The Definitive Guide to the Best Coffee Beans for Espresso [2021 UPDATE]

Espresso. The word alone implies a drink that is ready to fill you with zest, energy, and caffeine kick needed to tackle whatever the day throws at you, even if you only managed to eek out a few meager hours of sleep the night before.

Espresso. The foundation, nay, the reason many exquisite coffee drinks even exist. The milk, drip brew, and swirls of flavor and cream that often accompany it are but supporting members of a production whose star role is reserved for a rich boldness that is so delicious it need nothing more than an ounce or two to steal the show.

Coffee shop juggernauts have built their empires on the popularity of the small-in-stature drink as it’s the key component to a majority of the concoctions found on their menus, but home brewing has become increasingly popular over the years due to the prevalence and affordability of brewers, and roasters have been keeping up with the trend by making sure that their best flavors are represented with espresso-exclusive products.

Method or Bean?

cup of coffee

Officially, espresso is a method. The term, which many of us incorrectly pronounce as “expresso”, refers to the process of forcing a small amount of hot, pressurized water through a batch of beans.

The procedure was created by Italian inventor Angelo Moriondo, and his creation of a machine that was able to instantly deliver a decadent cup of coffee would not only win multiple awards, but it would also serve as the blueprint for which later iterations would follow.

But the procedure is nothing without a great product to brew, and that has led many coffee growers to produce what you’ll find in your coffee aisle labeled as espresso beans.

A point of contention for some is whether or not espresso beans actually even exist. Technically speaking, there are only two kinds of coffee beans – Arabica and Robusta – and all coffee beverages are created from either one or of the other, or a blend of both.

There is no plant that yields a variety of beans with the name of “espresso”. When you see products that are labeled as such, the manufacturer is referring to what they’d consider being the best way to brew that particular product. Generally, these are roasts whose flavors work best and are more pronounced when brewed in espresso fashion, that is, with hot water forced through them and not drip-brewed.

Espresso and Coffee Beans: The Difference

The short answer: there’s not a difference. You can use any coffee beans you’d like in your espresso maker and espresso drinks. Espresso is just the brewing method. Traditionally, medium and dark roasts with rich, smoky flavors are used over lighter beans with floral or fruity flavors.

When you’re first starting out, play around with darker roasts before experimenting with lighter coffee roasts for espresso.

You may find that you never have the desire to change. Medium and darker roasts are more likely to taste like what you’re used to and give you a better gauge of how your technique is, what you like, what you don’t like, and give you a boost of confidence when you make something at home that tastes as good as—or better than—what you’d get in a coffeehouse.

Just keep in mind that the flavor notes in your coffee (some bags will list them on the outside) will be amplified when the beans are used for espresso. The high pressure used in the extraction process brings out the flavors more than other brewing methods—yielding more intense flavor—whatever that flavor may be.

What to Consider

There are a few things to consider when you’re making your choice:

  • Light, medium, or dark roast?
  • Single-origin or blend?
  • Where should the beans come from?
  • How should it be ground?
  • How should the beans look?
  • Does freshness matter?
  • What affects the crema?
  • Were they grown using ethical and good environmental practices?
  • How easily accessible do your espresso beans of choice need to be?

How to Choose Espresso Beans

If you’re not up for experimentation with lighter roasts and a variety of notes and combinations and you just want a trusty cup of quality espresso, stat, you’re going to want to focus on darker roasts.

Some bags will tell you they’re espresso roasts, which makes it easier to narrow down your options in the store, but you don’t always have to go that route. Take it as a recommendation, not a rule.

Medium to Dark Roast

Simply put, the darker the roast, the bolder the taste. Though some people prefer to drink espresso shots straight, espresso often has to compete with other flavors (pumpkin spice latte, anyone?) and a lighter roast would get lost in the mix of milk and syrups.

Darker roasts add depth to the drink overall and provide a more balanced coffee-drinking experience. You get the rich coffee flavor you expect from an espresso beverage along with those other flavor additions.

Some labels may tell you the coffee beans are intended for espresso use. Others may say what type of roast and provide more feedback than just light, medium, or dark. Terms to look for on the labels include:

  • French Roast
  • Italian Roast
  • Vienna Roast
  • Full City Roast
  • Espresso Roast
  • Dark Roast
  • New Orleans Roast

These are darker options that can stand up to competing flavors in your cup.

Look for a Blend

dark coffee

The flavors present in your coffee beans will vary based on where they are grown. For example, you could get a syrupy coffee with a hint of blackberry jam from Ethiopian beans, a bright and acidic coffee with a lemony tartness from beans grown in Kenya, or a heavy and nutty coffee made from beans grown in Brazil (this one is excellent in espresso blends and cold brew coffee). Those are all delicious, but single-origin beans are best left to other coffee brewing methods.

A blend of origins and flavors has an easier time standing up to the extraction process and will generally taste better than single-origin coffee beans (though single-origin coffees are great if you want to drink black coffee brewed in a Chemex or French press, for example).

Single origin beans are sometimes overwhelming and taste out of balance when used for making espresso due to the pressure, heat, and speed involved in making espresso shots. That nice lemon tart note in your regular cup of black coffee could transform into an assault on your taste buds when used in your cappuccino.

It’s also easier to create a more consistent flavor with blends, as coffee flavors can change depending on the season and source. With single-origin coffees, two bags could look very similar on the outside but taste different. There’s an additional perk to using blends instead of single-origin coffees for your espresso: you’ll generally pay less per pound for your beans.

Here’s a quick look at how single-origin coffee versus blends performs in the espresso brewing method:

Single Origin Blends
Great for standard drip, French press, and Chemex brewing methods Good for all brewing methods, including espresso
Can become unbalanced in flavor when used for espresso Maintains balanced, consistent flavor during the extraction process and over time
Usually more expensive Usually costs less than single origin coffee beans

What Different Regions Bring to a Coffee Blend

Not all blends will taste the same. Each blend will feature coffee from different regions, which will give them balance, but not all blends will taste the same across the board. Though you’ll find variations season to season, farm to farm, and roaster to roaster, you can expect:

Region Characteristics
Central America (general) Sweet, sharp, medium body, slightly acidic, “clean” flavor
Brazil Nutty, chocolatey, spicy, syrupy, smooth, low acid, complex
Indonesia (often labeled Sumatra or Sulawesi) Syrupy, pungent, strong, sweet, full-bodied, earthy
Ethiopia Earthy, can be light or heavy, fruity or floral
Colombia Balanced, medium to heavy body, sweet, mellow, nutty
Peru Heavy body, creamy mouthfeel
Kenya Light, fruity, floral, acidic, medium body
Costa Rica Balanced, heavy mouthfeel, balanced, not too complex
Guatemala Complex, medium body, floral notes
Nicaragua Acidic, medium-to-heavy body, smooth, slight nuttiness or sweetness, bright
Mexico Acidic with hints of bittersweet chocolate and nuts, light body

The Grind

If you have the option to grind your own beans or have them ground in a local coffee shop when you purchase them, keep in mind that a finer grind will yield better results when you’re making espresso. The beans will absorb more water and give you a richer-tasting drink. Not to mention, freshly ground coffee beans taste better in general.

From the time they’re ground, coffee beans can lose a lot of their flavor and start to taste stale in a matter of weeks. All those descriptive flavors on the bag will disappear.

Your average coffee consumer won’t necessarily notice the difference because by the time beans are shipped, roasted, ground, stored, and finally made into coffee, most of the subtle flavors are gone.

Once you’ve had fresh coffee beans ground just before they were used in your beverage, you’ll be able to notice a difference between stale beans and new ones.

Their Appearance

A slight sheen is a good sign if you’re looking for whole coffee beans to make espresso with. You don’t want them to look wet or completely dried out. A little oil is especially important on darker beans typically used for espresso, but not as important on lighter ones.

Darker beans that still have some oil are generally a little fresher than drier, darker beans, and will produce more crema when brewed. Not all dark coffee beans devoid of an oily sheen are “bad” but it’s something to keep in mind when given the chance to peek into the bag before you make a purchase.

Fresh Is Best

If you have a chance to buy your beans from a local roaster or a coffee shop that gets their beans from a nearby roaster and in turn sells bags of them to customers, you can get your coffee beans pretty fresh. The fresher, the better, as the nuances in flavor, deteriorate over time.

When you’re buying local (and sometimes even when you’re not), you’ll usually be able to check for the date the beans were roasted somewhere on the bag. After roasting, coffee beans should rest for 12 to 24 hours, so there is such thing as “too fresh.”

However, you’ll lose a lot of the flavor if you wait to consume your coffee 10 to 15 days past the roast date. If you can wait to grind the beans until right before you make your espresso, even better.

When You Can’t Shop Locally

If there are no local roasters near you or you just prefer to order online or grab your coffee at the grocery store each week, don’t worry. You can still make consistently amazing espresso drinks with beans you have sent to your door or pick up in a grocery store.

Not everyone has access to a local coffee roaster and not everyone has time to make a special weekly trip to buy coffee beans even if they do have access to a roaster nearby. Another way you can get somewhat fresh beans is to find out what’s popular online (like on Amazon) or in your favorite store and buy that kind.

Yes, you’ll be following the crowd instead of going off on the unbeaten path to discover great beans not everyone knows about yet. However, whatever everyone is buying is what’s moving out of the store and being replaced by newer beans. That means your odds of getting very old, stale beans go down significantly. And getting your hands on said beans is a lot more convenient when all you have to do is click, buy, and wait a few days.

The Crema

Good espresso has a beautiful tan crema made from air bubbles and oils from the coffee beans on top. This is the creamy froth on top of the shots when they’re done (not to be confused with the frothy steamed milk in drinks like cappuccinos and lattes).

Though not all beans are capable of producing excellent crema, or any at all, there are a few things you can do to help, whether you get your beans locally or on Amazon:

  • Get the finest ground possible so the water will have a hard time passing through quickly, but not so hard that the water can’t actually make it through the grounds. This will take some trial and error and you may have to adjust your tamping pressure, so be patient. Think fine beach sand more than confectioner’s sugar (too fine) or Himalayan sea salt (too coarse).
  • Get fresh beans. This is one of the main factors in producing crema. If you can get your beans seven to 10 days from the roast date at most, that’s ideal.
  • Water temperature should be between 92 and 96 degrees Celsius.
  • Use an espresso maker capable of 8 to 10 bars of pressure.

Water temperature and pressure aren’t things to take into consideration when choosing your beans, of course, but in order to get a fair comparison and discover what you truly like and dislike, you’ll want to keep all of the variables the same. By shooting for the optimal extraction temperature and pressure each time, you’ll be able to experience the best of what each coffee blend can produce.

Ethical and Environmental Concerns

coffee and book

Flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel are all important when you’re looking for the best espresso beans. However, ethical and environmental concerns should come into play, too, to protect human lives and the planet. Luckily, the best coffee-drinking experience and the best farming practices usually go hand in hand. Look for bags of beans that say:

  • Organically farmed
  • Shade-grown
  • Fairtrade International
  • UTZ Certified (which means sustainable coffee and farm workers get healthcare, labor rights, and housing, and their children go to school instead of work)
  • Rainforest Alliance Certified (which means farmers strive to avoid using pesticides and use the safest products possible for human health and the environment)

You probably won’t find a bag that has all of those listed, but one or two is a reasonable expectation.

The Best Espresso Beans

Want a shortcut to some of the best coffee beans for espresso? Try these options that are relatively easy to get and don’t require special trips to try out local (or not-so-local) roasters until you find one you like:

Lavazza

Lavazza Super Crema Whole Bean Coffee Blend
$16.90 ($0.48 / Ounce)
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Lavazza Super Crema Espresso is a combination of Brazilian, Central American, and Indonesian coffees, this is a balanced blend that’s mild and sweet. It’s created to have a creamy, velvety mouthfeel and a flavor that’s not bitter.

Crema E Aroma

Lavazza Crema E Aroma Whole Bean Coffee Blend
$14.99 ($0.43 / Ounce)
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Striking a nice balance between dark and light, this selection has nice medium body and earthy notes. Don’t be surprised to find yourself still enjoying the wonderful aroma lingering about long after you’ve finished your cup.

L’Espresso Gran Aroma

Lavazza Roasted Coffee Beans
$19.13 ($0.54 / Ounce)
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If chocolate’s your thing (and if it isn’t, then we can’t be friends), then stop looking, buy a few bags of this, and prepare your senses for decadence unmatched.

Medium body that sings with delicate florals and citrus accents perfectly punctuating a handsome chocolate flavor. Of course, it’s great on its own, but if you’re into making dessert-style coffee drinks, this is a great place to start.

Further Read: Best Lavazza Coffee Selections

Four Barrel Coffee

Four Barrel Coffee
$37.98 ($3.16 / Ounce)
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Four Barrel Coffee Friendo Blendo contains a blend of beans from Colombia el Tablon, Ethiopia Biftu Gudina, and Guatemala Esquipulas. Flavors consist of citrus, berry, and toffee. If you like it enough to commit, there’s a subscription option.

Peet’s Coffee

Peet's Coffee Major Dickason's Blend
$12.99 ($0.72 / Ounce)
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Peet’s Whole Bean Coffee Major Dickason’s Blend, Dark Roast is available in grocery stores across the country as well as Amazon, so it’s one of the more accessible options. It’s a rich, complex blend that’s good as espresso or drip-brewed.

Caribou Coffee

Caribou Cross Fox Espresso is created not to get lost in a cappuccino or latte when you add the milk and sugar. That doesn’t mean you can’t grind it a little more coarsely and brew up a regular pot of coffee from the same bag of beans, though. It’s sweet and syrupy with a hint of berries. If you know you’ll only be using it for espresso and order directly from Caribou Coffee, you can have them grind it for making espresso before they ship it to you.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
$14.99 ($1.25 / Ounce)
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Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ Hair Bender Blend has notes of citrus and dark chocolate and combines coffee beans from Indonesia, Latin America, and Africa. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit one of the Stumptown cafes and enjoyed an espresso beverage there, there’s a good chance it was made with the Hair Bender blend.

Kicking Horse Coffee

Kicking Horse Coffee
$29.99 ($0.85 / Ounce)
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“Wake Up and Kick Ass” is more than just a motto for Canada’s numero uno selling whole bean coffee; it’s the philosophy behind which the brand was founded.

All of their offerings are organic and fairtrade, even earning them an award for such back in 2015. Die-hard devotees claim that if you’re looking for the most bang for the buck, then a bag of Kicking Horse should always be in your cabinet.

Cliff Hanger Espresso

Kicking Horse Coffee
$25.00 ($0.71 / Ounce)
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Black currant, what with its berry-like flavor and aromatic floral essence, is the headlining act that also stars the creaminess of milk chocolate and a pinch of brown sugar.

Further Read: Kicking Horse Coffee Review (in depth)

Starbucks

There’s no need for an explanation; you already know who they are and have probably spent a mint on your favorite drinks there. So the next time you hear the call of the siren, why not brew your own at home?

Espresso Dark Roast

Starbucks Dark Roast Whole Bean Coffee
$14.15 ($0.71 / Ounce)
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Dark roasted beans typically contain less caffeine per serving, as the longer roasting period leaches the caffeine from the beans. Add in the fact that while espresso drinks have more caffeine per serving than regular coffees, you generally consume less overall because of the small size of the shot.

But this is the rich, velvety smooth caramel drink that the coffee giant created back in 1975 and has mastered in the decades since. You’ve had it, you know it, and you love it. Just be sure to double up on it if you need a little extra get-up-and-go.

Koffee Kult

The shining star of many “best of” lists as it relates to espresso beans, Florida-based Koffee Kult has rightfully earned their spot amongst the greats of espresso roasters.

Aside from offering a full line of coffees, teas, and accessories through their online shop, the company also regularly supplies many boutique shops with their beans. A quick glimpse through their catalog only unearths a single offering marketed as an espresso brew, but any of their products will yield a delicious cup regardless of how it’s prepared!

Eye Cracker

Koffee Kult Eye Cracker Espresso Beans
$19.99 ($1.67 / Ounce)
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If you ever needed a reason to get out of bed early, this is it. You’ll stop pounding the snooze alarm when a fresh brewed cup of Eye Cracker awaits, a name not merely given, but earned. Medium in body with a veritable fruit dish full of juicy notes, including cherry, tangerine, and lemon.

Smooth-as-silk caramel and just a nip of natural sugar round out the taste profile. The combination is so right that we recommend trying it sans creamer or additional sweetener for a brew that will perk you right up.

Verena Street

You’d be forgiven for not recognizing the name as Verena Street has only been producing coffee since 2010, but after your first sip you’ll be proud to count yourself among the growing number of java drinkers who are fast becoming fans. Family-owned and operated out of Dubuque, Iowa, the company masterfully roasts only small batches of Arabica that have been culled from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms.

Shot Tower Espresso

A dark, full-bodied roast that’s minus any acidity. The creamy taste and texture prove reminiscent of butterscotch, caramel, and hazelnut, with a matching aroma. The beans are sourced from Indonesia, Central, and South America, for a triple treat of decadence.

Coffee Bean Direct

Great coffee at fair prices delivered straight to you. That’s the story behind the name of Coffee Bean Direct, and it’s a promise they’ve been making good on for coffee and tea drinkers for years. Their catalog is awe-inspiring, including no less than seven (!) individual espresso brews.

Italian Roast Espresso

Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast Espresso
$40.75 ($0.51 / Ounce)
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One of Amazon’s highest-rated and most reviewed espresso products; this blend sources beans from South and Central America, Africa, and India.

The company claims this is their most popular offering, as drinkers can’t get enough of the toasted and delicately sweet aroma of honey and the exquisite flavors of cocoa and molasses. A dark roast with heavy body and boldness that can’t be ignored, and can even be a little overpowering if mixed into other drinks. Best enjoyed by itself.

As previously mentioned, espresso is really more of a procedure that yields small amounts of ultra-caffeinated and outstandingly delicious coffee.

And while the beans recommended above represent a select offering of some of the finest products available, there’s absolutely no reason they can’t be brewed drip style. The same holds true in reverse; products denoted for drip style brewing can be brewed espresso-style, and there’s no harm in seeking out new flavors and styles to suite your own distinguished palate.

Tasting Kits and Subscriptions

If you find that you love trying new coffee beans for espresso and it’s quickly becoming the highlight of your morning, week, or month, you may want to sign up for a subscription service so you can easily pinpoint what you like and don’t care for in your espresso blends, sometimes without committing to a full-sized bag of anyone coffee blend. Check out:

Trial and Error

Be prepared for some hits and misses as you explore the world of coffee beans for making espresso. Even after you’ve discovered high-quality beans, your personal preferences will come into play, and they may even change based on your mood, flavors you want to add to your drinks, and time of year.

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