What Are The Best Espresso Beans?
There’s something about a great shot of espresso – the aroma, the pungency, the satisfying flavor, the tingle it leaves on your palate. It’s so much more than just a cup of coffee. When it’s right, it can be the best coffee you’ve ever had.
But there’s the catch. If you don’t get the right coffee beans, even the best super-automatic espresso machine can brew a cup of something weak, sour, or bland. How can you prevent this?
Not to worry. In this article, we share seven of our favorite espresso beans so you can brew espresso you love, every time.
|Peet's Arabian Mocha Sanani||
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|Kicking Horse Coffee Cliff Hanger Espresso||
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|Stumptown Hair Bender||
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|Illy Etopia Yirgacheffe||
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|Lavazza Super Crema||
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|Koffee Kult Thunder Bolt||
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|Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast Espresso||
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When Alfred Peet opened his coffee bar in Berkeley, California in 1966, he sparked a change not only in how coffee was brewed, but how it was perceived. This “second wave” of coffee introduced American coffee lovers to dark-roasted specialty coffees, as well as to European brewing methods and beverages such as espresso, cappuccino, and more. Want to learn more? Watch a brief video about first, second, and third wave coffee here (1)
While Peer’s sells special, limited-edition offerings roasted in small batches, their Arabian Mocha Sanani, with beans from Africa and Arabia, is a regular selection and offers a unique experience in espresso. When you hear the word “mocha,” you probably think of the popular drink combining coffee and hot chocolate. But the name comes from Mocha, a port city on the Red Sea, and the characteristics of coffee from this region include unmistakable notes of cocoa and chocolate in the aroma and on the palate. One sip – whether in an espresso or a pour over – of an Arabian Mocha and you’ll understand.
Peet’s coffee is roasted only after you place your order, and shipped within four hours of roasting.
- 100% Arabica beans from Africa and Arabia
- Dark roast ideal for espresso, French press, or Moka pot, but equally delicious in a pour over
- Notes of chocolate and dates add to complex, spicy aroma
Kicking Horse sources only fair trade, organic, and sustainable shade-grown Arabica beans for their entire line of coffee. Their Cliff Hanger Espresso is silky and complex, with wild berry notes over chocolate tones and a bold finish.
This coffee is also recommended for use – with appropriate grinds, of course – with French press, pour over, and cold brew. They offer a selection of medium and dark roast coffees, all with slightly different compositions and therefore a range of flavors in the cup.
- Medium roast espresso coffee beans
- Blackcurrant, milk chocolate and brown sugar flavors
- Fair trade, organic, kosher
Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee is one of the leading proponents of the “third wave” of coffee, with a focus on origin, growing and processing methods, and most importantly, attention to the coffee itself.
The third wave is, in many ways, a reaction. It is just as much a reply to bad coffee as it is a movement toward good coffee.
Hair Bender – a nod to the beauty parlor that previously occupied the location of Stumptown’s first roaster – was the first blend that founder Duane Sorenson produced. The rich textures and volcanic brightness of Indonesian coffee are layered over the fruity character of Latin American coffee and the earthy depth of beans from Africa. Citrus and dark chocolate elements predominate, for a blend of tart and bitter that strikes a lovely balance.
- Blend of coffees from Indonesia, South America, and Africa to fill the palate
- The house espresso blend brewed at all Stumptown cafes
- Roasted dark for a crisp finish
Illy Caffe is one of Italy’s best-known producers of coffee beans, with a special emphasis on espresso. While they offer a number of blends, all 100% Arabica, Illy also produces a selection of single-origin coffees from Brazil, Colombia, and Ethiopia.
The Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia is considered to be the birthplace of coffee. Located in the central forests, Yirgacheffe coffee is shade-grown on small plantations and family farms. Illy takes pride in having pioneered the direct trade movement and pays prices higher than market value to ensure the growers have a higher standard of living.
We chose the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe for its unique, fruity character. Illy calls out the delicate intensity, with notes of jasmine in the aroma.
- Individual roasting time and temperature for each Illy single-source coffee
- Bright, fruity and floral aromas (blueberry, citrus, jasmine)
- Single-origin Arabica beans
Lavazza has been one of Italy’s favorite coffee roasters since its founding in the city of Turin in 1895. They have focused on blends from the beginning, combining beans from different regions to produce specific combinations of flavors for espresso’s signature kick.
80% of Super Crema is made up of Arabica beans sourced from Colombia, India, and Brazil. Brazilian beans are known for their very light, fragrant aroma profile – not usually what you expect as a single-origin espresso bean, but their addition here gives Super Crema a delicate aroma, which is described as having notes of honey, almonds, and dried fruit.
This espresso blend includes 20% Robusta, sourced from Indonesia and Vietnam. Vietnam has a huge coffee culture, and 95% of their coffee production is Robusta. While these beans are known for their more bitter flavor, they possess a higher caffeine content and generate excellent crema.
- Founded in Turin in 1895, Lavazza is Italy’s most popular coffee roaster
- Notes of honey, almonds, and dried fruit from 80% Arabica beans from Colombia, India, and Brazil
- 20% Robusta from Indonesia and Vietnam provide crisp bitterness and a jolt of caffeine
A relative newcomer, Koffee Kult has been roasting in Hollywood, Florida since 2010. They focus on small-batch roasting, specializing in organic and ethically sourced single-origin coffee. Koffee Kult dark roast coffee beans focus on South American coffee, especially Colombia and Brazil.
Notes of green apple, lime, and pineapple are the key flavors in Thunder Bolt, but look also for aromas of cinnamon when used in espresso.
- Single-origin from Colombia delivers bright fruit under the dark-roast smokiness
- Hints of cinnamon on top of French roast and fruit-forward South American bean character
- Fair trade and organic
Known for producing rich and full-bodied coffee with bite, Coffee Bean Direct’s Italian Roast Espresso offers a honeyed, toasted aroma with notes of cocoa and molasses. Some describe the flavor as milder than other espresso roasts. They also sell in larger packages if you go through coffee quickly; some customers vacuum-pack beans and freeze them for long term storage.
- Blend of beans from South America and India
- Rich and full-bodied with a toasted, honeyed aroma
- Notes of molasses, cocoa, and smoke
What defines a great espresso bean? (espresso beans vs coffee beans)
Most single origin beans would make terrible choices for espresso. Classic espresso starts with a dark roast, or at least a darker medium roast. This isn’t just tradition – there’s science to back it up.
Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista’s Handbook and several other books on coffee, explains that the coffee to water ratio in an espresso machine makes for a cooler brewing environment than a pour over, drip, or French press. The reason? Espresso’s water-to-coffee ratio – sometimes 2- or 3-to-1 (compared to 18-to-1 for pour over) – means the brew never gets as hot as in a pour over. The risk? Under-extraction, and a sour, thin flavor (2).
The lower temperatures of espresso extraction tend to make coffee sourer. And to combat sourness, roasters tend to roast darker
In short, the lighter and medium roasts you love in a pour over or drip coffee maker run the risk of going sour in an espresso. Yes, there is a clear difference between beans for espresso and coffee. Read this: espresso beans vs coffee beans.
To compensate for this, espresso takes a dark roast. But some coffee roasters cut costs by using inexpensive beans because a dark roast can mask the dull flavors of low-quality beans. One solution is to buy single-origin beans – but don’t overlook a well-made blend. Many great espresso coffees blend beans from different regions, to strike the perfect balance between sweet and bitter.
Single-origin or espresso blend?
Blending gives a talented coffee roaster an opportunity to balance the flavor of espresso. Fruity, earthy, acid, bitter: in an espresso machine, the short brewing time and lower temperatures reward a coffee company that knows how to combine a variety of coffees for best effect. So while single-origin coffee is a great way to dial in your palate for the flavors you love, when it comes to espresso, blends often have an advantage.
The first question about blends involves the type of coffee tree from which the beans are sourced. Nearly all single-origin espresso is made from Arabica beans. These high-quality beans have a more complex flavor profile than the less-expensive Robusta. Arabica beans are grown all around the world, with every growing region having slightly different characteristics.
Robusta beans have more caffeine and more bitterness – but that can be an advantage for espresso. Some espresso blends do include small amounts, 20 to 25%, of Robusta beans for this reason. Robusta beans are also higher in caffeine, so if you’re looking for a jolt, they have their virtues.
The coffee growing regions of the world all offer characteristic flavors. While every coffee plantation has its own climate and soil (much like a vineyard), each region tends to offer distinct elements of flavor and aroma:
Sumatra is a great choice for dark roast. The wet hulling process used there produces an earthy, mushroomy flavor that carries through even in the darkest French roast. If you like the smoky tang of a Portobello mushroom seared over a charcoal fire, you might love coffee from Sumatra.
Central American coffees and those from South America are popular in medium roasts. These coffees tend to have brighter acidity, with more fruit and floral notes. With fine grind and attention to heat in your espresso machine, you can brew a great cup of espresso with beans from Colombia or Guatemala. Brazilian coffee tends to have a lighter, sweeter flavor profile which is great when blended with stronger beans for espresso.
Africa provides deep minerality, partly from the soil and climate but also from the dry-processing method in which the coffee beans are left to dry in this sun. This concentrates stronger, darker flavors in the resulting coffee. Notes of chocolate and fruit (especially in Ethiopian coffee) make a complex, balanced cup of espresso.
Indonesia is known as much for the volcanic tingle its soil adds to the aftertaste as for its rich, bold flavor and well-balanced acidity. Even in a medium-dark roast, Indonesian beans have the body to make great espresso coffee.
Tips for Enjoying Espresso Beans
Whatever beans you select, here are a few things to be aware of to get the best out of them. This should be obvious, but you should already have a quality espresso machine. Duh.
Make sure you use a fine grind. Espresso machines require a very fine grind. This is another way to compensate for the lower brewing temperature – finer grinds offer a faster extraction, which helps balance the flavor.
Look at the crema for a clue to your grind. One key about whether your espresso is ground finely enough: keep an eye on the crema, that golden layer at the top of the cup. If your crema is thin or has too many large bubbles in it, try a finer grind. You should be able to make an adjustment on automatic espresso machines with built-in grinders.
You can, of course, order your espresso pre-ground – it’s not the best choice, but better than too coarse a grind. Lavazza and Illy both offer pre-ground espresso that is the correct degree of fineness for espresso machines, both manual and automatic.
Be sure you’re tamping sufficiently. In addition to getting the grinds fine enough, you need to make sure you’re tamping the filter basket properly. Tamping affects how quickly the water flows through the puck when you pull a shot. You need 30 pounds of pressure to ensure that the grinds are packed closely enough that they will extract properly – too little pressure and the water goes through too quickly.
Be sure to pre-infuse your espresso. If you’re using a quality super-automatic espresso machine, it should come with a pre-infusion cycle. Pre-infusion performs the same function as the bloom on a pour-over: it wets the coffee grinds and releases the CO2 stored in them from roasting. But in espresso, pre-infusion also helps control the speed of flow through the grinds: because the grinds swell when wet, they slow the flow of water and therefore ensure more complete extraction.
Our pick: Peet’s Coffee Arabian Mocha Sanani
Intensely flavored with beautiful notes of chocolate and dates on the palate, Peet’s Arabian Mocha Sanani is elegant, complex, and delicious when prepared in any brewing method. But what it does with the intensity of espresso is magical, as the rich mid-palate sweetness highlights the cocoa and woody elements.
We’re sure that one (or more!) of these will make a cup of espresso that you’ll love. Did we succeed? Did you find your perfect match from one we missed? Let us know in the comments!
- What Is Third Wave Coffee and How Did We Get Here? (2016, January 08). Retrieved from https://www.eater.com/2016/1/8/10733218/third-wave-coffee-history
- Rao, S. (2017, February 26). Roasting for Espresso vs. Filter. Retrieved from https://www.scottrao.com/blog/roasting-for-espresso-vs-filter