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A great espresso can jumpstart your day, but a terrible one will sour your mood as quickly as it sours your stomach. The truth is that it’s not that hard to find a good espresso bean, but it’s really hard to find the best espresso beans.
That’s where this list comes in. Based on my own personal experience and several reviews from trusted sources, I’ve compiled a list of the 3 best coffee beans for espresso as well as 23 others that are somewhere between great and amazing. Your next great latte or cappuccino is somewhere on this page, and I’m determined to help you find it.
Just want to get right to the good stuff? Here are the 3 best espresso beans:
- Best overall: Lifeboost Organic Espresso
- Best Complexity: Volcanica Coffee Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
- For Caffeine Lovers: Death Wish Coffee
What Makes Espresso Beans Different From Coffee Beans?
In short, nothing. All espresso beans are coffee beans, and all coffee beans can be used to make espresso.
What really makes a drink espresso instead of coffee is the way it is prepared. Espresso machines work by taking hot water near its boiling point (about 200 degrees Fahrenheit), pressurizing it to at least 9 bars (preferably closer to 15 bars), and forcing it through very finely ground coffee beans. All of this — the high temperature, high pressure, and the high surface area of the grounds — works to maximize the amount of coffee extracted from the beans, creating a more concentrated coffee drink.
What Is Different About the Best Espresso Beans?
Just because all coffee beans can be used for espresso doesn’t mean they’ll all make equally high-quality beverages. There are several characteristics that you can look for when trying to pick out good coffee beans for your espresso, cappuccino, latte, or other espresso-based beverage.
The roasting process
The best coffee beans for espresso are dark roasts — or at least medium roasts. The darker the roast, the stronger the flavor and the more natural oils you’ll get without too much added acid flavor. Equally importantly, darker roasts are more porous, maximizing the amount of extract that can be obtained during the short espresso brewing cycle.
The type of bean
There are dozens of types of coffee beans out there, but there are only two that you’ll see in most coffee roasts: Arabica and Robusta. Changing the percentage of each of these in your roast will have a huge impact on your espresso.
Arabica beans have a softer and sweeter taste and a higher level of acidity than Robusta beans. They are grown at higher elevations and are very prominent in coffees of Latin American origin. Robusta beans have an earthy flavor, a higher caffeine content, less acidity. Unlike Arabica beans, you won’t find Robusta in Latin American blends as they are exclusively grown in the eastern hemisphere.
Are you a fan of crema — that layer of foam on top of your espresso? Robusta blends produce a much thicker, richer crema than pure Arabica beans.
Where the beans are from
The characteristics of espresso beans vary from continent to continent, country to country, and often even between neighboring growing regions in the same country. Altitude, rainfall, soil, growing practices, shade, and more can impact the flavor notes and aromas of your espresso.
There are more than 50 countries that produce coffee beans. Most of these are located within the “Bean Belt”, a region that stretches from 30 degrees south of the equator to 25 degrees north of it. Even within this range, the growing conditions are far from uniform.
The most popular beans for espresso come from Brazil, Indonesia, and — to a lesser extent — Colombia. Brazilian beans offer a lot of variety in the overall flavor profile, but the most common varieties have a heavy body and a spicy and nutty flavor. Indonesian beans — including the famous Java bean — are most notable for their deep-bodied mouthfeel. Colombian coffee beans often offer a fun caramel flavor with a hint of nuttiness, and they are generally more well-balanced and mild than other beans used for espresso.
The grind size
Espresso requires a very fine grind because of the rapid brewing process. Since the hot water is not in contact with the grounds for very long, more surface area is required to quickly extract everything that is desired from the grounds.
If you buy your beans pre-ground (see the next section for why you shouldn’t), you will want to find grounds marked as being fine or labeled as being ground for espresso. If you are grinding your own beans, either use a burr coffee grinder that has a fine setting or — if you only have a blade grinder — grind the beans for longer than you would for drip coffee.
When it comes to good coffee, freshness matters. Once the beans are roasted, it’s a race against the clock to make use of them while they are still at their best. If you want the freshest coffee beans, you can roast them yourself, but that’s a lot of effort. The next best thing is to buy freshly roasted beans and use them within a few days.
If all of that sounds too complicated, here is my best advice: at least buy whole beans. The processes that make coffee beans go stale happen at the surface. Grinding coffee, especially the fine grinding required for espresso, causes the coffee to go stale much faster. A few days on the shelf causes as much staleness in ground coffee as weeks or even months would for coffee beans. If you do buy grounds or you want to grind in batches, make sure to store the grounds in an airtight container
Some brands also use nitrogen packing, vacuum sealing, or related methods to make their beans last longer. Generally, these work by decreasing the amount of oxygen that the beans can come into contact with while they are in transit and storage.
The 3 Best Espresso Beans
I don’t want to provide you with just one espresso option because variety is one of the most beautiful parts of the coffee experience. But I also don’t want to leave you with a hundred options and no guidance as to which one you should go out and try.
I’ve split the difference here by offering a few of the best options in this section and putting several alternative options in the next section. My suggestion is to try one of these first 3 now. Once you’ve sampled those, you can dive into the sea of runner-ups.
Best espresso beans: Lifeboost organic espresso
Chocolate, fruity, and caramel flavors make for a great candy bar — and apparently a great espresso, too! Those are the flavors you’ll find in Lifeboost’s espresso blend, accented with notes of richness and sweetness. Their beans are dark roasted and make for a relatively low acid coffee or espresso.
They use only 100% Arabica beans that are grown according to USDA-certified organic standards with no harsh chemicals or pesticides. They sustainably source these beans from the mountains of Nicaragua, where they are hand-picked, rinsed with spring water, dried naturally in the sun, and fully fair trade certified. They even have a 3rd-party test for levels of mycotoxin. The beans are then hand-roasted to create the final product.
If you want espresso beans that are healthy, delicious, good for the environment, and grown by local coffee farmers, you can’t go wrong with any of Lifeboost’s products. This blend is the best choice for your espresso, but I suggest checking out some of their other roasts while you are there.
Best Complexity: Volcanica Coffee Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
This one is not technically an espresso blend, but don’t let that stop you. This is the blend that earned Volcanica a spot amongst the best Ethiopian coffee roasters.
The flavor of these medium-roasted beans is sweet, sophisticated, and has complex fruit tones. You’ll find hints of guava, pineapple, strawberry, and dark chocolate. The medium-bodied mouthfeel and bright acidity really push it over the top, making it one of the most beloved Ethiopian blends.
Their beans are organically grown, fair trade certified, and rainforest alliance certified. They even source their beans from indigenous coffee trees that grow in the wilds of the region.
For Caffeine Lovers: Death Wish Coffee
Death Wish is proud of their reputation as one of the world’s strongest coffees. But it is more than just a dark roast and a heavy hit of caffeine. The taste is smooth and bold, with notes of cherry and chocolate. The extra caffeine is not an additive. Rather, it comes from their slow-roasting process which produces double the caffeine of a standard roast.
They use a blend of Arabica and Robusta beans from multiple sources, all grown to USDA certified organic standards and fully fair-trade sourced. All of their beans are then roasted in small batches to ensure quality and maximum freshness.
Espresso made with Death Wish is definitely not for the faint of heart or anyone that doesn’t absolutely love the buzz of caffeine. For the rest of us, though, it’s quite the experience. I can’t mention their brand without a pun or wordplay, so here it is: you haven’t truly lived until you’ve had a Death Wish.
More Great Espresso Beans
As promised, here are several more options for when you get through with the 3 best espresso beans above. These are in no particular order, but I’ve tried to provide enough information for you to pick and choose the right ones for you.
If there is a truly amazing espresso bean that I’ve neglected to include in this list, feel free to reach out. I’m always looking for my next great cappuccino.
Volcanica Coffee Tanzania Peaberry
Volcanica’s second entry on the list is a peaberry coffee. Oh, so you haven’t heard of the amazing peaberry? That’s okay, neither had I until last year.
Coffee cherries contain two coffee beans each. At least 95% of them do. The other 5% contain a single coffee bean that is able to soak up that extra nutrition that would usually go to the second bean, growing into a denser, rounder, richer bean. These are the peaberries.
Peaberries are sorted out from a typical coffee batch because their flavor profile is different from the other beans. In many cases, these special beans are simply discarded.
Many coffee aficionados claim that the peaberries actually have a superior flavor to standard beans. Others claim that peaberry blends place a thumb on the scale by only coming from high-quality sources. Either way, we all agree that peaberry coffee is fantastic.
Volcanica’s Tanzanian Peaberry beans are medium-roasted with a double dose of the fruity flavor common to the region. You’ll find a lemongrass acidity, hints of plum and nougat, and delicious sweetness. The rich, buttery body is great for coffee and perfect for espresso.
Kicking Horse Coffee 454
Death Wish may be the caffeine heavyweight, but Kicking Horse is right on their heels. This one is a low-acidity dark roast with a heavy body and an earthy flavor accentuated by hints of nutmeg and chocolate.
Kicking Horse uses beans from Indonesia, Central America, and South America, all of which are organic, mount shade-grown, and fair trade certified.
Kicking Horse Coffee Cliff Hanger Espresso
One good Kicking Horse deserves another. Their second entry in this list is a medium roast with a silky, complex flavor that has notes of wildberry syrup and a cocoa finish. The aroma features blackcurrant, brown sugar, and chocolate.
Their beans are sourced from Indonesia, Africa, Central America, and Latin America. As with their other roast, it’s all organic, mount shade-grown, and fair trade.
Peet’s Coffee Major Dickason’s Blend
Most of the time, if a company makes both single-origin selections and blends, it’s safe to say that the single-origin roasts are going to be better. Peet’s Coffee is the rare exception to this rule.
It’s not that Peet’s single-origin coffees are bad. In fact, they’re pretty great. It’s just that their blends, especially Major Dickason’s Blend, are incredible.
Major Dickason’s Blend is a dark-roasted blend of beans from multiple origins, but Peet’s Coffee won’t tell us exactly which countries’ beans they use. I’m certainly curious because this blend has everything I want in an espresso blend. It’s full-bodied and rich, with a surprisingly complex flavor that shines in any brewing method.
Koffee Kult Thunder Bolt Coffee
Sure, it’s a fun name to say — Koffee Kult Thunder Bolt — but that’s not why it’s on this list. This is another caffeine powerhouse blend, but with a more subtle flavor than most caffeine-heavy options.
It’s a French roast, so you’ll get the darkness without all the extra oils you’d find in other dark roasts. You’ll find a heavy body and a flavor that is fruity and earthy, with hints of molasses and tobacco. The aroma is smoky with notes of cinnamon.
They use only single-origin Colombian coffee beans that are organic, fair trade, and ethically sourced.
Lion Coffee French Roast
Yep, it’s another French roast. This one is made from Hawaiian-sourced Arabica coffee beans that are bold, sweet, full-bodied, and intense.
Coffee Bean Direct Italian Roast Espresso
French roasts are darker than most dark roasts, but they have nothing on Italian roasts. This is about as dark as beans get without burning.
These beans have a toasted, honey aroma and a smoky flavor with notes of molasses and cocoa. They are sourced from India and South America.
Coffee Bean Direct sounds like the name of a wholesale club, doesn’t it? The price tag on this one certainly makes more sense when you realize that they sell it in 5-pound bags.
Intelligentsia Black Cat Analog Espresso
We kept a bag of this one by the espresso machine in my old office, used only for special occasions. It’s a full-bodied, sweet blend with a syrupy mouthfeel and notes of dark chocolate.
The rest of the flavor profile will be left as an exercise to the reader. No, I’m not trying to keep it a secret, but the exact flavor of this blend varies by the season. I hope you like a bit of a surprise (always with a pleasant result).
Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender
This one tried to steal the best complexity category, and it was certainly a good effort. Each component of this Indonesian, African, and Latin American blend provides a distinct layer to the final dark-roasted result.
From Africa, you an earthy depth. From Indonesia, brightness and rich textures. All of this with the characteristic fruitiness provided by Latin American beans. It’s bitter. It’s tart. It’s sweet yet balanced with an aroma of citrus and dark chocolate. It’s amazing.
Lavazza Super Crema
You didn’t expect me to leave Lavazza, one of my favorite Italian coffee brands, off this list — did you? I did limit them to one entry, though, which is tough given their incredible lineup.
80% Arabica and 20% Robusta beans sourced from India, Colombia, Brazil, and Indonesia team up with the best Italian roasting traditions to create the medium-roast blend that is super crema.
It’s mild and creamy, with hints of honey, almond, and fruitiness. The lower caffeine content and higher acidity make this one a bit different than many of the previous options on the list.
When I think espresso, I think Italy. When Italians think espresso, they turn to Illy.
If you are looking to discover an unknown micro-roaster, you should probably skip this entry. But if you want a company that has maintained solid espresso quality for nearly a hundred years, Illy is here.
Their 100% Arabica coffee beans are sourced from 9 different countries and are medium-roasted. They have a sweetness with notes of caramel, orange blossom, and jasmine.
Illy has been named to Ethisphere’s list of the Most Ethical Coffees for eight consecutive years. They were one of only six food, beverage, and agriculture companies to make the list in 2020.
Koa is known for their light roasts, so you might be surprised to see them on this list. Dark roasts may not be their specialty, but they have proven they can hold their own with this delightful roast.
The Hawaiian Kona beans that go into this coffee give it the flavor of ripe fruit, toasted nut, and milk chocolate, with a rich body, low acidity, heavy mouthfeel, and acidic aroma. All of these characteristics make for an incredible espresso shot.
Blue Horse 100% Kona
I’m not obsessed with Hawaiian Coffee. You’re obsessed with Hawaiian coffee. But yea, this is another one. Blue Horse sources their hand-picked, single-origin beans come from a family farm in the Kona region of Hawaii.
The beans are certified organic, so no pesticides or herbicides are used in the growing process. They are nowhere near the cheapest beans, but quality Kona coffee is often expensive.
Expect hints of almonds, vanilla, and spice over a layer of sweetness in their medium roast. You can also get it in a dark roast if you prefer.
Rainier Coffee Roasters Ethiopian Gotiti Natural
The range of flavors in these Ethiopian beans is beyond impressive. They are fruity, sweet, toasted, nutty, and spicy. Add a bit of milk to your espresso and you’ll even notice a touch of chocolate flavor in the mix.
The rich, syrupy, thick body of this medium roast is just as enticing as its flavor. Every aspect of these beans is too complex to describe in just a few words. The best words I can use are unique, exciting, and complex.
Cafe de Loja Medium/Dark Roast Single Origin Coffee
Ecuador hasn’t been featured on this list yet, so it was about time. These Arabica beans are handpicked from fields in the country’s highlands at 6000 feet, an elevation that makes for a delightfully rich coffee.
Cafe de Loja is locally owned and held to very high-quality standards. The medium-to-full-bodied flavor, fruity notes, and smoothness are a combination that you can’t help but love.
Klatch Coffee World’s Best Espresso
You watched the 2007 World Barista Championship, didn’t you? Yea, neither did I. But Klatch was there, and they won the World’s Best Espresso title. I guess you could say they are good.
You’ll notice flavors of chocolate and orange in this blend, with the additional flavors of syrupy sweetness, berry, and spice that develop the more you drink of it. This all comes from the mixture of three types of coffee: Brazilian Yellow Bourbon beans, Ethiopian Natural beans, and Sumatra Lake Tawar beans.
Larry’s Coffee Secret Espresso #17
Larry starts off with USDA organically grown, fair trade certified, shade-grown Arabica beans. From there, they create a roast that is thick, with cream and dark chocolate undertones and a toasted finish.
They advertise their Secret Espresso #17 blend as being “complex as boutique whiskey”. I love my boutique whiskey, so I’m not sure I can agree with that high praise. But they are certainly a very fine espresso bean.
Verena Street Shot Tower Espresso
Verena manages to coax a complex, dense profile from their single-origin Arabica beans. The beans are sourced through the Rainforest Alliance, ensuring a level of wildlife and environmental sustainability.
They dark roast their beans until they are slightly oily and very aromatic. The blend is smooth and full, with a rich aftertaste draped over a sweet, creamy flavor.
Fundamental Coffee Company Guatemala Puerto Verde
One of my favorite reviews of this roast described it as the hot chocolate for coffee lovers. It has a dark chocolate flavor that is smooth, rich, and deep. This pairs perfectly with the hints of brown sugar and orange blossom. Does that review make sense yet?
The Arabica beans come from a region of Guatemala that is shaded by active volcanoes, and volcanic ash is used as a sustainable, natural fertilizer for the coffee plants.
They roast their beans medium-ark, which makes the flavors clean and vibrant, exactly as you would want them to be for these beans.
Caffe Appassionato Organic Shade Grown Espresso Roast
Caffe Apassionato’s coffee plants are shade-grown to protect local migratory birds. The beans are organically grown and fair-trade sourced from Indonesia and parts of Central America.
They slow roast the beans at a low temperature to create a low-acidity, full-bodied flavor that is aromatic, smooth, and strong.
Blackwelder Coffee, 100% Arabica Espresso
Micro-roasting is impressive enough, but the owners of Blackwelder Coffee go a step above and beyond by tasting every single batch they roast. Then again, that’s a job I would sign up for if given the chance.
Their espresso blend is made from Lain Americans and Indonesian Arabica beans that are medium-dark roasted with a low level of acidity. The overall flavor is intense and smooth with notes of caramel.
Nicoletti Coffee Espresso
Nicoletti slowly roasts their beans in small batches, which they then ship within 24 hours of roasting for maximum freshness. They use 75% Arabica and 25% Robusta in their espresso blend to create a roast that is smooth, fresh, and light. The Robusta means you’ll get a thick layer of crema on your espresso, in the truest Italian style.
This is not a typical espresso blend, particularly since it is lightly roasted. However, that makes it especially good for automatic espresso machines which tend to clog from oily coffee beans.
Middle Fork Roasters Full City Espresso
These beans are made to work well with a bit of milk. The full flavor of caramelized sugar, chocolate, and cherry just doesn’t come out otherwise.
This coffee is dark-roasted to be dense with a heavy body and just a bit of sweetness. If you like a good latte, this espresso will treat you right.
If you think every cup of espresso tastes the same, you haven’t had a good espresso. I’m not here to convert all the drip coffee drinkers — I like both.
Variety, though, is the spice of life. And these espressos offer a range of flavor, mouthfeel, and aroma that will give you a chance to see just what the world of espresso has to offer. I suggest starting with one from the 3 best espresso beans list. From there, you can try out the longer list until you find the bean (or beans) that can become a mainstay in your kitchen.
One last time, here are my top picks for the best espresso beans: