Hate Bad coffee? The essential guide to spotting a bad coffee by Truth Coffee owner David Donde

Words: Crush
Clue Words by David Donde (Owner of Truth Coffee, Cape Town)

How do you spot a bad coffee sounds like the punchline from a corny joke. Only if it is 7am and you are desperate, there is nothing funny about it at all.

Clues to spotting a bad coffee.

There are always a few clues as to whether the coffee you are about to order will pass muster. Clue one is there is only filter coffee, you are either in a coffee Mecca or hell. The difference is obvious. If the coffee device is a filter machine with a glass jug on a heating plate, forget it. If each cup is being brewed on demand, or careful use of vacuum flasks is undertaken, there is some hope. While any re-heating of coffee is going to give that burned taste we all detest and results in a bad coffee.

Check when and how the coffee is ground.

Check out the Espresso machine, if there is one, look first at the Barista’s (one assumes there is one)  use of the grinder. Are they grinding per cup? Or is there a dower full of pre-ground coffee? Or worse, are they using a bag of pre- ground? Coffee needs to be ground precisely for the hour’s conditions – too fine and the coffee extracts too slowly, and over-extracts, causing bitterness. Too course and it under-extracts, tasting sour. Anyhow, coffee goes stale and flat tasting within minutes of grinding.

Are the handles for the espresso machine kept in the machine? Handles left out on the counter get cold, imparting a sour taste on the espresso. Is the tamping (pressing down of the coffee) done precisely or carelessly? Level tamps of uniform pressure are crucial to proper extraction. Uneven dosing and tamping can cause simultaneous over and under-extraction. Sour and bitter in the same cup!

Too much steam and there goes the sweetness of the milk.

Is there masses of steam coming off of the frothed milk? It probably over-heated, losing all sweetness. If you see the Barista “bouncing” the jug of milk as they steam, they are probably clueless, and will never create our goal – fine bubbled, micro-textured milk. Your next clue is to listen to the milk – properly steamed milk does not sound like a boiling cauldron or a jet taking off or a squeaking, high-pitched whine. It sounds like a sheet of newspaper being slowly torn.

Don’t be deceived by fancy Latte Art.

Latte art (those charming patterns on top of a cup) can be a good sign of quality, but not evidence of a proper cup. Look at the espresso before the milk goes on. Is there a foamy layer covering it? This is the Crema, an emulsion, that if brown or tan is evidence of probable good extraction. If it is whitening, it is evidence of the coffee being extracted for too long causing bitterness yet again. Hence a properly extracted, double espresso will take approximately 25 seconds to extract, and will have a volume of around 60ml.

Finally the signs of a great coffee.

In conclusion great coffee in comparison to bad coffee will have complexity and perhaps even some subtle flavours and interesting nuances and a long, lingering delicious aftertaste. Therefore as I always say, coffee should deliver in the cup, the promise made by the ground beans delicious aromas.

Now you know how to spot a bad coffee try our list of Best Coffee Shops in Cape Town


Check the grinding of the coffee beans. The essential guide to spotting a bad coffee by David Donde of Truth Coffee in Cape Town
A barista from Truth Coffee in Cape Town
The essential guide to spotting a bad coffee by David Donde of Truth Coffee in Cape Town
Read more from David Donde

How coffee origins effect flavour

Finding the sweet spot as a roaster

Truth Coffee
36 Buitenkant Street, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town, 8000
021 200 0440


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