How to find the Best Coffee Beans for Espresso
Pure coffee bliss…
But even though it seems straightforward, there are actually quite a few things you need to know when shopping for the best possible espresso beans.
In this article, I’ll take your hand and walk you through everything you need to know to become a legit home barista.
What’s unique about espresso beans?
The first question you may ask is, ‘why not just use regular coffee beans?’
There are several reasons that most cafés use a special blend for espresso and not just regular filter coffee. A lot can be said about the subject but here are the main reasons:
- Tradition: Espresso has always been roasted darker than other types of coffee. People have come to expect a certain ‘espresso flavor’ than can’t be achieved with regular beans.
- Better with milk: If you want to use the espresso in a milk-based drink such as a latte or cappuccino, you’ll need a rather dark roast to cut through the creaminess of the milk. This is important!
- It’s cheaper: While single origin coffee increasingly has become the way to go when it comes to filter or French press, blends are still in vogue in the espresso world. The reason for this is mainly due to cost saving.
Single origin coffee is expensive. For that reason, it makes sense to use a base of cheaper coffees from countries such as Brazil and Indonesia in the blend.
Should espresso coffee be dark roasted?
We already touched upon it, but yes, espresso should be at least a bit darker than regular beans. That is the tradition, and it’s also what most people prefer.
That being said there are many shades of dark.
I know it may sound vague, but my suggestion is to go for something that’s somewhere in the middle of the dark spectrum. This way you will get good results both when drinking lattes and flat whites, as well as single shot espresso.
How do I know if it’s a dark bean? If the oil migrates to the outside of the bean, it means that it’s quite dark. If the beans have an almost shining surface, it’s considered a French or Italian style roast (aka really, really dark).
If the bean is still dark but dry in its appearance, we’d call it a ‘full city’ roast.
Arabica vs. Robusta
The arabica vs robusta debate can be quite heated and complicated.
I used to think that robusta was inferior to arabica no mattter what but in recent years I have changed my opinion. It is possible to find quite delicious robusta, however, it’s still a rarity.
Unless, you happen to know a green coffee buyer personally, you’re not likely to encounter this kind of coffee. For sure, you’ll never find it in your local supermarket.
From nature’s side Robusta is less sweet and less acidic compared to arabica. It tastes different and somehow more crude. However, when it comes to espresso you can break some of the normal coffee rules. The beverage is so concentrated that you don’t need much acidity. For that reason, a properly grown and washed robusta can actually taste delicious as a single origin espresso.
Also, the species naturally has a higher content of caffeine and produces more crema than arabica, which might be attractive to some.
However, the main appeal of the robusta that you’ll see in commercial blends is that it’s cheap.
For that reason — even though I personally have enjoyed some fine robusta — I’d encourage you to steer clear of it and go for 100% arabica blends instead.
Stumptown Hairbender Espresso Coffee
This blend comes from one of the most famous American coffee roasters. Stumptown is well-known for sourcing quality beans at the best farms in the world.
This particular blend consists of a little bit of everything. You got the African notes, as well as Indonesian and Latin American.
The flavor notes are dark chocolate and citrus.
According to Stumptown, this roast is good for espresso as well as other brew methods.
I would probably only use it for straight espresso shots and not for milk-based drinks.See more reviews
Illy – The Best Italian Espresso Beans
This is a classic in the espresso community. Illy is a traditional Italian company that for many years was almost synonymous with espresso.
In spite of being a big and somewhat industrial enterprise, there’s no doubt that Illy puts a lot of care into selecting the right beans for their blends. That means sweet cherries with only a few defects.
This is the same kind of coffee that the world barista champions used only 16 years ago. They are medium roast and will suit almost any brewing style.
Illy is not going to win any competitions in the highly snobby and advanced coffee world we have today, but it also won’t disappoint in the cup no matter how you brew it.
This one is preground, so you don’t need a fancy grinder.See more reviews
Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso Blend
This is another legendary company in the American specialty coffee scene. Intelligentsia makes direct-trade and has relationships with all the farms they buy from. They pay a fair price and get excellent quality in return. This isn’t just marketing BS like it is with some of the big multinationals.
This particular coffee is dark, mysterious and rounded. It has flavors of chocolate, caramel, and molasses.
This coffee is also low in acidity which means that it’s good for milk-based drinks or for those folks with sensitive stomachs.See more reviews
Onyx Coffee Lab Monarch Expresso Beans
Onyx Coffee Lab takes their craft seriously. In 2017 the company won both the US roasting championship and brewers cup. They also placed second in the national barista championship. In other words, they are pretty damn good at this coffee thing.
This blend is their version of an all-round yet delicate espresso blend. Sure, you get all the familiar notes of chocolate and molasses with this one, but there’s also stone fruit, berries, and wine acidity.
That makes sense since the blend consists of beans from Ethiopia and Guatemala; two origins renowned for coffees packed with subtle and exotic flavors.
This blend would be useful in a double espresso shot or in a flat white. Both would be delicious.See more reviews
Lavazza: Best coffee beans for super automatic espresso machines
This is another of the classic Italian espresso blends. Lavazza is kind of the evil twin to Illy and just as widespread in the motherland of espresso.
The Crema e Gusto version is the company’s most famous blend. There is a bunch of robusta in here, so expect a strong coffee that doesn’t really offer that much concerning refreshing acidity or subtle flavors. This one is all about the punch.
Personally, I can’t say I’m a big fan of this style of coffee, but for an individual more old-school coffee drinker this will likely do the trick. It would be great in a cappuccino, and at least very potent on its own in a single shot.
If you are looking for some beans to fill that superautomic espresso machine at your work, this would be a cheap and decent solution.See more reviews
In this section, I’ll explain all the geeky stuff. Technically, you might not need to know all this stuff, but if you consider yourself a true coffee lover, why not expand your knowledge a bit more?
Why does single-origin matter?
As I already mentioned, single origin has become the de facto standard among hardcore coffee snobs. Single origin means that coffee comes from a single estate, or at least, a specified geographical location. This is the case in places like Ethiopia where most farmers are smallholders and coffee from different farmers will be mixed at the processing station.
Single origin tastes more interesting because it really lets you encounter the origin and terroir of a particular place. Imagine, that you have a blend with four different coffees. It’s kinda hard to know what beans contribute with what flavor, right?
For precisely this reason some roasters have started to offer single origin espresso roasts. This means that the coffee has NOT been blended.
Typically, this kind of coffee will be roasted darker than the filter version of the same bean. However, it would usually not be considered a dark roast.
That means you will get plenty of acidity and notes of fruits and flowers in the cup. This also means that this kind of espresso bean is best to enjoy straight or diluted with hot water. Often this won’t work well with milk.
What is an Omni roast
Omni roast is another one to look out for when you’re shopping coffee. Some roasters, primarily the more fancy specialty roasters, have taken a new approach to coffee where they will talk about ‘Omni’ roasts. Omni means ‘every’ in Latin and this precisely what these roasters are trying to achieve – some kind of one size fits all roast that can be used for both espresso, pour over and French press.
While this makes life a lot easier for the roaster, you should probably avoid this kind of roast if you like a traditional espresso experience or want to make lattes and cortados.
Inevitably, this kind of roast ends up being quite light.
Things to look for in a blend
If you want to go for a blend, I suggest that you first think about whether you’re mainly going to drink straight espresso or you will be making milk-based drinks.
If it’s the latter, you should opt for a blend that has a good percentage of South American and Indonesian beans. Some robusta is acceptable in an espresso blend that will only be used for lattes. This is because you won’t be able to taste much of the coffee anyway due to the milk.
If the blend is for a straight espresso shot, I would definitely avoid anything with robusta. Go for a brand that is 100% arabica, preferably with some East African or Central American high altitude coffees thrown into the mix. This assures that you’ll experience some fruity top notes.
Grind size for espresso
Grinding for espresso is really a chapter of its own. A lot of stuff can be said. For you, the important thing is to realize that either you need a grinder that is capable of going really fine or you should go for a preground coffee that is labeled as ‘espresso,’ such as the Illy blend mentioned further up.
If you’re not using a very fine (think almost powdery) grind, then the puck in the portafilter will not provide the required resistance to the water, and the result will be thin and watery weak-presso. You don’t want to go there!
Let me repeat: You cannot make espresso with a coarse to medium grind!
What are expresso beans?
Well, it’s the same as regular espresso beans. Expresso is just a common spelling mistake. With an ‘S’; not an ‘X’.
It’s should be easy (not eaxy).