Buying espresso beans is actually more complicated than it used to be with the advent of things like single-origin and omni-roasting. Here you’ll get the full explanation of what you need to know.
Licensed Q Arabica Grader, M.A. Journalism
There’s nothing quite like a perfectly pulled espresso shot. The crema, the intense flavor, and the caffeine kick.
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 espresso beans imaginable.
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.
It’s cheaper: Single origin coffee is expensive. For that reason, it makes sense to use an espresso blend in a busy café. Typically, a base of cheaper beans from countries such as Brazil and Indonesia is used in a blend. Maybe there’s even 20% of robusta mixed in.
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 when drinking both lattes and flat whites, as well as single shot espresso. Beans can also be too dark and taste bitter and ashy.
How do you know if a coffee is a darker roast? 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. That’s a bit darker than medium, but still quite suitable for espresso.
Keep an eye on roast date: Like all kinds of coffee, espresso is better when fresh. 1 to 4 weeks after roast is usually the best period for espresso. When shopping for coffee on Amazon, it’s always a good idea to pick the roaster as the ‘vendor’ – even though that might cost more in shipping. That way you’re certain to get freshly roasted beans
Arabica vs. Robusta
The arabica vs robusta debate can be quite heated and complicated.
Due to its bad publicity, I used to think that robusta was inferior to arabica no mattter what but in recent years I have changed my opinion. It ispossible 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 (but it also has more caffeine and creates more crema, so that will be a positive for some folks).
However, when it comes to espresso beans 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 robusta can actually taste delicious as a single origin espresso.
Sidenote: I would even argue that this rule also applies to most Brazilian coffee.
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.
Some Italian espresso blends contain some Robusta. It’s worth trying to see if you like the flavor or not.
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 grinder. If you have a proper setup with your own grinder, then make sure to go for the whole-beans option.
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 reasonable cost and receive incredible quality consequently. 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.
4: Lavazza Espresso Italiano: The Best Espresso Beans
This is a medium roast coffee from Lavazza. It’s a subtle, balanced coffee with notes of hazelnut and chocolate.
This is truly an all-round coffee. You can use it in milk drinks or enjoy it as a straight shot.
I’m not sure why Lavazza calls it “Espresso Italiano” since that might confuse some people who’d think Italian espresso impled super dark and strong – this is NOT dark at all. If you’re looking for that then go for the next coffee on this list, Qualita Rossa.
Espresso Italiano is a cheaper alternative to Illy’s medium roast and I think it’s on par quality-wise.
5: 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 Rossa version is one of company’s most famous blends. There is a bunch of robusta in here, so expect a strong coffee that doesn’t really offer that much regarding acidity or subtle flavors. This one is more about the crema, texture, and mouthfeel.
This is a very traditional espresso!
However, many people actually still like that. So if you’re reading this, and you’re not a hardcore espresso snob who’s deep into the rabbit hole of extraction theory, then you should give it a go.
It’s a potent shot of espresso with no acidity at all and subtle notes of cacao nibs.
What’s interesting is that it’s still a medium-dark roast. It’s not as oily as Starbucks for instance.
If you are looking for some beans to fill that superautomic espresso machine, this would be an excellent choice.
In this section, I’ll explain all the geeky stuff. Technically, you won’t have to know so much stuff, however on the off chance that you view yourself as a genuine espresso sweetheart, why not grow your insight 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, since it also has to work for pour over.
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 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. I like blends that are not too dark roasted. The beans shouldn’t be shiny from oil on the outside.
If the beans are going to be used with milk, you can consider darker blends or even a blend containing robusta. Some people like a more “roasty” note that can be tasted through the milk.
Grind size for espresso beans
Authentic espresso (single wall basket): Grinding for espresso is really a chapter of its own. For you, the important thing is to realize that you need a grinder that is capable of making micrometic adjustments while going down to really fine level.
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!
Pressurized aka double-wall basket: If you use a pressurized portafilter (which is a bit like cheating if you ask a true espresso snob) you don’t need the perfect, fine espresso grind size. Instead, you can go for a preground coffee that is labeled as ‘espresso.’ Many brands offer preground coffee, which is suitable for moka pot and espresso machines with a pressurized portafilter.
How do you know if your basket/portafilter is pressurized? Most cheap espresso machines under a few hundred bucks come with the pressurized version. Sometimes, it can be a bit hard to see right away, so you have to pop out the metal basket inside the portafilter. If the basket is perforated with hundreds of small holes, it’s authentic. If it only has one exit hole in the middle of the basket, it’s pressurized. M
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’.
Hello, and welcome! I'm the editor & founder of this site. I have been a coffee geek since I started home roasting more than a decade ago. Since then, coffee has taken me on countless adventures: From ancient coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia to the volcanos of Sumatra. My background is in journalism, and today I'm also a licensed Q Grader under the Coffee Quality Institute.
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