The best coffee beans for espresso

Coffee beans for espresso in portafilter
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The best coffee beans for espresso are fresh coffee beans.

I want to be clear about that one essential truth, because it’s an easy one to forget when you’re all caught up in exotic flavour descriptions and tasting notes. Good espresso beans should not be allowed to grow old. Whether you’re using espresso roast coffee created specifically for pulling shots, or an everyday medium roast, you’ll get the best results when it’s fresh.

With that out of the way, let’s get straight to our podium picks for the best espresso coffee beans.

Our top 3 picks

Lavazza Super Crema Espresso Whole Bean Coffee, 2.2-pound Bag 2-pack
  • honey and almonds
  • medium-dark roast
  • rich, velvety crema
See Deal
  • chocolate and berries
  • medium roast
  • bright acidity
See Deal
Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender Whole Bean Coffee, 12 oz
  • toffee and fudge
  • medium-dark roast
  • smooth and creamy
See Deal

We tried to include something for everyone on our podium. The Lavazza is a classic Italian espresso, the Klatch an adventure, and the Stumptown pure comfort.

Now let’s take a quick glance at our full list of nine contenders before we break them all down in detail.

Best coffee beans for espresso at a glance

Prices and images pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Best coffee beans for espresso in detail

Lavazza Super Crema Espresso Whole Bean Coffee, 2.2-pound Bag 2-pack
  • toffee and fudge
  • medium-dark roast
  • smooth and creamy
See Deal

Lavazza is an Italian company that has been roasting coffee since 1895, the early days of espresso. It’s among the most famous Italian coffee brands, particularly in Europe, and their Super Crema Espresso has that classic European style.

The beans are an 80/20 blend of Arabica and Robusta that come from Central America, Indonesia, Brazil, India and Colombia. They are roasted in Italy.

This is a medium-to-dark roast that is dry, not oily. The coffee it produces doesn’t have a big, bold taste, but it is mild and a bit sweet. You’ll almost certainly taste honey and almonds, and perhaps some more subtle fruit and hazelnut. Maybe even a hint of smoke.

The Robusta gives it a bit of acidity, but the caffeine is still relatively low due to the low 80/20 ratio.

The signature characteristic of this blend may be its rich, velvety crema which lasts a long time on top of your shot.

Because they’re coming from Italy, these beans may take a while to get to you. Don’t delay in drinking them.

  • chocolate, tangerine and berries
  • medium roast
  • bright acidity
See Deal

The WBC blend from Klatch Coffee in Southern California won the world espresso championship back in 2007 and is still pleasing home baristas today with its big dark chocolate flavour and a finish that’s sweet like berry wine.

You’ll undoubtedly taste strong citrus notes in there as well, which many liken to tangerine.

Klatch trades directly with the farms it buys from, roasts in small batches, and sends their coffee out fresh. These beans are a blend of Brazilian, Sumatran and Ethiopian, roasted separately for optimum flavour and then combined.

It’s a rich medium roast with bright acidity that produces a great crema when pulled properly.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender Whole Bean Coffee, 12 oz
  • toffee and fudge
  • medium-dark roast
  • smooth and creamy
See Deal

Stumptown is an American favourite, and Hair Bender, their first blend, is still as popular as ever.

The beans come from Indonesia, Latin America and Africa, and they’re roasted to a medium-dark colour in Portland, without any surface oil to gum up the grinder.

The coffee is sweet, rich, complex and well-balanced. Some might even say smooth and creamy. The toffee taste is undeniable, accompanied by dark chocolate or perhaps fudge. You might also pick up some sweet cherry and citrus.

It’s a smooth, creamy drink. For me it nestles into that sweet spot between the fruity medium roasts and the charred darks.

Koffee Kult Coffee Beans Dark Roasted - Highest Quality Delicious Organically Sourced Fair Trade - Whole Bean Coffee - Fresh Gourmet Aromatic Artisan Blend (32oz)
  • cinnamon and chocolate
  • dark roast
  • smooth with low acidity
See Deal

Koffee Kult’s Dark Roast has aromas that pull you in like warm hug.

They come from certified organic and fair trade Arabica beans sourced from Guatemala, Colombia, and Sumatra, and roasted in small batches in Hollywood, Florida.

They produce a coffee that is rich, smooth and low on acid. You’ll notice cinnamon, spice and chocolate, along with a hint of nuttiness. And while roasts as dark as this can sometimes result in a hint of bitterness, with these beans you can avoid it with the right grind (not too fine), tamping pressure (not too strong) and brew time (not too long).

Kicking Horse Coffee, Cliff Hanger Espresso, Medium Roast, Whole Bean, Certified Organic, Fairtrade, Kosher Coffee, 35.2 oz
  • dark berries, brown sugar and cocoa
  • medium roast
  • bright and complex
  • exceptional crema
See Deal

It’s nice to give a shoutout to these guys from my home province of British Columbia, but their Cliff Hanger Espresso makes this list strictly on the merits of their roast.

Their 100% organic and fair-trade Arabica beans come from Indonesia, Latin America and Africa. Kicking Horse roasts them to a medium color at their roastery near B.C.’s Rocky Mountains.

They produce a shot with beautiful crema and a bright, complex, fruity taste. Brown sugar and dark berries are among the more prominent notes, with a finish that evokes milk chocolate or cocoa.

Counter Culture Whole Bean Coffee Big Trouble 12 oz (Pack of 2)
  • caramel, nuts and chocolate
  • medium roast
  • sweet and mild
  • low acidity
See Deal

Like Kicking Horse’s Cliff Hanger, Counter Culture’s Big Trouble is a good one for those coffee drinkers who can do without an ultra-dark roast.

The beans from Peru, Colombia and Ethiopia produce a sweet, mild, low-acid shot with a classic flavour of caramel, nuts and chocolate.

Counter Culture aims for a traditional Italian espresso here, with a lot of success. It’s also a nice, dry bean that will go easy on your machine.

Verve Coffee Roasters, Coffee Sermon Blend Organic, 12 Ounce
  • blueberry, cherry and dark chocolate
  • light-medium roast
  • long, sweet finish
  • heavy body
See Deal

If you really want to taste the beans—not the roast, but the beans themselves—you should give Verve Sermon a try. These are roasted somewhere between light and medium, allowing full fruit flavours to come out of the gate strong. Blueberry and cherry are the ones that stand out.

The fruit gives way to a dark chocolate finish that seems to last forever. We’re talking minutes. Sermon espresso is sweet, bright, velvety, and heavy-bodied. It pairs surprisingly well with milk, and also shines in shorter, more concentrated shots.

Verve gets these single-origin beans from Brazil, Honduras and Ethiopia, and roasts them in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Death Wish Whole Bean Coffee, The World's Strongest Coffee, Fair Trade and USDA Certified Organic - 5 Pound Bulk Value-Bag
  • browned butter, candied nuts, chocolate and cherry
  • dark roast
  • bold, smooth and acidic
  • very high in caffeine
See Deal

I saved the blast for last.

You may have heard of Death Wish, which makes the famous (infamous?) claim of being the strongest coffee on earth. It’s a great marketing hook, which may or may not be true, but there’s no doubt that Death Wish packs a significantly higher caffeine kick than your average cup of coffee—about three times higher, by most estimates.

It’s not all gimmick. This is a legit bean. The Saratoga Springs, N.Y., company imports its certified organic beans mostly from India and Peru. Their blend obviously includes a generous helping of Robusta for its caffeine content, but the real secret lies in a dark-roasting process that uses time and temperature to maximize the kick.

The resulting espresso is bold, smooth, and quite acidic. It tastes like browned butter and the candied nuts that people put out at Christmas. Earthy and spicy. You might even taste some chocolate and cherry in there.

You pay a little extra for this high-caffeine coffee, but rest assured, the boost hits hard and fast.

Fresh roasted coffee beans matter

Buying beans in small batches from your local roaster is the best way to guarantee freshness, but it also means frequent trips to the shop, and it can get expensive. Sometimes you just want to buy a big, vacuum-packed bag of beans, or have one delivered to your door, and keep it in the cupboard for a while. That’s what this list is for.

You should definitely brew beans within 90 days of roasting, and preferably within 60 days for optimum flavour. If you ever have the chance to brew beans four or five days after roasting, you’ll understand why freshness is the top priority.

If you shop for beans on Amazon, buy straight from the roaster if possible. Buying from a middleman usually means more passage of time between roasting and consumption. This is especially true for beans roasted in Europe or elsewhere overseas.

If you buy local, in person, avoid beans kept in open bins. Oxygen and light deteriorate the quality of beans. If your roaster will let you, smell the beans and even taste one if you can. This will let you know what you’re getting. If you love the smell, you’ll probably love the taste.

Roasted coffee beans on burlap
Smell the beans—or even taste one—to know what you're getting. (© Marco Verch | Flickr Creative Commons

Espresso beans vs. coffee beans

Any coffee bean can be an espresso bean. It’s not the beans that make it espresso, it’s the brewing process.

Espresso is brewed by forcing water at a temperature of around 200 F through ground coffee beans at a minimum nine bars of pressure for 25-30 seconds. And those can be any type or beans.

Espresso brewing
It's the pressurized brewing process, not the beans, that defines espresso. (© Adam Ross | Flick Creative Commons)

If you’re just getting into espresso and you already have a favourite bean you’ve been using to brew your regular coffee, try using it for your espresso. It will probably work for you.

That said, most companies do market designated espresso beans that are roasted to certain specifications, meant to hold up well under the espresso-brewing process and shine as a shot.

Espresso roasts

People associate espresso with bold flavours, so most espresso roasts are fairly dark. These hold up better under the fine-grinding process that espresso requires, and they also mix nicely with milk or cream in cappuccinos, flat whites and the like.

Dark roasting brings out the oils in coffee beans, which you’ll need to be aware of if you own a superautomatic espresso machine. These highly automated machines have built-in grinders that are difficult to clean, and the buildup of oily residue over time can render them useless. If you’re concerned about your machine, look for roasts that are on the dark side but stop just short of oily.

Oily coffee beans
You want your espresso beans dark but not oily if your machine has a built-in grinder. (© stacia lynch | Flickr Creative Commons)

Arabica vs. Robusta beans

Most espresso, and indeed most coffee we drink, is made from two main species of coffee: Arabica and Robusta.

Coffee connoisseurs know that Arabica is the more elegant and complex of the two, and generally tastier due to its higher fat and sugar content. That doesn’t mean Robusta doesn’t have its place, though. Robusta has more caffeine, so it is frequently used in blends that are going for a kick. It’s also easier to farm, and therefore less expensive.

Arabica and Robusta coffee beans
Visit Craft Coffee Guru if you really want to get into the differences between Arabica and Robusta.

Craft Coffee Guru has more on the differences between these two beans. Click on the image if you want to do a deep dive.

Single-origin or blends?

Single-origin coffee beans are those that come from one kind of plant, grown in one place. They aren’t mixed with any other beans, so if the coffee has a distinctive character that represents its origins, you are sure to taste it.

Blends are mixes of beans. They pull together beans that come from different types of plants, or from different places, or both. They are often roasted separately before blending. Typically, the goal is to put together a blend where the characteristics of each bean will complement the others.

You can read more in our post about single-origin coffees vs. blends.

Espresso brewing tips

Grind size

People who have been brewing espresso for a while will tell you that grind size is everything. It’s not everything—there are few other things you have to get right, too—but it is the most important thing. We have heard people criticize certain espresso beans for being “too sour” or “too watery,” but this is almost always a brewing error that starts with the grind.

With espresso, you have to start fine and go from there, so you will need a high-quality burr grinder. You cannot make great espresso with a typical blade grinder.

It takes experimentation. You are going to waste some coffee along the way, but that’s part of the fun of learning.

Generally speaking, if your coffee is too bitter then your grind is probably too fine. If it’s sour and watery, then it’s not fine enough. Other factors like the duration of your pull can have an effect, too.

Tamping

Tamping is the act of compacting and flattening the bed of ground coffee in the portafilter before you brew. It’s such an important step that it has its own tool, the tamper. You want to apply 30 pounds of pressure with the tamper. Practice on a kitchen scale to get a feel for how much this is.

Make sure the top of your bed is flat so water passes through it evenly. Water always takes the path of least resistance, so if any of your coffee is packed less tightly than the rest, that’s where the water will go. And if all the water heads for one place, your coffee will be over-extracted there, but under-extracted elsewhere. You’ll have a combination of bitter and sour flavours!

Pre-infusion

Pre-infusion is another step that helps ensure even extraction throughout the grounds. By letting a little bit of water into the portafilter to soak the coffee before the pressure starts, you encourage a nice even flow of water through the grounds during the brew. The water is much less likely to look for its own channels.

Tell us your favorites

So that’s eight of the best coffee beans for espresso. Most are easy to find online. If you have any of your own favorites that Bean Poet readers should know about, let us know in the comments.

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