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How to Choose Coffee Beans for Espresso: Expert Tips

a glass of espresso on a laminated table

Choosing the coffee beans for espresso is a matter of personal taste doubled by a rigorous technical checklist. In a way, we could say that we can use any coffee beans to make espresso, but that would be only partially true.

Espresso is one of the least understood coffee brewing methods, and this is the reason people don’t feel confident when choosing the roast or the beans. Whether it’s a single origin or a blend, the choice is ultimately a personal preference.

Learn how to choose the coffee beans for your espresso, and why blends are generally better. Learn the difference between dark and medium beans for espresso.

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What Makes the Perfect Espresso Shot?

How Does the Perfect Espresso Look?

A great shot of espresso should have a top of brown foam called crema. This foam is a must because it contains aromatic oils, and it enhances the espresso taste.

Image credit: Kevin Butz, Unsplash

How Does It Taste?

It’s hard to describe in words, but the best approximation is that it should taste like coffee smells. Many find it gross, just because it is too intense, or because they down it all at once. You know how great drip coffee smells sometimes. Yet when you drink it, it doesn’t resemble at all the smell. Take that drip coffee smell, and think about an enhanced version of it. Think about a flavor twice or three times more intense than that. That’s how espresso tastes.

Is espresso bitter? Yes, espresso is bitter. All coffee is bitter, but you get used to it. Once you get used to the bitterness, you start to detect floral notes, caramel, and other tones that the experts talk about. A bad shot, however, can be exceptionally bitter, if you brew it incorrectly. There is a great Quora post, where specialists chime in with an explanation of the espresso bitterness. It’s a great read if you are a beginner.

What Is the Aroma of a Perfect Espresso?

The perfect shot should be again an experience. The second the shot starts to flow, the room will be filled with an intense coffee aroma. Espresso smells like coffee, basically, but more intense. Immediately after brewing, all of the volatile oils are in your cup. The brewing method ensures no aromas are lost during the preparation. With other methods, most of the aroma is lost. Smell your espresso, is part of the ritual. Here is a post where espresso geeks discuss it. If your shot doesn’t smell great, it’s probably the beans or the brewing parameters.

espresso dripping
Image credit: Tyler Nix, Unsplash

What type of coffee is best for espresso?

A customer once asked me, “What kind of coffee do you put in the espresso machine?” My answer was “I use a medium-dark blend of Brazilian and African Arabica beans with 15% Robusta beans, roasted three days ago.”

The customer wanted to know what beans she could use with her espresso machine at home. She was disappointed to know that my blend was a custom order from a local roaster, which she couldn’t buy.

The reality is that you can use any coffee for espresso, as long as you like it. You don’t need a special coffee for your espresso machine. Bear with me; I’ll give you a bit more details in the following section.

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What Roast Is Best for Espresso?

Can I use dark roast for espresso?

You definitely can. In fact, most people prefer dark roasts for their daily shot. Additionally, if you use that shot for lattes a dark roast will help those lattes with some deeper flavors.

Medium-dark and dark roasts tend to taste the same no matter the origin of the beans. If you want an analogy, the dark beans are similar to comfort food. Everybody loves them, but they are just common. There is nothing special about them.

A special note on the dark roasts: darker roasts tend to become oily faster than medium roasts. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Oily coffee tastes great. If you are using a semiautomatic and a good grinder, you should be fine. However, many super-automatic espresso machines and some grinders cannot handle oily beans.

ceramic mug and coffee beans
Image Credit: SvenHilker, Pixabay

Can I use a light roast for espresso?

Absolutely. Many espresso aficionados like to use lighter roasts for their shots. Lighter roasts will give an extra dimension to your shot.

If you want to experience greatness and pull some of the terroir flavors into your cup, a lighter roast is the choice.

Single Origin vs Blends

I often hear the expression “espresso beans”, and it makes me cringe a bit every time. Actually, I got used to it and it doesn’t bother me anymore.

There is no such thing as espresso beans. Roasters often develop blends and roasts that are more forgiving.

What do I mean by a forgiving espresso blend? When pulling a shot with one of these beans you can make mistakes and you will still get a decent shot. Many coffee shops use these blends because they are easier to work with and they work better in a cappuccino or a latte.

If you want an exquisite pure espresso experience though, you will want to stir away from the forgiving blend.

To sum up the single origin versus blend comparison I can say blends are safer, single origin coffees are more rewarding.

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How Do You Choose Your Beans?

OK, I know my advice didn’t help you much, but this following section is where you will know what beans to choose.

My first rule for you is to use the beans you like. That’s a little vague and you probably don’t know what you like, but here are some examples on how to approach this.

  • If you drink manual drip coffee, (or tried it), and you like the subtle terroir notes, use those beans. Most likely it’s going to be a lighter roast that will emphasize the origin, such as the subtle acidity, or the floral notes with some African beans.
  • If you like a naturally sweeter coffee, a darker roast will be the best. Too dark and taste will be ashy, though.
  • If you are not sure what to choose, go with an “espresso roast”. I know I said that espresso roast doesn’t mean anything, and I’ll maintain that. At the end of the day though, roasters craft these beans to please most of the espresso lovers. Their blend might be what you are looking for.

Espresso shot and coffee beans

General Rules for Buying Espresso Beans

No matter what your taste is, make sure you follow the general rules of buying beans.

  • Freshness – buy freshly roasted coffee beans, if buying from a small roaster. If you buy from a larger roaster, make sure you understand how they package the coffee. Look for a far expiration date. Even if the coffee was flushed with nitrogen or vacuum packed, you don’t want to buy a coffee that’s been on the shelf for a year.
  • Get your coffee in small quantities. If you buy too much coffee it will go stale in your pantry.
  • Buy only quality coffee, don’t buy average. Poor quality coffee will taste bad. Good coffee is picked when it’s fully riped, and manually sorted to eliminate bad beans.
  • Always buy whole beans. If you don’t own a good coffee grinder, your espresso is doomed to be lifeless after your first few days into your pack of ground coffee.
  • Make sure you know who your roaster is. There is nothing wrong to test a new roaster, but at least get some references from the local coffee lovers, if you do.
  • For small local roasters, it is wise to look at how they store their roasted beans. Even if the roast date says 7 days ago, if coffee is stored improperly, is almost stale.
  • Avoid coffee that is untraceable. If you can’t know where the coffee comes from, then it’s probably poor quality.
  • Arabica is the best coffee and espressos made from Arabica beans are delicious. However, 5% to 15% Robusta beans in a blend will give your shot more crema.

If you need a few suggestions here is a post where we review some great espresso beans.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos, Pixabay


Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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