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Espresso Bean Suggestion Guide

Home espresso can be tricky, especially when you're first starting out! One day you're sitting in Starbucks enjoying your favorite drink when you realize that for the money you spend in there every week, you could own your own espresso machine and have your favorite drinks whenever you want!

So you run to the store to buy a machine only to be confounded and confused by the selection and the prices. You quickly realize that it's a little more complicated than you had anticipated! So you head home and fire up the Internet and start to research.

It's complicated - I know! I've been there (only when I bought my first espresso maker the Internet wasn't what it is today. There weren't great web sites like this one to help guide me along!).

But you finally get things figured out.... you decide on a machine, you buy it, you bring it home (or have it shipped) and then you suddenly realize...

You need BEANS!

And the whole crazy process starts over again! It's back to the Internet for more research. Luckily, I've got all your answers right here. Everything you wanted to know about espresso beans and how to pick out the beans that are just right for you.

First Things First...

I want to quickly clear up one confusing subject that a lot of people just starting out get messed up. There is no special type of espresso bean. In fact, there is no espresso bean. It's all just coffee beans.

So don't bother looking for a special brand labeled "espresso bean", because it doesn't exist. Sure some coffee beans might be labeled as espresso roast, or espresso, but they're still just coffee beans.

So What Should You Look For In A Coffee Bean For Espresso?

First off, you have two main categories:

  • Robusta
  • Arabica

Arabica are a higher quality bean (and more expensive), but they have less caffeine and are weaker than Robusta. Robusta, on the other hand, are lower quality beans but they have a higher caffeine level. Because of that, many people prefer Robusta beans for making espresso (if you're not looking for a strong shot of caffeine, what are you drinking espresso for anyway?).

Since Robusta beans are cheaper, many of the big coffee companies use it in their blends. But that's a whole other story. Subsequently, many times when you see something labeled "espresso roast", it's probably Robusta. Which leads us to the next category...

The Different "Roasts" of Coffee Bean...

After you pin down the type of bean, you need to determine the type of Roast. Roast is just like it sounds...they cook the coffee beans. Usually the length of time they cook them (roast them) determines the type of roast that ends up on the label. Common roasts include...

  • French Roast
  • Italian Roast
  • Espresso Roast

No one knows what espresso roast's whatever the particular company calls it. Usually an "espresso roast" will just be French roast labeled differently for marketing reasons.

French roast is roasted the longest. It is, therefore the darkest, and the strongest. Sometimes the strongness is overpowering and nasty. Think charred taste and you're in the right area.

Italian roast is roasted not quite as long as French roast and is generally not as dark or as overpoweringly strong. The Italians invented espresso...hence Italian roast is probably a great place for you to start when buying your own bean.

What About Different Brands?

Chances are, if you're just starting out and don't know what the heck you're doing, your choices are going to be limited to a few mainstream brands. You don't want to go out and spend a couple hundred dollars on some specialty bean that you probably don't know enough about to really appreciate.

So I suggest you take a look at Starbucks beans, and Illy beans. They're comparably priced, but the Illy beans are a little more expensive (around $15 for an 8.8 oz jar, vs. around $12-$15 for a bag of Starbucks beans).

I think Starbucks might have an "Espresso Roast" and you can try that...but if you want my advice, start out with the Italian Roast if you're going to go with Starbucks. They're a good choice for newbies simply because there's a Starbucks on every other corner and you can't argue with that easiness.

Personally I use Illy beans...they are Arabica beans (ironically) but still fantastic. They come in Medium and Dark Roast, and you're going to want to buy the Dark Roast for making espresso (the medium roast is good for regular coffee).

It's Not Really Much More Difficult Than That!

As time goes on, and you become more comfortable making home espresso, you can branch out and try different beans from different companies and in different price ranges. To tell you the truth, that's a big part of the fun of making espresso at home!

Some beans you'll love, others you won't be able to stand! But over time you'll start to pick up certain characteristics that you identify right away. Maybe you realize that you tend to like Arabica beans more than Robusta, or maybe you decide that all French roast tastes like burning tires! However you decide will be right for you.

Just be sure to buy whole beans and not pre-ground; because otherwise we'll all laugh at you. A lot. ;-)