4 Simple Ways to Make Your Coffee Taste Better

Credit: Beth Platter / Five Watt

Sometimes you just have crappy coffee. It could be old beans, or bad beans, or maybe your tired Mr. Coffee is to blame. But if you don't want to shell out for all the bells and whistles to make barista-level brew, there's an easy, if not a little fussy, fix: Treat your coffee like a cocktail.

"We took a bunch of inspiration from the cocktail industry when we started putting bitters in our coffee," says Lee Carter, co-owner of Five Watt Coffee in Minneapolis, Minnesota. "Our most popular drink is a latte called the Kingfield, which uses vanilla simple syrup, coriander cocktail bitters, and black Hawaiian sea salt." The result is a drink that starts sweet, turns citrusy, and ends savory — a hell of a lot more interesting than your regular cup.

You don't have to get as wild with it as the Five Watt folks do, but you can do much better than just adding simple syrup for sweetener. Here's how to get the most bang for the least amount of new kitchen gear.

Demerara Syrup: The simple syrup you're used to was probably made with white cane sugar. Demerara sugar has a caramel and molasses flavor that doesn't coat your mouth, and mixes better with the flavor of coffee. "Most of our syrups use Demerara for that caramel profile," Carter says.

Angostura Bitters: If you've ever made Old Fashioneds at home, you probably still have a bottle of Angostura around the house. "Angostura is a good way to go," Carter says. "We use the Bitter Cube Blackstrap bitters for a handful of things." The Blackstrap bitters have a sarsaparilla, molasses, and cinnamon profile, which is a solid, spicy complement to cold brew.

Coriander Bitters: This one gets a little deeper into the cocktail world, but you can find coriander bitters at good spirit shops and online. "The coriander works well for any kind of tiki drink since it's citrusy and fruity," Carter says. "For coffee, it goes really well with vanilla."

Making Flavored Syrup at Home: Flavored syrups are really easy to make. Here's an easy rundown:

  • Combine 1 part sugar (Demerara or cane) and 1 part water.
  • Heat until sugar fully dissolves. Liquid should be completely clear.
  • Add the flavor your want to infuse as you turn the burner down to a simmer. Could be jalapeño, roasted chicory a la New Orleans-style coffee, whatever you want.
  • Stir ingredients into the syrup to cook (peppers should take 10-12 minutes to infuse, chicory more like 4-6). 
  • Turn off heat and let steep for 10 minutes.
  • Strain out the added ingredients into an airtight container, like a mason jar. That should keep about two weeks.

Last thing: More often than not, your bitters will pop much better when they can interact with a simple syrup. "Syrup supports the flavor of the bitters and, from the standpoint of American tastebuds, we're used to flavor having sweetness and texture," Carter says. A combo as simple as Angostura bitters and syrup can turn a cruddy cup of coffee into something interesting and full of flavor. So next time you want a cup of coffee, head over to your bar cart — and leave the Splenda alone.