Espresso shots are known for their complex flavors and aroma. Brewing the perfect shot is both an art and science. And it all starts with the right coffee beans. Learning how to pick the best coffee beans for espresso is a great start to brewing amazing coffee.
At its very basic level, choosing the right coffee beans is a matter of taste. However, it’s also as much an exercise in rigorous checks and understanding of coffee bean characteristics. Let’s consider a few factors that will come in handy when buying beans for your espresso shot.
5 Tips on How to Pick The Best Coffee Beans For Espresso:
1. Always Buy Whole Beans
An espresso shot contains about 12% dissolved solids. That’s a lot of your coffee beans making their way into the brew. For comparison, conventional coffee contains about 2% dissolved solids. So the quality of the coffee beans and the roast are bound to have a marked effect on the taste of your espresso.
Once they’re ground, coffee beans begin losing flavor very quickly. As a general rule, you should use the coffee beans within 20 minutes of grinding them.
Buying whole beans gives you a good path to an amazing espresso. This espresso bean list from caffeineinsider.com has excellent recommendations on coffee beans to buy.
So what about all those pre-ground espresso coffees available in the market? Well, they’re not an ideal buy if you’re invested in getting the full flavor. Companies/manufacturers seal the packaging to ensure that the flavor remains intact.
Once the package is opened, there’s no way for the consumer to reseal the ground coffee with the same dexterity. So yes, the wiser choice here is to buy whole beans and store them in an airtight and opaque coffee container.
2. Buy Freshly Roasted Beans
Buying freshly roasted beans is the general advice for preparing all coffees. It’s all the more important for espresso. A huge indicator of the quality of an espresso is the crema over the brew. It is formed when carbon dioxide interacts with fats and oils in the coffee beans.
Freshly roasted beans are likely to give a better, richer crema for your brew. To be fair, the crema is affected by other factors too. For example, failing to pull the shot at the right time affects the crema. Nevertheless, bean quality is the primary driver.
Conventionally, espresso brewed within 7-21 days of the roast gives the best crema. Keep in mind, these aren’t hard numbers. It’s what most roasters and baristas believe gives the best results.
When you buy from artisanal roasters, the coffee beans will likely have a “roasted on” date. If you don’t see that date, ask your coffee roaster to include it, or find a roaster who includes this information. The date of roasting is an important metric for assessing coffee quality.
Giving the beans a week after roasting will allow initial off-gassing to be complete. Using them within the next few weeks ensures you get your espresso shots while the coffee bean quality is at its prime.
3. Espresso Roasts – What Are They And Should I Buy Them?
Looking for coffee to buy, it’s almost guaranteed that you’d have run into products titled ‘Espresso Roast’. The term can be misleading because it’s not a specific roast per se. To cut a long story short, an espresso roast is simply a recommendation from the roaster for the intended use of the coffee beans.
There is no consensus on what constitutes an espresso roast. Unless you know what you’re looking for, the espresso roast beans you buy can end up being unpredictable.
Some coffee roasters design their espresso roasts to be more forgiving. This means the constituent beans will be able to handle some errors on the part of the brewer/barista. More often than not, these are very dark roasts and/or Italian roasts.
Other roasters choose their espresso roasts to be focused on flavor. These often include single-origin beans or high-quality blends capable of handling the high pressure of espresso brewing. They’ll highlight the natural taste notes of the constituent coffee beans and deliver a wonderfully flavorful cuppa. Medium roasts are the usual choice for this category of beans.
It’s worth noting that these are broad generalizations, simply because the nature of ‘espresso roast’ terminology makes generalizations necessary. But it’s a good enough indicator to decide what espresso roast you should pick.
4. Coffee Grinders And Care When Picking Oily Coffee Beans For Espresso
Grinding a coffee fresh for espresso will need a quality coffee grinder. Espresso needs a fine and consistent coffee grind. The best way to go about this is to pick a burr coffee grinder.
Several grinders have trouble getting the consistent fine grind that an espresso demands. But of course, that doesn’t stop the vast majority of grinders from claiming that they handle espresso grinds just fine.
I’d say manual grinders are out unless you are certain of a trusted brand that offers a quality grinder. Exercise similar caution for electric coffee grinders. For example, while the Baratza Encore can theoretically deliver an espresso grind, it’s not the best for it. In the entry-level range, the company sees Baratza Sette as a better pick for espresso grinds.
If you’re using an espresso machine with a built-in grinder, pay extra attention to the coffee beans you’re using. Oily beans can clog up grinders. While this is true for any grinder, the problem seems to be more serious with superautomatic machines. And we certainly don’t want those expensive machines to get any damage!
As an added precaution, always check beans for stones before putting them in a grinder. It’s rare, but stones find their way into packaging – even in the case of reputed coffee brands.
5. What Coffee Roast Should I Pick?
We’ve previously talked about espresso roast, but let’s talk about actual coffee roasts. Coffee roasts are generally available as light, medium, and dark roasts. There are some variations within these three categories, but they should suffice on a broader note.
You can brew espresso with light roast coffee beans, but medium and dark roasts are preferable.
Medium roasts work best with a skillful barista/brewer. They bring forth the inherent taste notes of the coffee and highlight these for a flavorful brew. Over-extraction or under-extraction should be avoided.
Dark roasts are the most popular choice for espresso shots. Dark roasts usually give coffee beans taste notes of dark chocolate and/or caramelized sugar. They deliver a consistent taste and the brew feels strong. As such, these are very popular with blends.