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6 Best Coffee Beans for Espresso Brewing

There’s nothing like a shot of espresso in the morning; the reinvigorating aroma hits your nose, then there’s an explosion of flavors on the palate. This combination makes espresso one of the best pick-me-ups you can get.

However, it’s not always like that. Choose the wrong beans and even the best espresso machine in the world cannot help you get the right taste. Don’t worry because you are in the right place. We’ve picked the six best espresso beans you can order today, plus there are some tips and tricks to help you make the right choice.

How to Choose the Best Coffee Beans for Espresso

Beans’ characteristics, such as roast level and origin, affect the flavor profile of your coffee. Medium roast beans, like these, make good pour over coffee. Dark roasts, on the other hand, make great espresso. Then, there’s a debate whether to go for single-origin or blend. This guide provides you everything you need to know to choose the best espresso beans that excite your senses.

Roast Level – Does It Really Matter?

The quick answer is, yes the roast level matters. As a rule, espresso beans are a medium-dark or dark roast. Should you go for a lighter roast, like any of these, your shot might turn out sour. That said, you must always consider the roast before buying beans for espresso or even signing up for a subscription. But, why does this happen?

The secret lies in the temperature and the coffee-to-water ratio. [1] The extraction coffee-to-water ratio in an espresso machine ranges from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1. Combine that with a temperature of 190 to 196°F and a lighter roast could get under-extracted which brings the sourness.

It’s also important to note that a dark roast kills most of the acidity in the coffee beans. In turn, the espresso beans have a full body and are rich in natural coffee oils. You can actually see some of the oils on the beans’ surface and they are one of the reasons an espresso shot has a rich crema.

Typically, what roasters will do to help us achieve that extraction is roast a little bit longer and a little bit darker. An espresso roasts a little bit smoother on the outside, we’ve got very even coloration. The beans are quite a lot larger due to a little bit more time in the roaster.

Battle of the Giants – Robusta vs. Arabica

You probably know that Arabica is more expensive and more popular than Robusta. But does this make Arabica espresso beans superior to Robusta?

To a point, yes, Arabica beans are superior. [2] They have a milder, sweeter taste and there are distinct tones of fruits, berries, and sugar in them. Arabica also has a higher acidity which gives the coffee a winey flavor. But then, much of the acidity is lost during the roasting or fermentation which occurs in the production process.

Due to its invigorating properties, Robusta has been a staple of African culture centuries before the Europeans came to the continent.

Robusta has a more poignant taste which gives coffee nutty notes and grainy tone. This bean has much more caffeine than Arabica, which is one of the reasons some roasters and manufacturers combine the two. This brings us to the question of blends and single origin beans.

The Debate of the Decade – Blends vs. Single Origin

Hard-core connoisseurs might claim that there is no contest here, single origin beans are simply better. However, you shouldn’t underestimate the balance of flavors in a high-quality blend. Some artisan coffee shops/companies even have proprietary blends that make them stand out from the competition.

Adding the stronger Robusta permits a more complex profile and increases the caffeine content in the mix. Some highly rated espresso beans blends contain up to 25% of Robusta, more than enough to round off the milder Arabica taste. Either way, the region where the beans are grown plays an important part as well. [3]

Did you know Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer? In 2016, the country provided more than 2.5 million metric tons of coffee beans.

Arabica beans are dominant in Central and South America. In fact, there are only arabica beans in Jamaica. Colombia, Guatemala, and Brazil are also among the top locations and their beans are often light and sweet, and work great when blended with Robusta. African soil has more minerals and the dry climate delivers beans with a richer flavor.  (4)

As for Robusta, it comes from the Eastern Hemisphere. Some African plantations grow this strain, but the Indonesian Robusta is truly special. This Southeast Asian country is rich in volcanic soil which affects the beans’ profile. Indonesian coffee usually has a good balance of low acidity and bold flavor which are great for a medium-dark roast.

What Do Labels and Certificates Mean?

It’s not uncommon to stumble upon certificates such as Fair Trade and USDA Organic. These give you a better idea about the TLC that has gone into the cultivation and coffee production. So, it pays to take a closer look at each one.

Fair Trade

Given the name, it’s not hard to guess that this certificate indicates fair business practices. This means that each party in the process is treated with respect and the farmers are not being exploited.

The most rigorous ethical standards are demanded by the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) and the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). However, these are not the only organizations that issue fair trade certificates.

USDA Organic

This certificate indicates that the espresso beans have been grown according to sustainable farming practices. It means that a farm doesn’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The natural flow of the surrounding ecosystem stays intact and the farmers promote biodiversity.

In general, organic production utilizes traditional soil and farm management techniques like the above-mentioned shade growing.

Best Espresso Coffee Beans Reviews

From exclusive single-origin brands to powerful blends, the following list features options for all coffee lovers. The trick is to find the flavor profile that excites your palate.

1. Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso – Indonesia, Central & South America, and Africa – a Global Blend

Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso

Specifications:

  • Brand: Kicking Horse
  • Type: Blend
  • Origin: Indonesia, Africa, and Central & South America
  • Roast: Medium
  • Tasting notes: Silky, cocoa, fruity, berries
  • Brew styles: Espresso, French press, pour-over, cold brew

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Is there a better way to start the list than with a blend that brings the best beans from all over the world to create unique tasting notes? The Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso is a medium roast designed to put a smile on the face of professional barista and coffee connoisseurs.

Given the beans’ pedigree, this coffee has one of the most complex flavor profiles. Once brewed, you will be able to enjoy the bright body and pronounced taste of cocoa and exotic fruits. The aftertaste is chocolaty and pretty unique.

As such, this blend is great for espresso shots, but it also works like a charm for French press. Of course, your job is to get a fine grind for espresso or a coarser texture for other brewing methods. Versatility aside, the Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger has all the right certificates.

This whole bean coffee blend is Fair Trade equitable and it features Canada Organic label, as well as being certified kosher. Therefore,  you can rest assured that there are no pollutants that might affect the taste or the brew quality.

BEST SUITED FOR: Daring espresso aficionados who like to experiment with blends and brewing methods.

2. Stumptown Hair Bender – Stumptown’s House Espresso Blend, Indonesia, Latin America, and Africa

Specifications:

  • Brand: Stumptown Coffee Roasters
  • Type: Blend
  • Origin: Indonesia, Latin America, and Africa
  • Roast: N/A
  • Tasting notes: Fruity and citrusy, dark chocolate
  • Brew styles: Espresso, manual brew

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Stumptown Coffee Roasters is a coffee shop you can find on several locations in Portland, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Besides serving great coffee, these establishments have become iconic for their proprietary blends.

The Stumptown Hair Bender is the company’s most popular whole bean blend for a reason. First, your palate is touched by the African and South American beans’ fruity body. Then, the flavor develops a bold texture with dark chocolate notes with just a hint of minerals that come from the Indonesian side of the blend.

I think it’s a pretty forgiving blend when it comes to dialing in your grinder. The aftertaste is a little close to bitter, but it has that dark, kinda chocolate taste.

The company doesn’t provide exact information about the roast level. But it’s safe to assume the Hair Bender is a medium to medium-dark roast, due to the beans’ origin and espresso-ready characteristics. Be it as it may, the beans are hand-roasted in small batches to ensure a consistent quality and flavor profile.

Finally, this espresso blend is great for those who love a latte or a cappuccino. However, you shouldn’t hesitate to try the Hair Bender with manual brewing methods, either.

BEST SUITED FOR: Want an in-house blend that’s great for automatic espresso machines as well as traditional lever models? Give the Stumptown Hair Bender a try.

3. Lavazza Super Crema – Italy’s Most Popular Roaster; 20% Robusta Adds Body

Lavazza Super Crema

Specifications:

  • Brand: Lavazza
  • Type: Blend
  • Origin: Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, and Colombia
  • Roast: Medium
  • Tasting notes: Honey, nuts, and dried fruits
  • Brew styles: Espresso

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Lavazza is an Italian brand that needs little introduction. The company is renowned for blending quality beans to yield a brew that can meet the criteria of the Italian Espresso National Institute. But what makes the Super Crema espresso beans special?

Lavazza balances powerful Robusta beans from Vietnam and Indonesia with Arabica varieties from India, Brazil, and Colombia. The beans get a medium roast which provides a creamy texture and milder tasting notes. Now you are probably wondering about the look and the flavor.

The first thing that catches the eye is the velvety crema and aroma that hints at a unique flavor profile. Honey and almonds dominate the body and you can taste a touch of dried fruits. Overall, this blend is carefully crafted to take your espresso shot to the next level.

In addition to great quality, the Super Crema espresso beans stand out as a value-for-money blend. The beans come in a 2.2 pound bag and you can get a discount if you go for a three or four-pack. The only limitation is that this Lavazza blend is designed exclusively for espresso machines.

BEST SUITED FOR: Lovers of traditional Italian espresso flavor. You can taste more than 120 years of experience in your cup of coffee. This is why this Lavazza blend is recommended for any espresso lover.

4. illy Arabica Selection – Italy’s Most Respected Roaster; 100% Ethiopian in a Special Roast for Espresso

illy Arabica Selection

Specifications:

  • Brand: illy
  • Type: Single origin
  • Origin: Ethiopia
  • Roast: N/A
  • Tasting notes: Sweet, fruity, with floral notes
  • Brew styles: Espresso, drip, cold brew, pour-over

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From its humble beginnings in the 1930s, illy has grown into a roasting powerhouse recognized throughout the world. Plus, the Ethisphere Institute puts the company among the most ethical in 2019. Tradition and awards are great, but what type of coffee are you getting with this Ethiopia?

It’s not hard to guess that you’ll enjoy the benefits of single origin coffee. However, Ethiopia’s outstanding flavor profile is bound to impress you. The beans come from the famous Yirgacheffe region and have a delicate, sweet taste.

Elegant is the adjective that best describes illy Ethiopia’s body. And as you sip, the rich taste is complemented by citrusy and floral notes, most notably jasmine. There is just a touch of bitterness in the aftertaste to round out the profile.

The company doesn’t disclose exact information about the roast level. However, it is calibrated to allow for coffee’s natural flavors to shine through. Judging by the beans’ color, it’s safe to assume that this is a darker roast.

BEST SUITED FOR: Those who consider themselves coffee lovers – trying illy Ethiopia is a must. The distinct aromas are bound to excite your senses.

5. Koffee Kult Thunder Bolt – Single Origin from Colombia

Koffee Kult Thunder Bolt

Specifications:

  • Brand: Koffee Kult
  • Type: Single origin
  • Origin: Colombia
  • Roast: Dark
  • Tasting notes: Sweet, medium acidic, citrusy and fruity notes
  • Brew styles: Espresso, drip, cold brew, pour-over

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Koffee Kult dark roast coffee beans have amassed a following that match the brand’s name. From organically-sourced beans like some of our favorites to artisan roasting, this Colombian single origin has everything you need for a perfect shot of espresso.

Unlike most other roasts, Thunder Bolt is somewhat acidic with a punchy, sweet aftertaste. The brew reveals hints of lime, pineapple, and green apple. Overall, the body can be described as medium and invigorating.

Thunder Bolt is roasted in small batches and packaged immediately after to ensure freshness. You can get this artisan roast in 16oz and 32oz resealable bags and there is also a one-way valve to let the beans degas. There is an option to order it pre-ground, but we’d advise you to stick to whole beans.

Versatility is another great thing about Koffee Kult dark roast coffee beans. Besides espresso, this coffee is also great for cold brew like these other brands.

BEST SUITED FOR: Coffee lovers who covet bold-tasting Colombian beans. And it’s a great option if you like to experiment with different brew styles.

6. Cafe Don Pablo Classic Italian Espresso – Blend of Colombian and Sumatra Mandheling, Very Good Value

Cafe Don Pablo Classic Italian Espresso

Specifications:

  • Brand: Cafe Don Pablo
  • Type: Blend
  • Origin: Sumatra and Colombia
  • Roast: Dark
  • Tasting notes: Sweet, earthy, dark chocolate, and cocoa
  • Brew styles: Espresso, manual brews

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The list of best espresso beans wouldn’t be complete without Cafe Don Pablo and its Sumatra and Colombia blend. This combination of premium Arabica brings together the potent Mandheling flavors and smooth taste of Colombian Supremo.

Aside from carefully picking the beans, part of the trick also lies in the roasting process. Small batches and slow roasting allow the natural aromas to shine through and you get one of the most intricate flavor profiles out there with this blend. This is a dark roast, but there is no bitterness whatsoever.

The Don Pablo Classic Italian Espresso body is sweet, almost caramel. And the Sumatran Mandheling reveals earthy notes with a touch of dark chocolate on the palate. The coffee has low acidity, smooth body, and a touch of cocoa in the aftertaste.

Being a dark roast, it works well for manual brew styles. However, traditional Italian espresso is where you can take full advantage of the exotic beans.

Lastly, it should be pointed out that the Don Pablo has a Sharing certificate and the coffee is 100% non-GMO.

BEST SUITED FOR: Novice and veteran espresso lovers who like to explore exotic flavors and artisan roasts.

The Bottom Line

Pronouncing one blend or single origin the bestespresso beans is a daunting task. Yes, the origin and type of the beans, the roast level, and quality certificates matter. But ultimately, it all boils down to your personal preferences.

If you’re yearning for a classic Italian-style espresso, though, you can’t go wrong with either Lavazza or Illy. If you want to go for something a little different, try the exciting flavors that Stumptown Hair Bender and Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger have to offer. Either way, you won’t be making a wrong choice.

FAQs

No, espresso beans and coffee beans are not the same – not exactly. The main difference is in the roasting process which typically takes longer with espresso beans.

That being said, espresso whole beans can be used for other brewing methods such as a Moka pot or French press. But making espresso with regular coffee beans risks creating a sour cup.

Yes, espresso can be stronger than coffee. As a rule, a single shot (1oz) of espresso has about 63mg of caffeine. Regular coffee has about 16mg of caffeine per ounce which makes espresso much more potent. The strength also varies from one blend to another.

No, 4 shots of espresso is not a lot, assuming you don’t drink them all at once. Spread throughout the day, four or even more shots espresso can keep you on top of your game. But you should take things slowly and see how your body reacts to this much caffeine.

No, you cannot make a thick, concentrated shot of espresso using instant coffee. It won’t taste, appear, or have the same caffeine kick as a real espresso. However, you can find some instant “espresso” brands in the market. You can learn more about them here.

There are decaf espresso beans available for sale. You can get them from Starbucks and Amazon.

References
  1. Salamanca, C. A., Fiol, N., González, C., Saez, M., & Villaescusa, I. (2017, January 1). Extraction of espresso coffee by using gradient of temperature. Effect on physicochemical and sensorial characteristics of espresso. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27507518
  2. The FRED® Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://fredblog.stlouisfed.org/2016/03/two-shades-of-coffee/
  3. Szenthe, A. (2015, March 8). Top Coffee Producing Countries. Retrieved from https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-coffee-producing-countries.html
  4. Espresso Blending. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.coffeeresearch.org/espresso/blending.htm
beans in a portafilter for making espresso
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