The aroma, the rich flavor, and the thick crema of a perfectly pulled shot of espresso is pure decadence. At more than $5 each, espresso drinks can quickly add up. According to a survey by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumers spend $1,500 – $2,000 a year on espresso drinks. As a result, many coffee drinkers have begun to brew their own espresso at home.
When it comes to great espresso, there is nothing more important than the beans. The roast and quality of the coffee beans you use can make or break your espresso drink. So what are the best espresso beans?
In this article we will walk you step by step through choosing the best espresso beans to help you brew barista quality espresso at home.
Our Top Picks
|Best Overall||Lavazza Super Crema|
|Best High Intensity||Death Wish Coffee|
|Best Medium Roast||Intelligentsia Black Cat|
|Most Complex Flavor||Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender|
What is so unique about espresso beans?
The majority of specialty coffee shops use a special blend for espresso rather than the same coffee beans they use for regular coffee.
The main reasons you should use a specialty espresso roast are tradition and flavor.
Traditionally espresso has always been roasted darker than coffee intended for use in drip coffee makers. Espresso drinkers have come to expect this traditional flavor, which simply cannot be recreated with regular coffee beans.
The darker roast of espresso beans creates a thick and rich coffee that tastes better in milk-based beverages such as cappuccinos, lattes, and macchiatos. The rich and slightly bitter flavor of the darker roast cuts through the creaminess of the milk.
What are the best espresso beans?
Death Wish Coffee
If you are looking for a coffee that will pack a punch, Death Wish Coffee will be your go to brew. Sourced from Peru, this coffee is USDA certified organic, FairTrade, and contains double the caffeine of most coffee beans. In short, this dark roast blend will give your latte the kick you need to get going.
Death Wish coffee blends high quality Arabica beans with strong Robusta beans to create a smooth coffee that is packed with both flavor and caffeine.
Marketing itself as the “world’s strongest whole bean coffee,” many expect this coffee to taste bitter. Despite it being an intense brew, the bitterness is quite mild, allowing the notes of cherry and chocolate to shine through.
The only downside is the price. It certainly isn’t the cheapest bag of coffee beans on our list but many coffee drinkers love this roast and are more than willing to pay a premium for great coffee.
This coffee may be a bit too much for the average coffee drinker but if you are a lover of all things dark roast, we suggest you give it a try.
Intelligentsia Black Cat
Intelligentsia is a company on a mission to revolutionize the way people think about espresso. Their Black Cat Espresso is the perfect coffee for those who want a great tasting espresso without the jitters that can be caused by other high intensity coffee beans.
This medium roast blend has a unique brightness that is dark and mysterious, yet rounded. The flavor profile shifts slightly from season to season and has notes of chocolate, caramel, and molasses. These flavor notes give it a little more sweetness than most espresso blends and a syrupy mouthfeel.
Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Analog is another great espresso for those who prefer a darker roast.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender
Stumptown Coffee is one of the leaders in the third wave of coffee, focusing on origin, growing methods, how the coffee is processed, and creating a sustainable brand. They roast up some of the best espresso beans in Portland, Oregon and are definitely one to try.
Known for sourcing quality coffee beans from around the world, each bag of Stumptown coffee is hand roasted and stamped with a roast date before shipping out.
Their Hair Bender roast, a nod to the beauty-parlor that was once housed in their first Stumptown location, is a favorite among many coffee lovers. This blend of beans from Africa, Latin America, and Indonesia has a complex flavor with notes of citrus and dark chocolate. This sweet but balanced blend not only brews a great espresso, but makes a great drip coffee as well. The slower, drip brewing process, brings out the flavors of cherry, toffee, and fudge.
This is also one of the best espressos for super automatic espresso machines that have built in grinders. Since it is not too oily, you don’t have to worry about it clogging up the machine.
Lavazza Super Crema
Lavazza has been producing some of the finest espresso beans in Italy since 1895 and is still one of the most popular brands in the commercial espresso market today. Despite being a larger corporation that mass produces coffee products, they do not sacrifice quality for quantity.
The coffee beans used in their Super Crema are grown in Brazil, India, Colombia, and Indonesia, then roasted in Italy.
Made with a blend of 80% Arabica and 20% robusta beans, Lavazza’s Super Crema is a medium roast that is mild and creamy. This particular blend is full of flavor with notes of honey, almonds, and a slight fruitiness, topped off with a thick and velvety crema.
This versatile roast is perfect for milk-based coffee drinks, iced coffee drinks, or can be enjoyed straight up in an espresso shot or as drip coffee. The medium roast level also means the coffee is less oily which makes these espresso beans perfect for use in super automatic espresso machines.
Lavazza ensures quality by packaging the beans using nitrogen to maintain their freshness longer, making them some of the best espresso beans on Amazon, and they can even be set up on Amazon’s subscribe and save. You can have fresh espresso beans shipped regularly and will never have to worry about running out.
Kicking Horse Cliff Hanger Espresso
Kicking Horse is one of Canada’s best organic, FairTrade, and kosher coffee roasters. This company started out with a couple of friends roasting coffee in their garage. They grew that love into an awarding winning coffee roasting company. Kicking Horse sources all of their sustainable shade-grown Arabica beans from farms in Africa, Indonesia, and Central and Latin America.
The beans are roasted high in the Rocky Mountains at 3,000 feet above sea level. This allows the beans to get a quicker roast without burning or scorching the beans.
The Cliff Hanger Espresso blend is silky and complex with aromatic notes of black currant, milk chocolate, and brown sugar. This medium roast coffee is stronger than most and has a rich bold finish, yet has a delectably smooth chocolatey flavor.
Cliff Hanger is a great espresso for daily drinking but if you prefer a stronger brew, you should try out their 454 Horse Power blend.
Volcanica Tanzania Peaberry
Most coffee cherries contain two coffee beans but only 5% of cherries contain one bean. These single bean coffee cherries, known as peaberries, are loaded with flavor.
Tanzania is one of the most famous regions for single origin peaberries. The Tanzanian mills have a long tradition of carefully sorting their peaberries, and the coffee never disappoints.
Volcanica’s 100% pure Tanzanian Peaberry coffee comes from a single estate microlot on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and has a wonderfully acidic, rich and buttery body. Notes of Lemongrass, plum, and nougat give it an overall sweet flavor.
The medium roast level allows the intense flavor and fragrant aroma of the coffee to mingle with mellow winy overtones and makes it perfect for espresso or a batch of cold brew.
Koffee Kult Thunder Bolt
If you are an espresso connoisseur looking for a coffee that is going to pack a caffeinated punch, Koffee Kult’s Thunder Bolt may just be the best espresso beans to jumpstart your morning.
Koffee Kult began roasting in Hollywood, Florida in 2012 and boasts sustainability in their product descriptions. They specialize in organic and ethically sourced single-origin coffee, which is all small-batch roasted.
These beans are sourced from South America, specifically Colombia and Brazil, and are roasted to a dark French-style roast. The resulting brew is darker than the Medium roasts we have discussed but not as dark as Death Wish Coffee. However, it is one of the most caffeinated blends Koffee Kult carries.
The coffee itself has a smoky aroma with a hint of cinnamon and flavor notes of green apple, lime, pineapple, and molasses.
This brew is one of the best for super-automatic espresso machines that can get finicky with oily coffees. You will still get an espresso with a heavy body and slightly sweet flavor that packs a caffeine punch without clogging up your grinder.
We also recommend their Dark Roast Coffee Beans if a bolder flavor that still has a smooth finish is your preference.
Blue Horse 100% Kona Coffee
If you are willing to invest in a truly unique espresso, Kona coffee beans are definitely a great investment. After the Kona Kai Coffee Scandal of the 1990s, in which a number of different coffees were being sold as “Kona,” the state of Hawaii cracked down on the export of Kona and put into place very strict quality standards to protect their prized coffee industry. Blue Horse Kona Coffee is made strictly following the quality standards set by the Hawaiian government.
Blue Horse’s 100% Kona coffee beans are grown on a small family farm in the Kona region of Hawaii. The coffee cherries are grown using pesticide-free growing methods and then hand-picked on the Blue Horse Kona Coffee Farm. After hand-picking, the coffee beans are washed with rainwater and then allowed to sun-dry before being roasted to a full city roast.
The flavor is the perfect blend of bitter and sweet and the aroma complex and chocolaty with hints of vanilla and almond that offers a sweet spiciness that lingers.
If you love the rich flavor but cannot handle the firepower of coffees like Death Wish and Kicking Horse, this Kona dark roast is definitely worth a try.
Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast Espresso
Coffee Bean Direct is a company with a strong reputation for producing great espresso beans with nuanced flavor profiles.
The beans are slow-roasted to the Coffee Bean Direct’s specific roasting guidelines. They are then packaged immediately to ensure each bag is flavorful and aromatic when it arrives at your door.
This Italian roast is a rich, strong brew that really stands out. The full-bodied brew has an aroma of honey and toast with tasting notes of cocoa powder and smoky molasses. The resulting balanced flavor is perfect for lattes and cappuccinos but the beans are on the oily side so we wouldn’t recommend them for super-automatic espresso machines that tend to get clogged up.
While the flavor profile is not as complex as some of their other high-end competitors, but for the price point, we had to mention them.
Coffee Bean Direct only sells in 5 pound bags, so if you are looking to buy in bulk to save money without sacrificing quality, check them out. Just be sure to store the unused beans in a dark airtight container, out of direct sunlight.
Where do espresso beans come from?
Coffee beans were first discovered in Ethiopia in the 11th century but it wasn’t until 1555 that we began to see coffee roasted the way we drink it today. Prior to 1555, the green coffee cherries were boiled to produce a drink. Istanbul was the first country to introduce the roasted coffee bean.
When we think about coffee, we often think of the espresso bars of Italy, but coffee didn’t find its way there until 1615. Shortly afterward, coffee houses began to show up in Venice, as well as Marseille, Paris, London, and Vienna, quickly followed by Holland, Germany, and America.
Soon, rich and decadent espresso drinks were being served in coffee houses worldwide.
Espresso beans vs regular coffee beans.
Is there a difference between espresso beans and coffee beans?
While both espresso beans and regular coffee beans come from the same plant, the roasting method for the two types of coffee is different.
Espresso beans are typically roasted longer than regular coffee beans, resulting in a darker color and richer aroma. Since less water is used in espresso extraction, the coffee temperature of espresso doesn’t get as hot as in drip or french press brewing, using a lighter roast would result in a sour-tasting brew. The deeper roast allows the coffee to brew at a lower temperature and still achieve its proper flavor.
The darker roast also causes the beans natural oils to be more prominent, creating a stronger and fuller tasting brew.
To brew up the perfect shot of espresso, your beans need to be finely ground. The high pressure that drives the hot water through the grounds in an espresso machine will quickly displace a coarser grind allowing the water to flow through quickly. The finely ground coffee is tamped into the portafilter forming a puck and water, heated to around 200℉, is forced through the coffee puck at between 9-15 bars of pressure. The finer grind will create a denser puck, causing the water to move through the coffee more slowly.
The combination of high heat, high pressure, and wider surface area create the intense coffee concentrate better known as espresso.
How to Choose the Best Espresso Beans
When selecting a coffee for an espresso roast, a number of factors such as type, origin, and flavor profile should be considered.
Arabica vs Robusta
There are dozens of coffee bean varieties but the two most popular are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans typically grow in the higher elevations of Latin America. They have a soft and sweet flavor that is smooth on the palate.
Robusta beans are grown exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere. These easy to grow coffee beans have lower acidity and many coffee drinkers are misled to believe that Robusta beans are inferior to Arabica beans.
Many popular coffee brands pride themselves on using 100% Arabica beans but just because it is a coffee shop favorite doesn’t mean it is automatically the best coffee for everything. Arabica typically contains less caffeine and has a smoother, less bitter flavor. Arabica is also harder to grow, and therefore, more expensive.
Robusta is less sweet and has a lower acidity compared to Arabica. It has a deep, earthy flavor but it also creates more of the crema that defines a great espresso. Since many espresso drinks are made with milk, you don’t miss the acidity in the concentrated flavor of the rich espresso. That and the higher caffeine content make a well-grown Robusta perfect for espresso.
The primary appeal of robusta to many coffee manufacturers is that it is cheap and is frequently used as a filler in coffee blends. If you plan to try out Robusta for your espresso, make sure you are purchasing it from a quality source. If you are not sure, stick to Arabica.
When you look at the label on your bag of espresso beans, you may find several origins listed. Coffee is an agricultural product that is greatly affected by temperature, climate, soil composition, and elevations. These growing conditions have a significant impact on the way your coffee tastes.
Single Origin Espresso
Single-origin coffee has become the gold standard among coffee connoisseurs. Single-origin refers to coffee that comes from a single estate, or at least a specific geographical location. Single-origin coffee has a more interesting flavor profile because it allows you to experience the distinct flavors of a particular growing region.
With the rise in popularity of single-origin coffees, many roasters now offer single-origin espresso roasts. This coffee will typically be roasted a bit darker than the roast intended for drip coffee but is not usually considered a “dark” roast. You will still get plenty of acidity with fruity notes in each cup, meaning this kind of espresso is best to enjoy without milk. Adding milk to a single origin espresso will result in a weak tasting latte or cappuccino.
Blending espresso beans from different origins gives the coffee roaster an opportunity to balance the flavor of the espresso. A great coffee blend can properly balance fruity, earthy, acidity, and bitterness to create the perfect shot of espresso topped with a rich, thick crema. From this aspect, espresso blends often have an advantage over single-origin espressos.
When considering a blend, however, it is important to make sure it is a quality, balanced blend, rather than a blend that is only intended to reduce production costs.
The majority of single-origin espresso is made from Arabica beans. These high-quality beans have a more complex flavor than Robusta but that flavor comes at a higher price tag.
Robusta has more caffeine and is often more bitter. While that is not something you want in a drip or French press coffee, it can actually be an advantage in espresso. This advantage is why some blends include 20-25% Robusta beans.
Espresso Beans and Coffee Growing Regions
The charactics of a coffee bean are not only determined by variety. Growing elevation, soil composition, temperature, rainfall, and other environmental factors can greatly affect the quality and flavor of your morning cup.
This means that even if the same variety is grown in both South America, Asia, and Africa, it will taste different depending on the region.
Every coffee plantation throughout the world has its own climate and soil, and much like a vineyard, each region will offer distinct elements of flavor and aroma.
- Sumatra coffee, from Indonesia, uses a wet hulling processing method that produces an earthy and mushroomy flavor that is a perfect choice for dark roasting.
- African coffee has a high mineral content. This content is derived from the soil and climate, as well as the dry-processing method used. Dry-processing involves leaving the coffee beans out to naturally dry in the sun. This concentrates the bean’s natural flavor, resulting in a strong, dark coffee rich in chocolatey and fruity notes, perfect for espresso. Kenyan coffee beans are grown with more exposure to sunlight than most other regional coffees, resulting in a savory flavor with a touch of tart sweetness. Ethopian varieties, however, can offer anywhere from heady, wine-like flavors to lighter, floral brews.
- South and Central American coffees tend to have a brighter acidity with more fruity and floral notes. Coffees from Colombia are milk and well-balanced with prominent caramel flavors and a touch of nuttiness. This lighter and sweeter flavor is best for a medium roast and works well with espresso intended to be enjoyed straight up. These coffees can also be blended with stronger beans to create an espresso roast to be used in milk-based espresso drinks. Brazilian coffees, however, can vary in flavor due to shifts in altitude. In general, Brazilian coffee flavor is generally referred to as slightly nutty or spiced with a heavy body.
- Coffees from Hawaii, or more specifically the Kona region, are highly valued for their unique flavor. The heavy rainfall combined with rich volcanic soil and plentiful sunlight creates a rich coffee with slightly sweet floral notes. Kona coffee is one of the most commonly adulterated coffees in the U. S. Luckily, Kona coffee export is carefully regulated by the state of Hawaii so make sure your coffee has the Hawaiian state agricultural seal to ensure you are getting the real thing.
Acidity and Bitterness
The balance of acidity and bitterness are paramount in a great cup of coffee. Keep in mind though, that when we are referring to coffee’s “acidity” we are actually referring to its bright flavor. If you are looking for a coffee with low acid content due to stomach issues check out our article on low acid coffees.
When it comes to a coffee’s flavor profile, a lighter coffee will usually have more acidity while a darker brew will have a fuller body.
While acidity in coffee is often considered a good thing, bitterness is rarely something you want to hear from a coffee reviewer. Overly bitter coffee can be caused by anything from poor quality beans, to improper grind size, or the wrong water to grounds ratio.
While overly bitter coffee is not something you want, a certain amount of bitterness is necessary to balance out the sweet, salty, and sour acidity notes in your morning cup. Too much of one or the other results in a mediocre tasting cup of coffee.
The way coffee is roasted can play just as big a role in your brew as the origin and grind size.
Green coffee beans all look and smell similar, but once roasted, the color, aroma, and flavor change.
So what is the best roast style for espresso?
Dark or medium-dark roasts are generally used for espresso brews due to their full body and low acidity. They have a nearly black color with a shiny, oily surface. These beans are roasted to bring out more of the coffee’s natural oils. These oils are responsible for the formation of the crema that marks a great espresso. Dark roast beans are the best espresso beans for crema as well as for lattes, cappuccinos, and other milk-based coffee drinks.
Medium roasts, on the other hand, offer more of the bean’s flavor notes and have a slightly higher acidity. These roasts are great for espresso that is intended to be enjoyed straight-up or diluted with water in an Americano. Medium roast beans are also great for beginners that are just venturing into espresso and are intimidated by a darker brew.
Light roast beans have the least amount of oil and do not work well for espresso.
A final roast to discuss is the Omni roast. Some roasters, mainly the fancy specialty roaster, have taken this new approach to coffee. Omni is Latin for ‘every’ so Omni roast literally means every roast.
An Omni roast is the coffee roaster’s attempt to create a one-size-fits-all coffee that can be used for espresso, pour-over coffee, or French press brewing. While this type of roast makes life much easier for the roaster, don’t get caught up in the fancy name. If you want to use your espresso machine to brew up lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and cortados, forgo the fancy ‘Omni’ roast and stick with a true espresso.
How to Pick the Best Espresso Beans
The best espresso beans really come down to personal preference. Start by thinking about the flavor profile of the coffee you drink on a daily basis. Do you prefer a lighter roast with milk and subtle flavor or do you prefer a darker roast that brews a strong and slightly bitter coffee? If you prefer stronger coffee, stick to a dark roast espresso bean.
Keep in mind that not every bag of dark roast coffee beans will have the same flavor. (The same goes for medium or lighter roasts.) Flavor profiles depend on where the coffee is grown, the composition of the soil, species of the plant, the way it is processed, and roasted, along with a variety of other factors. In short, coffees in the same roast family can range from floral and fruity to nutty or spicy.
Asking for the best espresso beans is like asking for the best dessert on the menu. Depending on who you ask, you may get something different every time.
Other Factors to Consider
Nothing beats freshly roasted espresso beans. The fresher the coffee the better it will taste.
Your espresso will taste the best when the beans are 7-21 days out from their roasting. During this time period, the coffee produces the best crema.
Crema is that creamy looking layer that tops your espresso. It is made from microbubbles formed by the naturally occurring carbon dioxide in the coffee itself. As coffee ages, it begins to lose its carbon dioxide. Without the crema that distinguishes a fine espresso, your espresso will just taste like really strong coffee.
Avoid buying espresso beans that do not have a clear roast date or sell-by date printed on the package, since coffee is an agricultural product and will go bad over time.
Roast Date or Sell By Date
Unfortunately, there is very little regulation on how long coffee should last. This means that the “sell by” date can be inconsistent from brand to brand. A coffee with a “Roast Date” is a better choice if you want to ensure you have the freshest coffee.
Typically anything roasted within 7-21 days is considered to be the optimal freshness. You will find that some roasters will even put a “peak freshness” recommendation on each bag they produce.
When in doubt, your best indicator will be your sense of smell and taste. If the coffee smells off or the taste has changed, throw it out and get some fresh beans.
Whole Bean vs. Pre-Ground
Many coffee brands offer both whole bean and pre-ground options. Many consumers opt for the pre-ground variety simply because it is convenient. Unfortunately, when opting for pre-ground coffee, you are sacrificing quality to save time.
The biggest difference between whole bean and pre-ground coffee is freshness. The moment you grind coffee beans, they begin to lose their essential oils that are responsible for their flavor, and in the case of espresso, their cream.
Purchasing whole beans and investing in a quality coffee grinder to make sure you brew the best espresso possible. If you are short on time, you can pre-grind small batches at home and store the grounds in an air-tight container, giving you the best of both worlds.
Poor quality packaging means that your espresso beans will begin to oxidize and go stale more quickly. Look for leak-proof packaging that keeps the beans from oxidizing and make sure that a roast date is marked on the packaging as well. The bag should also tell you the origin of the beans and whether the coffee is Fair Trade Certified or USDA Organic.
Fair Trade Coffee (insert logo) in columns
Choosing to purchase Fair Trade certified coffee means that your coffee was grown without the use of child labor or forced labor. It also means that the coffee was grown in a manner that is both sustainable for the environment as well as the industry. Purchasing coffee with this logo ensures that your coffee was ethically grown and sourced meaning you can enjoy your espresso and have peace of mind.
USDA Organic (insert logo in columns)
Just like with other agricultural products, organic coffee means that it was grown and harvested without the use of chemicals. In order to earn this seal, the product must be at least 95% organic. If avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides is important to you, be sure to look for this label.
Storing Espresso Beans
In a perfect world, you would consume your espresso beans within about two weeks of purchase. Unfortunately, we don’t always live in a perfect world.
Luckily, as long as your coffee is properly stored, it can retain most of its freshness for a few extra weeks.
Coffee storage is pretty much straight forward. Your espresso beans should be stored in a dark, airtight (preferably stainless steel) container at room temperature. While your beans certainly look nice stored in a clear container on the counter, sun, oxygen, and heat will rapidly cause your coffee to lose its flavor and peak freshness.
The Best Way to Brew Espresso
Even the best espresso beans can produce mediocre coffee if not brewed correctly. We have listed a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your beans.
- Make sure you use a fine grind. The finely ground espresso will compensate for the lower brewing temperature by offering a faster extraction. This will help to balance the flavor of your espresso. Check out the crema that tops your espresso. If the crema is thin or has too many large bubbles, you probably need a finer grind.
- Proper tamping is another factor to consider. Tamping affects how quickly the water flows through the espresso puck. You need at least 30 pounds of pressure when tamping to ensure the grounds are densely packed for proper extraction. If the grounds are too loosely packed, the water will seep through them too quickly.
- Be sure to pre-infuse your espresso. If you are using a high-quality super-automatic espresso machine, it will most likely have a pre-infusion cycle. Pre-infusion will wet the coffee grounds, allowing them to bloom by releasing the carbon dioxide stored in the beans. Pre-infusion will also help control the speed at which the water flows through the grinds, allowing for a more complete extraction.
Should espresso coffee be dark roasted?
Yes, espresso should be roasted darker than traditional coffee beans. The oils extracted in the roasting process of dark roast beans are what gives espresso its distinct flavor and prevents the brew from becoming sour.
Can you use any coffee beans to make espresso?
Technically, yes. You can use any coffee you like in your machine, but if you want a true espresso flavor topped with rich crema, you need to stick with medium-dark to dark roast espresso beans.
What espresso beans does Starbucks use?
Starbucks typically uses a medium roast but they have both darker roasts and blonde roasts available on request.
How long do coffee beans last?
Coffee can go some time before truly spoiling but generally, coffee tastes the best when consumed within three weeks of its roast date.
How much caffeine is there in espresso?
The caffeine content largely depends on the type of bean, how it is roast, and how it is brewed. An ounce of espresso typically contains 63 mg of caffeine.
Where can I buy espresso beans?
Espresso is a coffee that is popular worldwide. You can purchase beans from your local grocery store, a local coffee shop or coffee roaster, or from online retailers such as Amazon. All of the coffees mentioned above can be purchased from Amazon.
When purchasing coffee online, check the seller’s policy and try to buy coffee that is roasted only after your order is placed. This will ensure you get the freshest beans.
The best espresso beans are a matter of personal choice. It might mean trying a few different brands to nail your favorite, but with our list, you are sure to find the perfect espresso roast for you.
Do you want to make barista-quality espresso at home and need to upgrade your espresso machine? Check out this article on what to look for in an espresso machine.