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Espresso Beans - How To Choose The Right Ones

You can spend thousands of dollars on the coolest, most state of the art espresso maker on the planet but if you don't use the right Espresso Beans, you can end up drinking weak swill! How exactly can you tell which bean is right for you? You've come to the right place because that's exactly what I'm going to talk about in this guide today.

Throughout this guide I'll use the words espresso bean and coffee bean interchangeably. The reason I do this is because there really aren't any differences between the two. There aren't special "Espresso" beans that are grown specifically for espresso. Beans are beans.

How the beans are roasted and whether you use an espresso machine vs. a coffee machine depends on whether they become "coffee" beans or "espresso" beans. You can make coffee out of espresso beans and espresso out of coffee will all become clearer as we go on...

Basically, espresso beans come down to three main things:

  • What Part Of The World The Beans Come From
  • How The Beans Are Roasted
  • How Fine or Coarse The Beans are Ground

When it comes right down to it, these are really the only three things you need to consider when purchasing beans. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg on gourmet specialty beans to get good espresso, but you do need to consider those three items. Master them, and you will become a true espresso connoisseur.

Step One: What Part Of The World Do The Beans Come From?

First off, it doesn't matter where in the world your bean comes from. Like wine, different regions produce beans with different flavors and characteristics. There are basically three or four main parts of the world know for their coffee beans.

  • Central and South America (South America boasts about half of the world's output)
  • Africa
  • Italy
  • Arabia (Middle East)

If you want to learn more about these regions, we've got articles below that talk about each one in much more detail. Your other alternative is to simply go out and buy a bag of beans from each region and give them a try. Decide yourself which ones you like personally. Starbucks is a good place to start because they clearly label their beans and market them by origin.

Step Two: How The Beans Are Roasted

Again, how beans are roasted doesn't determine whether or not they becomes espresso, like the origin of the bean - it merely flavors the espresso differently.

Basically you have a spectrum of roasting from lightly roasted, to medium roast, all the way up to dark roasted with some oddballs like French Roasted thrown in between. The longer the roasting, the darker the bean becomes and the stronger the drink will taste.

Also, I should say a word about timing...The best espresso comes from beans that have JUST been roasted. The longer you wait after roasting, the worse the coffee tastes.

Coffee comes from a berry. Inside the berry is usually one or two beans. When they are picked or harvested, the beans are completely green and this is how they are usually shipped, after which they are roasted into what we see when we buy a bag.

Step Three: How Fine or Coarse The Beans are Ground

Finally we should talk about the fineness of the grounds. When you grind your beans you can choose to grind them into a fine almost powder, or you can keep then more coarse.

The finer they are ground, the more they will absorb into the water and the richer and stronger your drink will become. On the other hand, if you look at a basic spoonful of Folgers coffee out of the jar, you'll see that the beans have been ground very coarsely. They almost look like little pebbles. That should tell you something!

You usually have the choice to purchase either whole beans or pre-ground beans. A true espresso lover will always buy the whole beans so that you can grind them to your exact desired fineness and so that they will be as fresh as possible. The longer you wait after grinding, the staler your drink will taste.

What It Really Comes Down To...

The three main points I just discussed are important, but when it comes down to it, espresso is espresso simply because of the way it is prepared. If you use a true pump powered espresso machine, you have espresso. If you use a regular coffee machine, you have coffee. The rest is just a matter of taste, personal preference, and style!

Wondering where to start? I mentioned Starbucks, they're a pretty good place to start if you don't have a lot of experience (though serious espresso people generally stay away from them). Lavazza is known for their specialty beans though I will admit that I've never tried them. Illy is a really great gourmet brand that won't kill your pocketbook...I'd venture to say that they're my personal favorite. Whole Foods carries them as well as other specialty food and grocery stores.

It doesn't really matter though, just get out there and start trying different brands!

Hopefully now you have a pretty good grasp of the basics of espresso beans. If you'd like to learn more about specific brands of beans, and specific geographical location such as South American beans vs. Arabian beans then check out our specific articles on each of those things listed below. And be sure to have fun! Choosing your personal favorite bean should be a long process of trial and error....and that's half the fun of it!

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