What Are the Best Espresso Beans? 10 Expert Suggestions

Published on 11/07/2023 · 11 min readWant to get into home espresso but not sure where to start? The bean you choose is as important as the machine! Read on for expert recommended espresso beans!
Andrea D., Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Andrea D.

Photo by Yaroslav Astakhov

Did you just purchase your first espresso machine and want to find the perfect espresso bean to use? With more roasters and coffee options than ever, choosing the perfect espresso blend can be a little overwhelming, especially if you don’t know where to start.

I’ve been working in coffee for the past 9 years. After getting my start as a barista in a pretty well-known coffee chain, I jumped into the world of home espresso, purchasing my first espresso machine. Since then, I’ve been exploring different flavor profiles in espresso, and I learned early on that there’s so much more than just your traditional dark, nutty, cocoa-type flavor notes. Sometimes I go for that tried-and-true flavor profile, especially when making milk drinks, but now my favorite espressos are single-origin coffees from Africa or Central America. Read on to discover a few of my favorite blends to use for espresso.

Do I Need an Espresso Blend?

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First off, what is espresso, and do I need to buy a bag that says “espresso” on it? In short, no! “Espresso” is a brew method, not a bean type. You can use any kind of coffee to make espresso, although most roasters have an “espresso roast” that they’ve formulated as a bit of a darker roast to give a bolder flavor profile when brewed as a shot of espresso.

While you certainly can use any bean for espresso, consider what flavor profiles you enjoy and how you take your espresso. If you add milk to your espresso like in a latte or a cappuccino, find blends that are nutty and chocolatey. If you enjoy bright, juicy notes and drink straight espresso, you might enjoy a single origin (not a blend, but a single-bean type from a single farm) with flavor notes like tart stone fruits. Read on to learn more about flavor profiles and how to find a blend or a single origin you will enjoy!

Flavor Profiles and Country of Origin

The first step to finding an ideal espresso blend for you is to consider what you like in a flavor profile. Do you like a rich, nutty espresso with a caramel undertone? How about a bright, fruity espresso? Or maybe something more earthy and herbal? There are three distinct growing regions for coffee. Each one has distinctive flavor attributes.

While these flavor profiles are typical, there are subregions, different processing methods (ways the coffee fruit becomes the green coffee bean that then gets roasted), or different varieties of coffee (think Granny Smith versus Red Delicious apples) that can break the “rules” of the above flavor profiles typical of the three regions. For example, Colombia is in South America but tends to have very tart stone fruit flavors. Or you can find a coffee from Brazil that was processed in a specific way to make it taste fruity. Coffees from Africa can be fruity but also have interesting textures that you wouldn’t expect.

Read the flavor notes on the bag, but don’t worry if you can’t taste those distinct flavor notes once you try the coffee at home. These flavors can be subjective and, like tasting wine, can be difficult to pick out at first.

Certifications and Coffee Sustainability

Photo by Julio Deras

Organic! Fair trade! Rainforest alliance! Direct trade! What does it all mean? No worries — I’m here to break it down for you. With a master’s degree in sustainability with a focus on coffee sustainability, I’ll help sift through all of the terms and names that you might run into when shopping for a sustainable bag of coffee.

First off, you may be asking, does coffee need to be sustainable? And the short but clear answer is, yes! Coffee is one of the most popular agricultural products in the world, and yet the farmers and coffee producers often don’t make enough money to cover the cost of living. Some certifications do help this; some do not. Sustainability is not just about the environment, but the people who grow and produce it. Here are the major certifications broken down:

  • Organic: Organic certification is regulated by the USDA (even though coffee is only grown in three states in the US: Hawaii, a tiny part of California, and an even smaller part of Florida) and makes up a very, very small volume compared to all of the coffee grown in the world). It has nothing to do with sustainability — it means that chemicals such as pesticides are not used in growing the coffee. It’s pretty expensive for farms to be certified, and it takes a good amount of the farms’ crops several years to be certified, making certification cost prohibitive and sometimes difficult to achieve. If you choose organic because of dietary reasons, go for it! If you choose it because you are trying to be sustainable, skip it. Many smaller farms grow coffee using organic farming methods but have not gotten certified because of cost or other similar reasons.
  • Fair Trade: There are actually multiple organizations here; Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International are the big ones. The purpose is the same: to ensure farmers and producers are getting a fair price for their crops. These certifications mean that farmers are getting paid a minimum price per pound of coffee they sell (this number can change from time to time). Farmers and producers have to adhere to a pretty strict set of requirements, including environmental sustainability requirements (no greywater runoff within a certain distance of a freshwater source, for example) to stay certified. If you are looking for a sustainable certification, this is a great one to look for.
  • Rainforest Alliance: Extremely similar to Fair Trade USA. Both certifications focus on social (the people), environmental, and economic improvement but have different approaches to doing so. Rest assured, Rainforest Alliance certification is also a fantastic certification for your coffee.
  • Direct Trade: Not a certification! Direct trade is not even a regulated term — it’s a way of doing business. At its heart, it means that the coffee roaster has a direct relationship with the farm where it buys coffee from. This is a good thing but can also be misleading since there are no regulatory standards that it adheres to.
  • A final note about certifications and sustainability: Any certification can be cost prohibitive to the farm or producer or difficult to achieve for other reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the coffee or the sustainability efforts of the farm or producer. If a bag of coffee does not have any certifications on it, don’t immediately write it off. My strong suggestion: Get to know your roaster. Roasters who buy sustainable coffee WANT to talk about it. They want you to know all about the farm that made the coffee that you’re drinking! Some roasters will even tell you how much they paid the farmer per pound of green (unroasted) coffee for ultimate transparency. I typically avoid buying a bag of coffee from the grocery store unless it’s from a roaster that I already am familiar with (although typically not because it won’t be as fresh from the grocery store — see the section on freshness below!).

Freshness and Roast Date

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You do not need coffee that was roasted yesterday. In fact, coffee can be too fresh! Ideally, you should let the coffee rest for at least 7-8 days after it is roasted (the roasting process creates gasses, which dissipate as the coffee rests). You can drink it before those 7-8 days — it’s not dangerous, but it will pull an espresso shot that is essentially all crema and will taste gassy/ashy/not ideal. Light roasts need longer, sometimes up to a month.

If your coffee was already ground when you purchased it, it does not need to rest. I will use a coffee for espresso up to about 3-4 weeks post-roast. How do I know when it’s time to move on to another bag? If my shots start pulling too fast, or the body of the shot is super thin even after adjusting my grind setting, it’s time. Pro tip: Use the rest of that bag to make cold brew. Cold brew coffee can use past-date or stale coffee but still be very tasty (because of coffee science that I won’t get into here).

Most of the recommendations below are available from Trade Coffee, an online marketplace for small roasters. You can either purchase coffee by the bag or set up a subscription. Most of us probably use coffee on a regular basis, and I really love buying coffee this way. You can set up a queue of coffees that you want to try, and they will automatically ship to you within your selected time period. You can also purchase prepaid bags from us. This gift pack includes shipping and a set price per bag of coffee, which ends up being a great deal!

Lastly, keep in mind that coffee is a seasonal crop, and your favorite coffee might not be available year round. Most roasters have blends that they can keep relatively consistent for swapping out different components for ones with similar flavor characteristics from another country that picks coffee during a different time of the year (Brazil swapped for India, for example). Picks from the list below may be unavailable depending on when you are reading this. I’ve tried my best to include blends that are available year-round.

Top Picks for Espresso

Intelligentsia Coffee

Intelligentsia Coffee, based in Chicago, IL, is easily one of my top recommendations for espresso. Intelligentsia has been using the idea of direct trade for roughly 20 years, and some of the farms that Intelligentsia sourced from in 2003 are still partners with them today. Double-check those flavor profiles — they can change from time to time depending on what’s in the blend!

  • Black Cat: A consistent espresso blend with a nice sweetness
  • Organic Black Cat: An organic-certified espresso blend
  • Fruit Bat: A few rotating espresso blends if you want to switch it up

Counter Culture Coffee

Counter Culture Coffee is another sustainability-focused coffee company, with the addition of being a B Corp (not a nonprofit, but part of their profits go towards a social impact project). Counter Culture is extremely transparent — you can find how much they paid per pound of green (unroasted) coffee on each product page. These coffees tend to be a lighter roast in the bigger picture — Counter Culture’s “dark” roast is closer to a traditional medium roast, and their light roast might be on the acidic side for someone used to coffee from other large, fast-service coffee chains. If you’re looking for unique flavor profiles and high quality, check them out.

  • Fast Forward: A lighter roast espresso — nutty, sweet, and creamy
  • Forty-Six: A more traditional espresso blend — sweet, smoky, and full bodied
  • Hologram: Lighter and fruity — good for drinking straight espresso or an iced americano

Onyx Coffee Lab

Onyx is a roaster that you won’t find in a grocery store. They’re a more niche roaster than others, but that means they’re able to offer smaller lots of more specialty coffee. These blends are unique — they don’t have an “espresso blend,” but they have some blends that work well for espresso. Onyx is also very sustainable with all of their relationships being direct trade. You can read all about the farms that are used in each coffee plus see how much Onyx paid the farmer per pound of green coffee.

  • Southern Weather: Ethiopian and Colombian blend — notes are milk chocolate, citrusy, juicy
  • Monarch: Also from Ethiopia and Colombia, but notes are dark chocolate, berries, thick and syrupy

Sightglass Coffee Roasters

Direct trade and ultra-sustainable roasting, Sightglass is self-proclaimed “no-frills, let the coffee speak for itself.” I’ve been able to tour both their Los Angeles and San Francisco roasteries, and they have truly thought of everything: no single-use plastic, a system for reducing the amount of gasses released into the air from roasting — you think of it, they do it.

  • Crown Point: Raspberry, dark chocolate, and butterscotch notes for a solid medium-dark roast, well-rounded espresso blend
  • Banner Dark: Notes of cocoa, toffee, and graham cracker. A darker roast and a more traditional, thick, and syrupy body

In Short …

Photo by Yaroslav Astakhov

You don’t need your bag of coffee to say “espresso” on it — you can use any kind of coffee to make espresso. Check out flavor profiles that sound good to you! It’s fun to try different types, blends, or origins of coffee as espresso. Make sure you have a solid espresso setup to test out your new coffees.

Want to get a new grinder or new espresso machine to take your espresso to the next level? Reach out to me or one of my fellow Coffee and Espresso Experts here on Curated for expert, personalized recommendations for anything coffee and espresso!

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