The first question you may ask is, ‘why not just use regular coffee beans?’
There are several reasons, most cafés use a special blend for espresso. While technically, you can brew any coffee as an espresso, here are the main reason that most coffee shops use an espresso blend:
Tradition: Espresso has always been roasted darker than other types of coffee. Customers have come to expect a certain ‘espresso flavor’ that can’t be achieved with regular beans, which will taste quite acidic when pulled as espresso shots.
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, where customers are not likely to sit and meditate over each flavor note. Typically, a base of cheaper beans from countries such as Brazil and Indonesia is used in a blend.
Coffee that would be considered boring for other brewing methods works well for espresso. While this statement might not sit well with some coffee snobs out there, I think it’s something we should embrace. Most coffee produced in the world is NOT fruity and exciting, so it’s good that it has a place in espresso blends.
Think of food; we also have humble ingredients that can taste great when cooked in specific ways. While you can theoretically use expensive Wagyu beef and truffles in your burger, most people are happy with a cheap patty, pickles, and some caramelized onions.
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 medium or dark.
What I consider dark is often labeled as a medium or even a light roast by specific companies (For instance Starbucks Blonde Roast is a rather dark roast in my eyes).
I know it may sound vague, but I suggest going for something in the middle of the dark spectrum. This way, you will get good results when drinking lattes, flat whites, and single shot espresso.
Of course, beans can almost be too dark and taste bitter and ashy. How do you know if a given coffee is a very dark roast? If the oil migrates to the outside of the bean, it means that it’s pretty dark. If the beans have an almost shining surface, it’s considered a French or Italian roast (aka really dark).
If the bean is still dark but dry in its appearance, we’d call it a ‘full city’ roast. Some people call this medium; some call it dark. Regardless, it’s still quite suitable for espresso.
Of course, there are also people who drink light roasts, but I wouldn’t suggest that for beginners. It’s an acquired taste (very acidic), and a lot of things can go wrong unless you have some experience, plus an expensive machine with control of pre-infusion and temperature. The grinder also becomes much more critical with light roasts.
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 matter what, but in recent years I have changed my opinion. It ispossible to find quite a 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 cruder (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 regular coffee rules. The beverage is so concentrated that you don’t need much acidity. For that reason, an adequately grown robusta can taste delicious as a single-origin espresso.
Also, the species naturally has a higher caffeine content 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.
The Best Coffee Beans for Espresso & Cappuccino
1: Coffee Bros Espresso Blend (Medium roast)
While I’m not usually a fan of the term “bro,” in the case of Coffee Bros, it fits since it’s a roastery run by two brothers.
I recently had the opportunity to try their Signature Blend, and I must say, I was thoroughly impressed.
This blend is a crowd-pleaser, and it works great both as a straight shot and as the base in a milk drink.
The coffee was medium-roasted to bring out the natural sweetness, making it ideal to recommend to both seasoned home baristas and people new to espresso.
The blend is made from 100% Arabica beans and not roasted too dark, which gives it a cleaner finish than many other popular espresso blends that contain robusta.
The brand mentions flavor notes such as strawberry, sugar cane, and vanilla on the package. Out of those, I’d say the berries pop out the most. The blend is made up of Ethiopian and Colombian beans, and I guess that the berry flavors come from a high percentage of dry processed Sidamo or Yirgacheffe.
I also liked that the coffee was roasted as soon as the order was made, so the bag I received was still at peak freshness.
(Please note: Coffee Bros is also a sponsor of my YouTube channel. If you buy beans from the brand, you help to support the channel.)
2: Illy – The Best Italian Coffee for Espresso
I recently revisited Illy’s Classico blend and reviewed it through a modern lens. I was quite pleased, and wrote down taste notes such as: Cacao, almond, raisin, hints of orange peel.
This blend is a classic in espresso, and I can understand why. Illy is a traditional Italian company that, for many years, was almost synonymous with espresso.
Despite being a prominent and somewhat industrial enterprise, there’s no doubt that Illy puts a lot of effort into selecting the right beans for their blends. That means ripe cherries from good farms with only a few defects.
This blend is a medium roast and not as dark as many would expect from an Italian brand. It’s pretty versatile and will suit many brewing styles. However, if you’re mainly drinking your espresso with milk, I’d suggest looking for a slightly darker roast. While this will taste pleasant in a cappuccino, it can easily get overwhelmed in bigger milk drinks such as a latte.
This is precisely the same blend that the world barista champions used in 2001 and 2002. While Illy will not win any competitions in the highly snobby and advanced coffee world today, it won’t disappoint in the cup.
If you have a proper grinder setup, go for the whole beans option. But of, course, being a supermarket brand, pre-ground is also available. Just be aware that the grind size suits moka pot and “faux” espresso with a pressurized basket. It’s not quite fine enough for a real 9-bar espresso machine.
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 suitable 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-around coffee. You can use it in milk drinks or enjoy it as a straight shot. It performed nicely when I tested Lavazza’s blends a few years back.
I’m not sure why Lavazza calls it “Espresso Italiano” since that might confuse some people who’d think Italian espresso implied super dark and robust – this is NOT dark. If you’re looking for that, go for the next coffee on this list, Qualita Rossa.
Espresso Italiano is a more affordable alternative to Illy’s famous medium roast, and I think it’s on par quality-wise. Usually, it’s more affordable. Overall, a solid all-rounder for the budget conscious espresso connoisseur.
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 the company’s most famous blends. There is a bunch of robusta in here, so expect a strong coffee that doesn’t 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 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.
When I was doing my big test of Lavazza coffee, one of my older family members actually pointed to this as his favorite, since it didn’t have the same acidity as the 100% arabica coffees had.
Overall, this is a potent espresso shot with no acidity 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.
This would be an excellent choice if you are looking for some beans to fill that superautomatic espresso machine.
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 burgeoning espresso geek, 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 or washing station. 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 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 to what flavor, right?
For this reason, some roasters have started offering 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; more like a medium.
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 enjoyed 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 for 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, which is precisely what these roasters are trying to achieve – some kind of one-size-fits-all roast that can be used for 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 roast is relatively light since it also has to work for drip coffee.
Things to look for in a blend
If you want to go for a blend, I suggest you first think about whether you will mainly drink straight espresso or make 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.
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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