll often see “Kona blend” coffee, capitalizing on the popularity (and expense) of coffee from Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island.  But the “Kona blend” only needs to have a small amount of Kona coffee, and the rest of the blend is anybody’s guess.  I bring that up, because “premium coffee” means even less.  If the package doesn’t explain what “premium” means, then it probably doesn’t mean anything.

The gear and water: Based on the information you’ve provided, this is my guess for where you could make big improvements in the coffee you make at home.  You mention trying different coffees but getting a familiar stale aroma.  You can make the most of even that cheap coffee by using the cleanest water you can.  I’ve noticed hotel room coffee go from undrinkable to “not bad” just by using bottled water instead of tap water.  Also, the coffee machine you use could be the problem.  It might not be sufficiently heating up the water, for instance.  I use manual coffee brewers like a french press or a chemex (pourover).  If you’re using a drip brewer, I’ve always recommended the Cuisinart or for a little less money, a Black and Decker.

I hope that helps!

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