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Getting to the Bottom of "Espresso Beans"

The blend, the myth, the legend.

by Ever Meister | February 26, 2021

Pssst — come closer, we want to tell you a secret: There’s technically no such thing as “espresso beans.” Nope, not even an “espresso blend,” though many coffees are labeled that way.

Now, don’t worry: You haven’t been lied to all this time, we promise! It’s kind of a matter of semantics and we’ll explain. It’s also not really a “secret,” per se, but it is something we hate to see any coffee lover get hung up on, if only because we want to make sure you have as much flexibility and freedom as possible when it comes to finding coffees you can fall in love with. Stick with us.

Remember that lesson about how espresso is really just a brewing method that makes a small, potent cup of coffee? Great: It’s still true. One of the most fundamental things about the process of brewing the perfect espresso is that it happens under pressure, most commonly created by your espresso machine’s electronic pump. This is very different from the gentler force of gravity that pulls hot water more slowly through the ground coffee in a Chemex filter, for example; even an automatic drip coffee machine primarily uses gravity in order to disperse its brewing water. The other difference between espresso-brewed coffee and other types of specialty coffee is that an espresso drink is typically much stronger, more like a concentrate. If you take an espresso and dilute it with hot water, you can make something that more closely resembles the flavor of filter-brewed coffee: That’s where the Americano comes from.

That pressurized and concentrated extraction is one of the reasons that you will see coffee advertised as “espresso beans,” but you won’t often see coffee sold as “Chemex beans” or “French press beans.” In large part this is due to the commonly held belief that too much of a good thing can be incredibly overwhelming, and that some of the characteristics of drip coffee that we love — namely fruity flavors and bright acidity — can knock our blocks off when they’re presented in their concentrated form.

The concept of an espresso blend, an espresso bean, and an espresso roast has been around for as long as the espresso maker itself, but that doesn’t mean it’s required for flavor success: Historically, they have been crafted in order to highlight certain characteristics or qualities in a pressure-brewed, concentrated coffee. For instance, that luscious crema that forms on top of an espresso shot? Pressurized brewing of freshly roasted coffee will naturally create a head of foam on top of the liquid, but certain coffees (like Robusta) tend to produce more of it. Therefore, many traditional “espresso blends” used to contain the crema-boosting Robusta bean. (Today, the Robusta bean is much less commonly found in specialty coffee blends, even ones that are designed to be used for an espresso drink. However, that does give us some insight into why roasters might advertise one coffee as being for “espresso,” while another might be for “filter” brewing.)

Another example? Light roast coffee tends to highlight delicate floral notes, vibrant fruit notes, and sparkling acidity... for a filter brew. In a concentrated form, however, those florals can be overpoweringly bitter, those fruits can be too tart, and that acidity can be as puckering as sucking on a lemon. Whew! As a result, many roasters have approached roasting for espresso in a specific way, often with the intention to tamp down — but not completely erase – the acidity and fruit flavors. For some roasters, that means a longer development time; for others, it means a particular development curve; for many, it has meant creating blends of different coffees and/or different roasts in order to encourage a more balanced profile.

Blends can be both beneficial and challenging to the espresso-brewing process. Beneficial because they offer the roaster (and the espresso drinker) a layered experience that ostensibly captures the best of several coffees: You can add a little Brazil for rich chocolate and creamy body, Guatemala for zippy acidity, and washed Costa Rica for toffee sweetness, creating a coffee drink with a lot of personality and versatility. On the other hand, as soon as you pour that blend into the hopper of a burr grinder, you have no control over how much of each coffee goes through the burrs: What happens if you wind up with mostly Brazil and no Costa Rica? It’s like playing caffeinated Plinko — there’s no way of really knowing what the blend components of any individual shot is.

All this is to say: Your mileage may vary when it comes to “espresso beans,” “espresso blends,” and “espresso roasts.” Usually, these terms mean that a roaster has selected and handled these coffees in order to optimize the espresso experience, but that should feel like a suggestion, not law. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t brew these coffees as filter brews, AeroPress treats, or however you normally enjoy that first perfect cup of the day.

Which is also to say: “Espresso beans” are not necessarily stronger, darker, or more liable to put more hair on your chest than coffees labeled otherwise — unless you brew them as espresso, of course.

Fundamentally, it’s important to remember that coffee is as coffee does: If you understand the (very basic) science of coffee extraction (no, seriously, we mean “basic” — it doesn’t require NASA — level knowledge to make a good cup), you should honestly be able to make almost any coffee taste good in any brewing method. Period.

Think of it this way: When you go to the store to buy eggs, they aren’t separated into sections based on what you’ll do with them, right? There aren’t scrambling eggs labeled individually from poaching eggs kept apart from the over-easy eggs. Brewing regular coffee is the same way: You can brew “espresso beans” in your French press and nobody is going to charge into your house and take away your right to grind. (There are no espresso police, thankfully.) You can also brew coffee labeled as “filter roast” in your espresso machine — it might take a little dialing-in, but you shouldn’t feel limited by the description on the bag.

Every coffee has potential, and every coffee lover has the potential to unlock that deliciousness. We believe in you, and we’re always here to help!