The Best Coffee Beans for Espresso, According to Real Baristas
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Let’s put something aside: espresso beans don’t exist. There are coffee beans purchased with the intention of making espresso. There are coffee beans marketed as being particularly suitable for espresso brewing. But espresso is not a variety of bean. It’s a brewing method that tends to accentuate certain flavors – and whether or not a particular espresso will truly satisfy ultimately comes down to personal preference.
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The challenge? There are thousands of different beans you can buy for that shiny machine on your counter – ones with wildly different prices and a combination of honors like fair trade, single origin, small batch, etc. But there are ways to narrow the playing field for finding a favorite strain, especially when the experts can point you in the right direction.
What the experts say
“Light, medium, and dark roasts can all make a delicious espresso,” says Kitchen Ambition’s Lily Blackburn, which isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking to narrow things down, but serves as an incentive to start your espresso journey with a roast you’ve enjoyed brewed in other ways.
That being said, most coffee shops tend to use medium to dark roasts as their home espresso for a reason. Barista and food scientist Jennifer Pallian says dark roasts are ideal: “They tend to have a richer flavor profile that can withstand the intensity of the espresso-making process,” she says.
Tom Saxon of Batch Coffee Club agrees, with the caveat that many specialty coffees opt for darker roasts that are a far cry from the dark, oily coffee in the grinder of Italian coffeehouses. “The coffee is no longer roasted to that really dark level,” he says, “but more of a medium-dark coffee that extracts a more balanced espresso that still has enough body to cut through the milk.” Saxon also points out that opting for a local, more freshly roasted bean is a good idea, as you can definitely tell when the espresso beans have been sitting for a while.
So, the best place to start? With the darkest roast you know you love. But even when you find something tasty, don’t stop tinkering. Blackburn says how you compose (weigh, grind, and time) espresso can have a huge impact on flavor. Finding coffee beans you love can be a big step, but searching for the perfect espresso at home can be a passion project that never really ends.
A coffee that will please everyone, if ever there was one, this medium dark roast has hints of red apple, caramel and pecan pie that don’t overpower its pleasant natural bitterness. It is complex enough for true connoisseurs without alienating more casual drinkers.
BEST LIGHT ROAST
49th Parallel Coffee Roasters Epic Espresso
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If you’re ready to get into light roast espresso, this floral-sweet blend from BC-based 49th Parallel is a great place to start. Where the dark roast leans towards chocolate and nutty flavors, this unique Peruvian origin is floral and fruity with a natural sweetness that isn’t rooted in those heavier flavors.
BEST FOR MILK DRINKS
Blue Bottle Hayes Valley Espresso
This is the coffee that Blue Bottle uses as the base for its espresso drinks. Its profile balances dark chocolate with what the brand calls “a whisper of orange” to balance things out. A latte, cappuccino, or other milk-based espresso drink made with Hayes Valley is a balanced affair, with the espresso flowing through the creamy milk without overpowering it.
BEST FOR AMERICANS
Counterculture Buliza Dark Roast
An Americano is basically just a watered down espresso, so the coffee you use to make them needs to have a strong and distinct enough flavor to survive dilution. Buliza, a single-origin dark roast from Rwanda, does the trick, with classic dark chocolate present as well as less common molasses and fig notes.
BEST CLASSIC ITALIAN
Lavazza Espresso Italiano Whole Grain
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If you’re looking for that black, oily coffee that Saxon mentioned as being quintessentially Italian, this one – a 100% Arabica blend from Central and South America – is it. Its distinct floral tones complement its richness. Overall, it should be enjoyed in a square, but a kitchen will do just fine.
Stumptown Trapper Creek Decaffeinated
Stumptown took South American coffee beans with hints of cocoa, graham and dried fruit and subjected them to the Swiss water process, the gold standard of chemical-free decaffeination. The result is a blend that retains its complex flavor but won’t cause jitters if consumed late in the day.
Frequently Asked Questions About Coffee Beans
What types of beans are used for espresso?
You can use any type of coffee bean to make espresso, but typically (and in most cafes) you’ll find dark roast beans in the hopper.
How fine should I grind the beans for an espresso?
Fine, but if your coffee is too bitter, you’ll probably need to make it a little coarser next time.
Where can I enjoy an espresso?
With an espresso machine at home, whenever you want.
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1. Eight O’Clock Whole Bean Coffee
With exceptional value for money, this brand offers some of the best-selling beans in the country. The Dark Italian Espresso blend is one of the brand’s most popular, especially among espresso drinkers. These 100% Arabica coffee beans are boldly roasted to deliver chocolate and caramel flavors with a full-bodied finish. Plus, when ground at home, these beans aren’t too oily to use in an automated espresso machine, so you can brew them however you like.
Benefits: Bold and robust flavor ideal for espresso. Economic price.
The inconvenients: Hard to find in a size under 2 pounds, so it might not be ideal if you just want to try it out and see if it’s right for you.
Eight O’Clock Whole Bean Coffee
2. Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Hair Bender
Hair Bender is this brand’s signature roast, and it can be enjoyed using a variety of brewing methods. If you’ve had an espresso at one of their cafes, Hair Bender is the blend they use. The unique blend has citrus and dark chocolate notes, and the Arabica blend is made with coffees from Africa, Indonesia and Latin America.
Benefits: Reliable espresso from legendary coffee roaster PNW. Versatile roast with citrus and dark chocolate notes.
The inconvenients: Some may prefer a more traditional dark roast for their espresso, while this is more of a medium roast.
Stumptown coffee roasters, hair bender
3. Peet’s Coffee Espresso Forte
This brand is one of the original names in the craft coffee movement, and many of their coffees make great brews. However, Espresso Forte has been specially blended to withstand the demanding methods of espresso preparation. The blend is made with crisp, tangy Indo-Pacific beans and spicy coffee beans from the Americas. Together they create an espresso with notes of hazelnut and super smooth cream.
Benefits: Cost-effective option widely available. Printed with roasted date for maximum freshness.
The inconvenients: Not the most exciting option.
Peet’s Coffee Espresso Forte
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