Many of us agree that the rich smell of freshly brewed espresso in the morning has to be one of the best aromas around; although the aroma is even better when you have freshly ground your beans! Using the right beans and the right brewing method is important to produce that perfect double shot of espresso which is aromatic, dark and has a rich crema.Hunting out the best espresso beans can be easier said than done though, with so many types of blends and single origin coffees available in a range of roasts. To help you through this hunt, we review some of the current bestsellers, take a look at which types of roast tend to make a better espresso and what flavor notes are. We also offer some tips to help you get the most from your machine when brewing espresso.
The Lavazza Super Crema medium espresso beans (2.2 lb.) is our best pick for a full tasting espresso without bitterness.
The Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso (2.2 lb.) is our budget pick as an organic, Fairtrade and Kosher espresso blend.
Table of Contents
- Quick Comparison: Top 10 Best Espresso Beans
- 1. Lavazza Super Crema Medium Espresso Beans
- 2. Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso
- 3. Koffee Kult Dark Roast Coffee Beans
- 4. Cafe Don Pablo Gourmet Coffee Signature Blend
- 5. Mayorga Café Cubano Dark Roast Whole Bean
- 6. Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast Espresso
- 7. Peet's Coffee Espresso Forte Dark Roast Whole Bean Coffee
- 8. Blue Horse Kona Coffee Medium Roast Beans
- 9. Stumptown Coffee Roasters Whole Bean Coffee
- 10. Illy Coffee Whole Bean Arabica Ethiopia
- Things to Consider Before Buying Espresso Beans
Quick Comparison: Top 10 Best Espresso Beans
1. Lavazza Super Crema Medium Espresso Beans
Blended and roasted in Italy, the Lavazza Super Crema medium espresso beans (2.2 lb.) are a mild and creamy roast with almond, honey and dried fruit notes. These beans are a mix of 40% robusta from Indonesia and Vietnam and 60% arabica from Brazil, Columbia and India and they will give a full tasting espresso without any bitterness.
The beans come in a vacuum packed bag for freshness and this also has a one way valve to preserve freshness once opened. Some buyers may have received older stock which may not have been as fresh as they should have been. Other buyers consider the medium taste of this coffee a little too light for espresso.
2. Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso
The medium roast Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso (2.2 lb.) is a smooth and complex blend with hints of wild berry and cocoa. Certified Fairtrade, organic and kosher this coffee is roasted in the Rocky Mountains from African, Indonesian, Central and South American arabica beans from sustainable farms.This is suitable for use in a French press, drip machine, pour over and cold brew as well as espresso. Some drinkers have considered the beans to be dark roast, bitter flavored and oily which can make them more difficult to use in super-automatic espresso machines.
3. Koffee Kult Dark Roast Coffee Beans
A blend of pure arabica beans from Colombia, Guatemala and Sumatra, the Koffee Kult dark roast (2 lb.) has balanced acidity and smooth flavor. This has flavors and aromas of cinnamon and cocoa and it has a long finish. Not all drinkers have found this as dark a roast as they would have liked.These beans are suitable for all types of coffee brewing, including espresso, although depending on your preferred expresso taste you may find these beans better suited to other types of brew. Like any whole bean, there can be a chance of finding some debris in the bag, so it is always worth a check before putting the beans through the grinder. This dark roast also comes with a satisfaction guarantee.
4. Cafe Don Pablo Gourmet Coffee Signature Blend
With a blend of arabica beans from Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil, the Don Pablo signature blend whole bean (2 lb.) is a medium to dark roast. Various drinkers consider this is more of a medium than medium-dark roast, so if you do prefer a darker roast these may not be the best beans for you.These beans are GMO-free, and artisan roasted in small batches for freshness. They have a cocoa finish, are low acidity and smooth. These beans are suitable for brewing espresso and all other types of coffee, although a number of drinkers have commented that these beans brew better espresso than drip.
5. Mayorga Café Cubano Dark Roast Whole Bean
The small batch roasted Mayorga Café Cubano dark roast whole bean (2 lb.) organic, non-GMO verified and kosher. This is a dark roast signature blend of pure arabica beans with a sweet smokiness and vanilla flavor. The finish is smooth and bold. Some buyers note that this coffee does not taste as fresh as it could do and that its flavor can be bland.
6. Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast Espresso
The Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast espresso (5 lb.) is a blend of South American and Indian beans that are artisan Italian roasted. These beans are medium acidity, rich and full-bodied with a toasty and honeyed aroma and flavors of cocoa, molasses and smokiness.Although espresso beans, they are suitable for other coffee brewing methods such as drip or French press. Some drinkers have found that more recent batches have been lighter on the flavor and you may find that these are not as dark roasted as you may expect.
7. Peet's Coffee Espresso Forte Dark Roast Whole Bean Coffee
With a smooth crema, and bright notes with a hint of hazelnut, Peet’s Coffee Whole Bean Dark Roast Espresso Forte (12 oz) is a blend of Indo-Pacific and Americas beans. Although a dark roast, some have commented that the flavor is still on the mild side for an espresso blend. These beans are stamped with the roasting date and ‘freshest by’ date, but some buyers have received beans that are just before, or even just after the freshest by date.
8. Blue Horse Kona Coffee Medium Roast Beans
Sourced from a single coffee estate, the Blue Horse Kona coffee medium roast coffee beans are 100% Kona and are handpicked and naturally sun dried. These beans are free from any herbicides or pesticides. These are lower caffeine beans with an aromatic and mellow body with some spicy after flavors, and they come as a 1 lbs. Ziplock bag that you can reseal after opening.The odd recent buyer considers these beans to have been roasted darker than a medium and the darker roasting has stopped some of the flavors associated with Kona beans from coming through as well.
9. Stumptown Coffee Roasters Whole Bean Coffee
The Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender whole bean is a sweet and balanced coffee with cherry notes that has a 90 day freshness on its bags, although some buyers have found that these beans have been close to, or even past their drink by ‘freshest date’ on arrival.This is a blend of African, Latin American and Indonesian beans that is suitable for espresso or for brewing in other ways; although as a sweeter blend, you may not be as keen on it for espresso.
10. Illy Coffee Whole Bean Arabica Ethiopia
The Illy Arabica Selection Ethiopia is made from beans that have been sustainably grown in the Yirgacheffe territory – one of the earliest known areas to grow Arabica beans. These Ethiopian beans are naturally shade grown in almost inaccessible forests and are collected by hand. The beans are then roasted in Italy.Coming as an 8.8 oz can, this is an aromatic and delicate coffee with notes of jasmine and citrus, although some coffee drinkers consider that these beans lack any flavor. There is also a risk that the can may arrive without the outer lid so once you remove the inner seal you will then need to transfer it into another container to keep it fresh.
Things to Consider Before Buying Espresso Beans
There is as such thing as an espresso roast; it is more that certain roasts and beans will make a better espresso. Like any coffee, espresso always tastes better with fresher beans, although this is not always as important as it can be for filter coffees. A maximum of two months from roasting to using by is ideal for most espresso blends. Buying smaller batches of beans can also help to keep them fresher, but if you do buy a very small batch, note you will need around 100 coffee beans to make a double shot of espresso!
Acidity of Coffee Beans
The acidity of coffee does not refer to its chemical pH or if it has any sourness in its taste, instead it refers to how close the bean is to its green or fruit state. The more that a bean is roasted, the further it moves away from its green state, or the less acidic it becomes. A lighter roast will have higher acidity than a darker roast.
Flavor notes are a way to describe coffee and these notes are what are smelled or tasted when the beans are brewed in the recommended way. If you are new to espresso, or whole bean in general, then it is worth experimenting by trying beans from different origins and roasters to see which you enjoy the most.
Espresso does have a bitterness to it, but there are other flavor notes in there such as cocoa, berries or caramel. If an espresso is too bitter, it may be brewed incorrectly. Darker roasts will often have notes of tobacco or smoke or may even have an earthy flavor, especially if they are Indonesian beans.
Darker Roasts for Espresso
Beans for espresso were traditionally roasted darker (dark brown to black color) than beans for other coffees and because of this, many of us still look for that flavor and color in our espresso beans. Dark beans roast around 100°F hotter than light roast beans and continue to roast until the end of what is known as the ‘second crack’. Light roasts are only roasted until the ‘first crack’ starts.
The darker roast of espresso beans offers an advantage to cappuccinos or lattes as it can ‘cut through’ the creaminess of the milk. The easiest way to check for a dark bean is to look for an oily surface on the outer of the bean. If the surface of the bean is shiny with oil, then it is usually an Italian or French style roast whereas if the bean is dry yet still dark it will be a Full City roast.
Unfortunately, dark roast beans which are oily can cause problems in super-automatic espresso machines and some grinders because of the oil residue they leave on components. This residue can build up over time and cause damage to machines; so, if you do prefer an oilier dark roast then be prepared to clean your grinder regularly to minimize the risk of oil buildup.
A medium-dark or a dark roast will often taste the same. Some lighter roasts can be used for espresso as these offer a different body of flavor to the espresso, however a lighter roast should be used with care because if it is too light and lacking in body then the espresso will be flat and disappointing.
Blends for espresso can cost less than filter coffee as the trends for filter have moved towards single origin while most espresso remains blends of arabica and robusta beans. Robusta beans usually cost less and will give more bitter flavor to espresso. Robusta beans also have a higher caffeine content than arabica and are often higher in acidity. Be aware that some blends of espresso beans can have a high percentage – as much as 80% - of robusta which overall gives a lower cost coffee.
Grinding Beans for Espresso
A burr grinder tends to give a more consistent grind for espresso. The grind should be fine yet still let you see the individual grains – a finer consistency than sugar but not as fine as powdered sugar. If the ground is too coarse for espresso it will not allow the flavor to develop as the water is forced through. If the ground is too fine, it will be over-extracted and bitter.
The Importance of the Crema
When espresso is brewed properly it should have a crema – the tawny brown foam that sits on top of the espresso. This is the initial liquid which is extracted from the grounds when hot water is forced through. The crema is important because it contains the aromatic oils which enhance the taste of the espresso. Generally, the addition of up to 15% of Robusta beans in a blend will give more crema to an espresso.
Tips When Brewing Espresso
When espresso is made, it is through forcing hot water under pressure through a ‘puck’ of fine ground coffee. An espresso machine will usually have at least 9 bars of pressure (around 130 p.s.i). The finer the ground, the denser the puck which means more pressure is needed to push the water through.
How espresso is brewed ensures that no aromas are lost during brewing unlike other types of coffee brewing.
One shot (1.5 fl. oz) of espresso from one tablespoon of coffee should usually be brewed within 25 to 30 seconds; any longer means that the coffee will be bitter. A double shot should also brew for the same amount of time through twice the quantity of coffee.
If the timing is off, adjust the grind or if you have a lever espresso machine you can also apply extra manual pressure to adapt the time that your espresso needs to brew. The lever also allows you to correct the time if the grind is less than perfect. If you do not have a lever machine, you can instead adjust the tamping to compensate for the poorer grind.
The water for the machine should be either distilled or softened before use as its impurities and minerals will affect the taste of the coffee. The machine will usually heat the water up to around 200°F - the ideal temperature for espresso.
It is important that the portafilter, the part of the machine that holds the grounds during brewing, is clean and before brewing espresso, the cup and the machine should be pre-warmed. The cup can be warmed either on the heating tray of the machine or by rinsing it with hot water. You can also flush your machine at this point (if needed) for a few seconds to clear out old water or coffee from the system.
You can then measure your coffee out into the portafilter, using the measure provided with the machine and then tamp (compact) it down with firm and even pressure. Once the grounds are tamped, they should be compact, level and dense enough that the water can pull the flavor out as it passes through. You can then brush away any stray grounds and lock the portafilter into the machine.
Once the cup is underneath, the pump can be started and allowed to run (25 to 30 seconds) until 3 fl. oz of espresso are made. The early part of the extraction will be darker but then lighten towards the end.
Even two bags of the same beans can have a difference in taste, so you should always be prepared to adapt your brewing method (grind of beans, how tamped down etc.) slightly when you open a fresh bag or tin of beans.
Ristretto, Normale and Lungo
Espresso shots are not all equal. A ristretto is a short espresso has a 1:1 ratio of coffee grounds to water – which means it is brewed with the amount of coffee for a double shot, but the quantity of water for a single. A normale is about a 1:2 ratio of coffee to water and the lungo (‘long’) can be as much as four parts water to one part coffee.
The grind can also be adjusted for these as well – a ristretto requires a finer grind than the normale, which is finer than the lungo. The caffe crema is a rarer 4 to 8 fl. oz measure that uses a coarser grind.
In this article we have taken a tour of espresso beans; via their blending, flavor notes, acidity and roasting styles. We have also looked at the need for a consistent grind for espresso, considered the importance of the crema and offered some general tips to help you to brew a perfect espresso.Whether you are an espresso aficionado looking to try a new flavor or roast, or are new to brewing espresso, we hope you have enjoyed this article. We also hope that our reviews of a range of beans will help you to find the best espresso beans for your morning double shot.