There’s plenty of confusion around espresso and other types of coffee beans. What are these magical espresso beans? Must I use them when making espresso? It’s a silly source of confusion that boils down to marketing and historical trends.
So, can you make espresso with ordinary coffee beans?
You certainly can! Espresso blends are sold because roasters designed them for a better shot. However, it’s also “market segmentation”, hoping to sell a specific style of bean. Bottom line: use whatever you like.
Why does espresso need a special blend?
To be frank, it doesn’t.
But in the realm of coffee, you’ll find all sorts who will disagree with this. In general, roasters and coffee enthusiasts will choose beans that they believe result in better espresso – a specific target for a specific beverage. As one coffee company put it: if we’re playing darts, most brewing methods would consider hitting the board to be a success; with espresso, you’re aiming for the bullseye.
A good espresso has a particular flavor, body, and foam (crema). To get these outcomes, they will often add both robusta and arabica beans.
Robusta, the ignored sibling of arabica, has twice the caffeine and a woodier, nuttier flavor that people don’t like as much as the sweeter arabica. Then, why add it? It’s said that robusta creates crema. A deal with the devil to some, or embracing a worthwhile bean to others (including me).
In addition, when you brew coffee by forcing a small amount of water at high pressure and temperature through finely ground beans, you get a much more concentrated beverage. This means that if you use inferior quality beans, you will easily notice it – like noticing the difference between skim and condensed milk. The flavor is more concentrated in less liquid.
Theoretically, espresso beans will be of higher quality for this reason. As well, if it’s pre-ground, then it will be a finer grind, but I’d recommend ever buying pre-ground if you can avoid it. (Hint: it’ll almost always be stale, if not immediately, then by the time you’re done ¼ of the bag).
But in practice, they used darker roasts to cover up the inferior quality of the beans. It’s a bit of a toss-up with modern blends, but going to a roaster directly should assure a certain level of quality.
What are you actually getting from an espresso blend?
Generally, whenever someone asks about what “espresso beans” are in a coffee forum, people aren’t the most… polite. They can be dismissive and/or go on tirades about how it’s a stupid marketing device or how espresso is a brewing method and not a bean.
These are true; it is partially a marketing ploy.
But what I believe people are actually asking is: what are you buying when you buy a bag of “espresso beans”?
Generally, it’s going to be a blend aimed at having a better flavor profile for the more dense beverage. In terms of roast, the ones I’ve bought are almost always a darker roast, in the neighborhood of a French roast, AKA among the darkest roasts you can have before it starts to smoke.
This is because of the hangover effects of the past, where dark roasts were chosen because they cover the unique qualities of the beans and cover up imperfections. Since bean quality has generally gotten better, and high-quality beans are more readily available, you don’t need to use dark roasts. That being said, this is the reason provided for why bags labeled “espresso” are dark.
What are espresso beans?
They’re just coffee beans, frankly.
There’s nothing particularly special about them other than the roast and the blend. They are designed with espresso in mind, which means that the roaster hopes it will create a good shot.
In terms of grind, espresso machines require a very fine powder, while other forms of coffee do not. Most brewing methods use medium or coarser, but you can see what they recommend for each method in this post on various brewing methods, and this one more specifically on grinds.
What is market segmentation, and how does it affect espresso blends?
We are all consumers in the eyes of salespeople, no matter how much you actually produce. The word itself bothers me – are we merely machines that take things in and create nothing?
Semantics aside, marketers like to take giant chunks of the population that they want to sell to and break them down into “avatars” or profiles that they believe will behave in particular ways for specific reasons.
Take salt. Salt was thought to have been a tapped market – everyone knows what it is, and everyone has as much as they need. No room for growth, just stability.
Introduce sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, kosher salt, black Hawaiian salt, and on and on.
Suddenly, they have higher-priced products that they can target at specific groups. Are you a foodie? Try this. Are you more environmentally conscious? Try that.
Such are the forces of capitalism, and coffee is no exception.
Hell, it’s partially why this website even exists – coffee has undergone several movements in recent decades known as the “waves”, of which we are in the 3rd. If it wasn’t for all the splitting of hairs, then I’d likely not have enough to dedicate a site to (or wing of a site, depending on when you read this).
For espresso, specifically: they are targeting people who have espresso machines and care to have quality coffee to put in it. This means, if I had to guess, they are putting premium beans in there and charging a premium for it. As well, there will probably be a range, going from cheap “espresso blends” in the grocery store to higher-end stuff in private roasters.
It’s the same as most markets, really, but I’m including it because it’s good to know.
If not an espresso blend, what beans would go well in espresso?
Espresso roasts are darker, typically roasted until after the “2nd crack”, which is just before it starts to smoke and burn. The 2nd crack will start and continue for some time before stopping. Once it stops, if you continue roasting, it can literally start on fire. No joke.
I’m going to describe what roasters tend to aim for in espresso blends (and why) purely so that you can decide whether you want to aim for the same target or try venturing off on your own with lighter roasts.
What Roasters aim for
Some said that they choose darker roasts because they believe that it will have a “toasted and deeper” flavor, which… well, what does that even mean in terms of actual taste?
Not only that, but it’s believed that roasting longer will lower the acidity of the blend. As well, one company (which I won’t link because it’s pure sales copy) claims that longer roast times allow for the oil to be pushed to the surface and creates a better mouthfeel.
I don’t know if I buy that last part, but it is true that darker beans do typically come with an oily sheen. But really, if the oils are on the surface, then they’re going to either oxidize or evaporate faster and having the oils on the inside means they’ll still be present when you grind it. The logic doesn’t check out, in my opinion.
Formerly, roasters would use a darker roast to produce smoky, caramelized sugar notes, as we see in Italian roasts. They did this, in part, because it would hide the imperfections of the beans, as darker roasts blunt the unique characteristics of the beans, also giving consistency. (Oh, hello, Starbucks)
However, today, they can source higher quality beans that can arrive faster thanks to improvements in cultivation and logistics. Due to this, lighter roasts are also starting to be incorporated in.
Robusta, once again, is added because it provides better crema for your shots. I couldn’t find a general guideline for what percentage of robusta to use, but 5-10% sounds reasonable. This is just a general guess, but more is acceptable if you enjoy the flavor. (Please let me know if you have information on this.)
In short: the trends for espresso may be legacy ideas because of shortcomings in farming and transportation from the past. Today, you don’t have to worry about following the trends of the past because the quality of beans, in general, has gone up.
If you have quality beans, you can experiment with them in your espresso machine and see what works. They don’t have to use robusta or dark roasts unless you want them to.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)
Espresso is a method of brewing, so you can use whatever beans you like.
There are historical reasons why people use dark roasts in their espresso blends, which is that darker roasts can hide imperfections. This is important in espresso because the flavors are much more intense than other brewing methods.
So long as you grind your beans to a very fine level, you can use most higher quality beans in your espresso machine. Even if you use low-quality beans, the worst likely outcome is a suboptimal shot.
If you want to experiment, try going to a roaster and request beans that would go well, and specifically request the level of roast you particularly like.