How to Find the Best Beans for Your Espresso
Coffee & Espresso Expert Jeff Sutton details which coffee beans will make the perfect shot of espresso, along with a few other tips to implement when making espresso.
This title is a loaded statement! What is best for me may not be best for you. In fact, what is best for me today may not be best for me by next week! I spend a good portion of my days roasting coffee beans and deciding how to unlock the flavors that may end up tightly tamped into an espresso puck for your next cappuccino. Like other coffee roasters, from places like Stumptown to Kicking Horse Coffee, I understand that the minute the aroma and flavor of the perfect shot hits your senses the day just gets better!
The flavor that you're searching for from a shot of espresso is affected by any number of variables including the roasting technique, the different varieties of beans used, how those beans are processed, and whether beans are blended or kept as single origins. When you better understand how each of these factors determines why this shot has a hint of bitterness or that shot seemed sweet, then you are one step closer to finding the best coffee beans for your espresso.
How long I allow a roast to last and to what temperature I take a coffee bean while roasting will determine whether it is considered light, medium, or dark.
A light roast is created to accentuate the beans' natural flavors and bring out notes such as citrus and floral aromatics that are often found in higher-end shade-grown coffees. Coffee that is shade-grown takes longer to develop and creates more complex tastes and flavors. Light roasts are sometimes used for shots of espresso when bright, fruity, single origins are being pulled. These specialty shots are fantastic by themselves but won’t always have the flavor expected when creating a drink with milk.
Medium roasts are where the bulk of espresso shots come from. A medium roast takes the bean a little further along to a higher ending temperature. A medium roasted coffee attempts to maintain some of the inherent flavors of the bean while adding a bit of a cooked flavor and also mellowing out the acidity.
Dark roast coffee is used in certain places for espresso, but it isn’t for everyone. A dark roast coffee is taken to the point of being a glossy brownish-black bean and has generally low acidity. The profile from the initial bean is mostly masked by the smokey and charred notes that are created by roasting something so dark. One of the bigger issues with using a dark roasted coffee is that a home grinder will need to be cleaned almost constantly because oil from the beans will cause it to gunk up almost immediately.
I’m always asked, “Hey Jeff, what are the best espresso beans?” and “Where in the world do you get your beans?” I field these questions a lot as I am normally surrounded by big bags of green coffee. The short answer is that I get beans from all over the world to roast. The coffee bean originated in Africa, within the country of Ethiopia, but has since been transported around the entire globe. The simplest way to break down the types of beans is to separate Robusta from Arabicas. Robusta beans come from hearty coffee plants that are very pest-resistant and high-yielding. Arabica plants don’t yield nearly as many coffee berries as Robusta are capable of, but they are much better tasting and have more complex flavors. I really recommend using Arabica beans for your espresso shots or else you are missing out on many layers of flavor.
Beyond that, different elevations and soil content of a specific region can help create regional flavor profiles. Kona coffee is synonymous with the Hawian region because of the quality soil and care that the plants are given. However, many single lot farms that only produce small batches have emerged in the last twenty years, making it much harder to generalize entire regions for a single flavor profile. It used to be possible to know what coffee would taste like from places such as Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, and other large farms in Central and South America but that is no longer the case. There has been an increased awareness and understanding of coffee and its supply chain since more people have begun to care about where their beans come from.
The way that coffee is handled as it comes off the tree directly affects how your morning shot of espresso will taste. The two most common ways that the coffee is processed are natural and washed processing.
Natural processing is when the “cherry” is picked from the tree and placed directly onto a drying rack. The sun slowly cooks off the cherry from the coffee bean, which helps it retain much of its fruit-forward flavor. This process can take multiple weeks and requires turning the drying beds daily and covering them every night.
Washed processing hits the fruit with highly pressurized water which makes quick work of the coffee’s pulp and skin until only the bean remains. This creates a more subtle flavor and doesn’t have as much of the bright fruit flavor of a naturally processed coffee. Most espresso blends will be majority washed coffee. That said, some roasters will take a natural-processed coffee to a medium roast and combine it with a washed coffee of the same amount for an espresso blend. This helps to even out the brightness of the natural coffee.
Selecting Your Beans
When one looks online at Amazon or at their local market, the number of coffees claiming to be made for espresso and using the term “espresso roast” can leave anyone a little confused regardless of their brewing method. Something to keep an eye out for should be the roast level of the coffee. Some mainstream companies associate espresso with dark roasts, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Many cafes have begun to incorporate lighter single-origin roasts as an option alongside a more traditional medium roast. These lighter roasts can add new flavor profiles to the espresso that are anything but traditional.
It is also always a good idea to know when the coffee was roasted, even if it is just being used for drip coffee. Any roaster that prides itself on quality uses roast-on dates for their regular coffee beans. Coffee is best within a two-to-three-week period in a perfect world but doesn’t diminish in flavor too quickly if whole bean coffee is stored properly.
A blend for espresso is created by a roaster either mixing multiple kinds of green beans together and then roasting them as one unit or by taking separately roasted coffee and mixing it together until it becomes a uniform product. Many of the espresso-specific blends will be your best bet for an everyday shot or to be combined into a milk beverage.
What Do You Like Best?
The next step is to find a flavor profile that best suits your taste and gets you that all-important caffeine! The biggest factor to keep in mind is how you drink your espresso. Are you the person who likes to steam milk and create a lovely cortado to enjoy with your morning paper? Do you prefer a straight shot with the perfect body, crema, and heart? Or does the dark chocolate and cocoa that melts into a mocha drive you to wake up in the morning instead of an old-fashioned cappuccino or latte?
These all impact what coffee bean is right for you. If you like to use syrups and caramel in your drinks along with milk, then a more traditional and straightforward espresso bean would be best—such as a blend that doesn’t have many natural aspects to it. A bean from Sumatra or India that hedges past the medium-dark roast level towards a darker roast can be appropriate for those who enjoy maintaining that coffee flavor after adding other potent ingredients. For those who add steamed milk to their espresso drinks, a traditional blend will work best.
This is still pretty open-ended and can vary greatly depending on preference. A great way to start is to find a blend that shows the percentage of each type of bean used and use that as a gauge to see what flavors best suit you.
Some other terms and variations for natural processing are dry-processed and honey-processed. Dry-processed is a synonym for natural-processed, and a honey process combines elements of both natural and wet processing. Honey-processed beans are de-pulped and then allowed to dry without washing. Both honey and natural-processed beans will add sweetness and acidity to your final shot.
The person who pulls and enjoys straight shots can also experiment in the world of single origins. People mostly think of single-origin coffee for their morning pour over and not for a shot of espresso. But, as with all things in food and life, who’s to say who’s right? Some single-origin coffees can create a great shot of espresso! Many varieties from areas such as Java and Hawaii are often used in this manner. This once again falls into the category of preference.
Keeping It Consistent
The final variable comes with how you pull your espresso shot. Do you use an automatic espresso machine that has a grinder built-in or will you use your top-of-the-line burr grinder and then create your espresso puck by hand? Consistency is key in both the grind and the extraction amounts when making a shot of espresso. Once you’ve got it down, you're ready to experiment to find your perfect espresso bean.