The Best Coffee Beans for Espresso, According to Real Baristas
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Let’s get something out of the way: there’s no such thing as espresso beans. There are coffee beans purchased with the intention of making espresso. There are coffee beans marketed as being particularly suited to brew into espresso. 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 shot of espresso will truly satisfy ultimately comes down to personal preference.
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The challenge? There are thousands of different beans you could buy for that shiny machine on your counter — ones with wildly different price points and some combination of honorifics like fair-trade, single-origin, small-batch, and the like. But there are ways to narrow the playing field to find a favorite variety, particularly when experts can point you in the right direction.
What the Experts Say
“Light, medium, and dark roasts can all yield delicious espresso,” says Lily Blackburn of Kitchen Ambition, which isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking to narrow things down but does serve as a prod to start your espresso journey with a roast that you liked brewed other ways.
That being said, most coffee shops tend to use medium-dark to dark roasts as their house espresso for a reason. Barista and food scientist Jennifer Pallian says that dark roasts are ideal: “They tend to have a richer flavor profile that can stand up to the intensity of the espresso-brewing process,” she says.
Tom Saxon of Batch Coffee Club agrees, with the caveat that lots of specialty coffee shops are opting for more medium-dark roasts that are a long way from the black, oily coffee in the grinder at Italian coffee shops. “No longer is the coffee roasted to that really dark level,” he says, “but rather a medium-dark that extracts a more balanced espresso that still has enough body to cut through milk.” Saxon also makes the point that going for a local, more freshly roasted bean is a good idea, as you can definitely tell when espresso beans have been sitting around for a while.
So the best place to start? With the darkest roast you know you like. But even when you find something tasty, don’t stop tinkering. Blackburn says that how you dial (weigh, grind, and time) the espresso can have a huge impact on flavor. Finding beans you love might be a big step, but chasing the perfect at-home espresso can be a passion project that doesn’t ever really end.
A crowd-pleasing coffee if there ever was one, this medium-dark roast has notes of red apple, caramel, and pecan pie that don’t overpower its pleasant natural bitterness. It’s complex enough for real connoisseurs without alienating more casual drinkers.
BEST LIGHT ROAST
49th Parallel Coffee Roasters Epic Espresso
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If you’re ready to take the leap into light roast espresso, this floral, sweet blend from British Columbia-based 49th Parallel is a good place to start. Where dark roast trends toward chocolate and nutty flavors, this Peruvian single-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 of 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 cutting through the creamy dairy without dominating it.
BEST FOR AMERICANS
Counter Culture Buliza Dark Roast
An Americano is fundamentally just a watered-down espresso shot, so the coffee you use to make them should have a flavor strong and distinct enough to survive dilution. Buliza, a single-origin dark roast from Rwanda, fits the bill, with classic dark chocolate present along with less common molasses and fig notes.
BEST CLASSIC ITALIAN
Lavazza Espresso Italiano Whole Bean
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If you’re searching for that black, oily coffee that Saxon mentioned as classically Italian, this one — an 100% Arabica blend from Central and South America — is it. Its distinct floral tones compliment its richness. Overall, it’s fit to be enjoyed on a piazza, but a kitchen will do just fine.
Stumptown Trapper Creek Decaf
Stumptown took South American coffee beans with notes of cocoa, graham, and dried fruit and put them through 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 kinds of beans are used for espresso?
You can use any kind of coffee bean to make espresso, but classically (and in most cafés) you’ll find dark roast beans in the hopper.
How fine should I grind beans for espresso?
Very fine, but if your coffee is too bitter, you probably need to make them a bit coarser next time.
Where can I enjoy an espresso?
With an espresso machine at home, whenever the hell you want.
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1. Eight O’Clock Whole Bean Coffee
Thanks to an exceptional price-to-quality ratio, this brand offers some of the nation’s best-selling beans. 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 provide for chocolate and caramel flavors with a full-bodied finish. Plus, when home ground, these beans are not too oily to use in an automated espresso machine, so you can brew them in whatever way is most convenient to you.
Pros: Bold and robust flavor that's ideal for espresso. Economical price.
Cons: Hard to find in a size that's smaller than 2 lbs, so it may not be ideal if you just want to try 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 that they use. The unique blend has citrus and dark chocolate notes, and the Arabica blend is made from coffees from Africa, Indonesia and Latin America.
Pros: Reliable espresso from legendary PNW roaster. Versatile roast with citrus and dark chocolate notes.
Cons: Some may prefer a more traditional dark roast for their espresso, whereas this is more of a medium.
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 excellent brews. However, the Espresso Forte has been specially blended to hold up to the demanding methods of espresso preparation. The blend is made up of bright and lively Indo-Pacific beans and spicy coffee beans from the Americas. Together, they create an espresso with hints of hazelnut and super smooth crema.
Pros: Economical option that's widely available. Printed with date roasted for peak freshness.
Cons: Not the most exciting option.