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Espresso is at the heart of so many of most coffee-lovers’ favorite drinks. Whether you drink a long black, no milk, a flat white, or an almond milk latte with two sugars, the espresso is the backbone of your beverage.
On this blog, I’ve been through methods for making espresso both with and without a fancy espresso machine. And I’ve been through the best machines too, whatever your needs.
But what about the beans?
Using the right beans for the kind of coffee you’re making is incredibly important, as is knowing what you like. Espresso beans vary from medium to dark roast as a general rule, with dark being more traditional. The extraction process with espresso means sour or bitter notes will be accentuated -- so, pick a coffee with few of these to begin with and your finished product will be more balanced.
Then, there’s the question of origin, ethics and simply what you want from the coffee company you choose. Are you going for reliable tradition, or an adventurous new startup with big, caffeinated dreams?
Plus, as ever, you have to take into account value for money.
Here’s a guide to a few of the key things to look for…
Light or blonde roasts are bright, cirtus-edged and lively. They rarely work well in milk drinks, and tend to be acidic. As a general rule, they are less suitable for espresso than medium or dark roasts.
Medium roasts are not as high in caffeine as light, but are still quite strong. They often contain berry flavors, moving into almond and brown sugar territory. More complex espressos are medium roast or partially medium roast.
Dark roasts are richer and more full bodied. Your classic idea of a dark, full, smoky espresso with a chocolate finish would be a dark roast. They are syrupy and thick, but do run the risk of a burnt flavor or a bitter finish. A really good dark roast for espresso will be a blend that ensures some brightness.
You’ll notice that most espresso beans are blended. That’s because espresso has to be balanced. Great espresso is rich, dark and sweet with some complexity and a beautiful crema.
You aren’t getting all of that from a single origin! Single origin is great for trying new things, and really revealing in gentle flavor, but for a build of flavor and consistently bold profile blending is needed.
Of course, this means you’ll have to think about who’s doing the blending. Small, artisanal coffee companies and companies that have been working in coffee for many years are both likely to create great blends. Look for origin information on their website, as well as varied noted flavors and general attention to detail.
All of that to say: maybe don’t just go for a big bag of grocery own brand beans!
Whenever you buy coffee you need to think about where it’s coming from.
At the very least, you should be looking for a Rainforest Alliance certification and perhaps National Coffee Association membership.
Most of the coffees I’ve looked at for this guide are fair trade and organic, which is great. In addition, though, plenty of coffee companies take part in schemes that give back to farmers and their communities or at least champion a level of traceability and accountability in terms of sourcing coffee.
1. LifeBoost Dark Roast
Life Boost coffee sells itself on being not only a fair trade sustainable coffee, but also its health benefits.
This delicious dark roast is shade-grown on Nicaraguan mountainsides with no pesticides and bird-friendly farming techniques. The single-origin Arabica beans are washed in spring water and dried in the sun, so you get an authentic no-nonsense espresso experience!
One of Life Boost’s most unusual features is that it is low PH. This means it’s exceptionally easy on the stomach and teeth. If you have any issues with heartburn or sickness after a strong coffee, give LifeBoost Dark Roast a try.
Far from being a less-pleasant healthy alternative, this is top quality Italian roast coffee with a conscience. Plus, it’s good for you!
LifeBoost Dark Roast is the perfect espresso bean for people trying to look after themselves, but it won’t disappoint anyone!
2. Coffee Bros Espresso Roast
This medium espresso roast coffee is vibrant yet subtle, with strawberry, sugarcane and vanilla notes and a round body.
The company is run out of New York City, and its owners are just as cool and conscientious as you would expect. They understand the city’s coffee legacy and put a huge amount of effort into making sure every bag of Coffee Bros beans is exceptional.
As a medium roast, this 100% Arabica blend doesn’t have the obvious dark and caramel forward flavor that many people expect from espresso. Instead, it’s a lighter and more complex coffee with no bitterness and a touch of fruitiness.
Coffee Bros Espresso Roast is the choice for coffee connoisseurs who want a little more complexity from their espresso.
3. Lavazza Super Crema
By far best with a barista-style espresso machine, and we don’t all have one
The highly international blend is 60% Arabica and 40% Robusta, with beans from Brazil, Colombia, India, and Vietnam. The robust blend does very well in barista-style semi-automatic espresso machines. The crema tends to be excellent
Lavazza company is coffee master, with an Italian heritage and over a century in the business. This is obvious in their careful blends.
Traditionalists will go crazy for Lavazza Super Crema!
4. Death Wish Organic Whole Bean
Death wish coffee is slow-roasted in a careful process which ensures maximum caffeine content and a dark roast.
This organic dark roast is 100% natural and organic. It’s USDA certified as both organic and fair trade.
A dark roast is what most people expect for an espresso, and Death Wish doesn’t disappoint.
This is a rich, full-bodied coffee with cherry and chocolate notes and a cocoa aroma.
As the name implies, this is a coffee for the adventurous caffeine addicts out there! The caffeine content is super high for a dark roast, and it has an intense flavor.
5. Kicking Horse Coffee, Cliff Hanger Espresso
Cliff Hanger Espresso is a medium-roast blend of Arabica beans from around the world.
Flavors are on the unusual side, with black currant and brown sugar notes and a milk chocolate sweetness. This is a bright blend, with plenty of front of the tongue action.
Roasted in the Rockies, Kicking Horse coffees are marketed with mountains at their heart. This blend focuses on ‘hanging on’, with a climbing theme. There’s something logical about that given the unexpected heights of the coffee’s flavor.
One for the adventurers, Cliff Hanger Espresso is a real treat however you prepare your espresso.
6. Koffee Kult Dark Roast Coffee Beans
Koffee Kult dark roast is rich and deep in flavor but still manages to be smooth and clean.
Freshness is really important to Koffee Kult, who bag up their beans directly after roasting. Their modern, print-forward packaging is eye-catching and as fresh as their beans!
You can feel good after drinking a Koffee Kult espresso, too. Not only do the brand support over 650 small coffee farmers they buy fairly from, but they also give to several charities.
This is coffee with a conscience. Or is it koffee with a konscience?
Koffee Kult Dark Roast will be an instant favorite for espresso-loving hipsters, especially if they also have a heart!
7. Don Pablo Classic Italian Espresso
Dark-roasted espresso may seem simple, but it’s hard to achieve a complex flavor without bitterness or scorched beans.
No one could argue this espresso blend is lacking in flavor, but it still goes down smooth.
Don Pablo are artisanal coffee roasters, but their blends are really well priced. The budget may make itself known in the marketing and packaging, but does that really matter? It does the job!
This coffee is dark and toasty, with brown sugar notes.
Don Pablo is the espresso bean choice for lovers of traditional coffee flavors who like to keep an eye on their budget!
8. Equator Coffee & Teas Jaguar Espresso
With a name like that, this espresso better be impressive!
Available ground for espresso, drip, or as whole beans this organic, fairtrade blend is made up of beans from Latin America, Sumatra, and Ethiopia.
On the lighter end of dark roast (I know, getting specific!) a whole host of flavors shine through the depth of the roast. The coffee contains notes of apricot, hazelnut, and spiced dark chocolate.
Founded in 1995, Equator has been committed to social justice and sustainability for over two decades. Everyone might be doing it now, but they have a track record!
Jaguar Espresso is specifically blended and roasted to be sweet enough to be drunk alone, but also bold enough to stand up to milk.
This is a great all-rounder -- it will suit traditionalists and more modern coffee lovers alike.
9. Jo Espresso
This is a budget espresso blend at an artisanal quality.
You’ll easily produce a rich crema from Jo Espresso using most espresso machines, even manual ones. This is a dark-roast coffee with a flavor to match. Most notably, the coffee is dark-chocolate forward with a real weight to it and an elegant finish.
Jo Coffee use only fair trade and USDA certified organic beans. They’re also a member of the Speciality Coffee Association and the Rainforest Alliance.
This espresso blend is not as complex as many of the contenders on this list, but it’s rich, dark, quality coffee at a massively good value.
If your budget is your main concern, but you don’t want to skimp on quality, then go with Jo!
10 Verena Street Shot Tower Espresso
A dark-roast espresso blend, Shot Tower is a rich, nutty coffee and a classic espresso experience.
They promise great value, no-nonsense coffee at a very fair price.
Despite being a value brand, they’re committed to fair trade and sustainability, supporting both farmers and the environment.
However, it is prepared, Shot Tower is rich and sweet with a creamy finish. This full-bodied coffee does work best as an espresso but is also great in a French press.
If you want to balance ethics and your wallet, you can’t go wrong with Verena Street Shot Tower Espresso.
As a lover of really complex flavors and lighter roasts, I particularly enjoy Kicking Horse’s Cliff Hanger blend. They’re a really interesting company roasting great coffee, and they push the limits of what is ‘normal’ for espresso with this beautifully fruit-tinged espresso bean blend.
If you’re more traditional, give Equator’s Jaguar blend a try. It has hints of almond to it that liven up the espresso experience, and they’re a very ethically minded company who should really be better known.
For budget oriented espresso-lovers, Verena Street Shot Tower is the best bang for your buck without sacrificing the richness and body of a great espresso.
Enjoy your coffees! And let us know if you have a favorite espresso bean we missed.
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