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We've got a fancy espresso machine in our office kitchen. (It's apparently the kind they used to use at Starbucks stores before they switched over to a more automated "point-and-click" type system.) I was trained on how to use the machine by an old pro, and have been successfully making delicious cups of espresso for a few months.

Lately, my espresso tastes distinctly salty.

I haven't changed the process at all. It has happened on a few separate days, with many other people using the machine, so I doubt it is an issue related to the substance used for cleaning the machine (since I believe that would have been flushed out between my attempts). I haven't heard any other complaints from the 50 (or so) other people who use the same beans, grinder, and espresso machine.

It's a mystery to me, but salty coffee is gross, so it's a mystery that needs solving. (My theory is that I've unwittingly altered my method in some tiny way that I haven't noticed, and that has changed the taste of my espresso. I just don't know what that alteration was!)

Edit: I had a thought: This morning, I made a cup that was salty enough that I didn't want to drink it at all. I poured it out and made another from the other basket on the same machine. It was salty, but drinkable. Potential clue?

'nother edit: Yesterday, my coffee was less salty. The only difference in my method was that I rinsed the basket for way longer than I usually do. It still tasted a little bit off (in the salty direction), but not nearly as bad as previous cups.

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Have you taken any antibiotics recently? Sounds stupid, but some can affect your tastebuds in weird ways. It can also be a problem with Indonesian coffee beans. The other users of the machine may have noticed it but not mentioned it. –  ElendilTheTall Sep 28 '11 at 17:07
    
@Elendil I haven't taken any antibiotics or meds at all lately. It is entirely possible that others haven't mentioned it - but the machine is so heavily used, and so many people here are huge coffee nerds, that I have trouble believing it. –  Abby T. Miller Sep 28 '11 at 17:21
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If you add sugar...are you sure its sugar? ;) –  rfusca Sep 28 '11 at 19:47
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@talon I haven't! I work for SE, so I like to turn here before I have to (shudder) actually talk to people... –  Abby T. Miller Sep 28 '11 at 20:06
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@AbbyΨ: It'll require talking to people, but I suggest asking someone else to taste the cup you've made, and inquire if its salty. Carry a clipboard labeled "research", and write down the answer. Repeat with several randomly-selected coworkers. It'll be OK talking to people in this case, because they're not people, they're "research subjects"—barely above lab rats, really. :-P –  derobert Sep 30 '11 at 21:32
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4 Answers

It could simply be that it's a gustatory illusion! See my answer to this related question for more explanation.

Edit:

Here is a summary of the relevant information (if you don't want to follow the links):

Human taste receptors don't simply react to how much actual salt there is in a food or drink; our perceived tastes are a fusion of both our gustatory and olfactory senses. In other words, the smell of a food or drink can affect how it tastes!

There are numerous studies that suggest foods with certain odors can be perceived as much saltier than they actually are. Coffee has a good amount of oil, there's even more fat if you add cream, and other studies suggest that high fat foods can also increase perceived saltiness.

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It's an interesting thought, but I'm wondering how it applies given that I've had plenty of good cups of coffee via the same process before. Wouldn't my brain and taste receptors tell me that all of them were salty? –  Abby T. Miller Sep 30 '11 at 13:58
    
Good point. I guess it could be that some small difference (e.g., inconsistencies on the part of the roaster or minor changes in the water hardness) that could compound to affect the senses? –  ESultanik Sep 30 '11 at 16:00
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@AbbyΨ: Could be that at this point you're so accustomed to the expectation of saltiness that you perceive it even when it's not there. Have you tried a blind taste test with a similar espresso machine/blend? –  Aaronut Sep 30 '11 at 22:01
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It's possible that someone has tampered with the coffee by adding salt. Some people prefer to add salt to strong coffee (like espresso) in order to cut the bitterness. If this hypothetical coffee salter accidentally added too much to some batches but not all, it could explain why no one else has complained and why the other basket wasn't as salty.

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Are you suggesting that salt might have been added to the beans/grounds or that salt was added to the brewed coffee? I ask because it sounds like Abby Ψ is using a "super automatic" espresso machine (the kind that automatically grinds the coffee and brews an individual serving on demand), so the only way someone could have salted the batch is if they salted the whole beans in the machine. –  ESultanik Sep 30 '11 at 12:16
    
@ESultanik is mostly right. The beans are ground in a separate machine, but it is one of those gadgets that automatically meters out and grinds the right number of beans, and then the machine has buttons for "I WANT THIS MUCH". –  Abby T. Miller Sep 30 '11 at 12:34
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@ESultanik I'm making no claims as to which point in the process salt may have been added. The only criteria for salt cutting the bitterness of the coffee is that the salt be present in the coffee. It could be on the beans, in the grounds, or added in the water (assuming there's a water tank and not a water line feeding the machine). The fact that extra rinsing of the basket possibly made the coffee less salty makes me think someone adds salt to the basket when they brew. –  Fambida Oct 1 '11 at 1:50
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What kind of water are you making the coffee with? Tap? Mineral? It dramatically affects the taste of coffee. Drink the water that you make the coffee with (if possible) to see if you get any salty taste.

Also, did anyone else tried the coffee from the same cup you are drinking?

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I imagine it's tap water. I've had tea made with the hot water the espresso machine makes before, and it tastes fine (and not salty). I will make a cup this morning and make somebody try it, to make sure I'm not going crazy! –  Abby T. Miller Sep 29 '11 at 12:29
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@AbbyΨ: Just don't ask them point-blank if it's salty, otherwise you'll get a biased answer... –  Aaronut Sep 30 '11 at 22:02
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This question was asked more than 1 year ago, so I don't know if you have found the cause of the salty taste.

I'm answering because I always get salty taste espresso if the extraction time is too long; usually when I grind my beans too fine.

You asserted you hadn't changed the process at all. Could it have been due to differences in weather those days? Is it possible your machine always brews the same amount of espresso in the same time because it automatically adjusts the pressure? (mine's doesn't do it, so I perfectly see differences in extraction time if I change the tampering pressure or grinding fineness)

Edit

I was reading my machine's instructions manual, and found this in the F.A.Q.s:

Q: The extraction seems too slow, somewhat drippy and doesn’t provide a steady pour. It may even taste salty.

A: This is a slow extraction and it may be caused by several factors:

  • You may have dosed in too much coffee.
  • The grind setting may be too fine requiring a coarser grind of coffee to allow water flow.
  • The cartridge may be near or st the end of its pressure. (Try the shot counter feature!)
  • In rare cases, tamp pressure will change the flow rate. Be careful you are not tamping too hard. Use a bathroom scale and a tamper to test how hard you are pushing down the coffee bed.

(note: the last 2 factors are not in the web version, but in my printed one).

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I never did get to the bottom of this mystery. The salty flavor comes and goes. Reading your answer, it seems like the grinding might have something to do with it: our grinder is calibrated assuming there is a certain amount of weight (of the whole beans) left in the hopper, which I suppose can lead to inconsistencies in the grind if I don't check the level in the hopper first. –  Abby T. Miller Nov 10 '12 at 4:38
    
I calibrate my grinder (change the fineness) whenever I see the extraction time goes ("too") far from the orthodox 30 seconds. –  J.A.I.L. Nov 11 '12 at 1:35
    
@AbbyT.Miller: You could also check (this page)[home-barista.com/… (where it talks about "Taste Flaws"). It points to Indonesian beans, but I've had salty beans from all over the world (when lasting more than 1 minute to brew the espresso). –  J.A.I.L. Nov 11 '12 at 1:37
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