My morning espresso is always amazing. If you’re a regular espresso drinker, there’s a strong chance it’s one of the best parts of your day. It’s warm, it’s comforting, and it gives you the energy and focus to tackle your life with vigor. What’s not to love?
When you’ve been drinking espresso for a while, you will probably start to learn what’s good espresso and what’s great espresso. You don’t have to be a snob about it either. Every once in a while, you have a premium espresso shot that stands out from your regular brew. It’s moments like that when you remember there is a whole world of quality coffee out there.
But that’s where it gets hard. How do you choose? Who has the time to taste dozens of brands and roasts and flavors until they find “the best” one? What does that even mean, to be “the best”? There are so many specialty brands out there. Sure, the perfect coffee for you might be out there, but how long will it take to find? We need espresso today, now.
That’s why we wrote this article; to save you the time all of the time we spent researching and reviewing the world of espresso. In this article we discuss the amazing espressos we’ve found and which ones we think are the most interesting and worth your money. If you’re looking to find an exciting new bean to spice up your morning routine, this is the article for you.
Kicking Horse Coffee has been around since 1996 when the founders started brewing beans in their garage. They’ve grown to be a well-known and well-respected brand of coffee. They distinguish themselves with bold but comforting flavors and consistent quality roasts. Since they switched to an all organic, fair-trade and sustainable production process, you can also buy their coffee confident that you are contributing to a principled business.
All of that is to say, it’s hard to find a better espresso than this. The Cliff Hanger Espresso is a medium roast that carries a smooth and delicious blend of flavors. There’s fruit in here, but also chocolate, in a combination that’s simultaneously rich without being too heavy. That’s an accomplishment. You know what? I’m excited to start my day with this coffee because of how evenly it brews and how good it tastes.
The blend is all Arabica, as are all Kicking Horse Coffees, but it includes beans from Africa, Indonesia, and even Central and South America. What a world of experience in just a 2.2-pound bag. Whether you are French roasting, doing a pour over, or relying on a traditional drip machine, this espresso will come out fantastic every time. All that, and you won’t break the bank bringing this home. What more could you ask for?
Death Wish coffee burst onto the scene in 2012 with a bold claim: That they had the strongest coffee in the world, as much as twice as strong as your standard brew. People were skeptical, but so far, they have delivered on that claim. How do they do this? By being very selective and meticulous about the beans they use with their top-secret brewing process. This team is constantly reviewing bean growing conditions around the world to ensure they only get the best stuff.
Though it’s a little pricier, we are big fans of Death Wish coffee beans for espresso. Rather than offer a whole range of flavors, they have one solid profile that includes cherry and chocolate. Like the kick, it’s strong, but unlike the kick, you won’t feel overpowered. It’s just a great taste. Even if you decide to mix your coffee with milk or sweetener, Death Wish will leave you feeling energized. The beans and country of origin can and do change, so this a coffee for people who want good stuff no matter where it’s from.
If the price of coffee beans sometimes seems a little high, don’t worry, there are plenty of great coffees out there you can get without straining your wallet. For budget coffee aficionados, our top recommendation is Olde Brooklyn Coffee.
We were surprised that a coffee selling at practically wholesale prices would still taste good and avoid common pitfalls of the cheaper stuff (overwhelming acidity, thin flavor, burnt taste, etc), but the fact is, they do good work.
Olde Brooklyn focuses on small batch roasting in the US close to distribution centers. This means their coffee is more likely to be fresh than coffees that come out more mechanized and distributed processes.
Their primary sources of beans are central and south America, but they are no strangers to using crops from SE Asia or Africa. This one in particular comes from Columbia, Brazil, and Guatemala.
You’ve Seen the Best…
Narrowing down to those three took a lot of research and review, but we feel confident that depending on what you’re looking for, one of those three is going to serve you the best. Having said that, there are plenty of great coffees from great companies that were close to making the cut. Here’s our take on the wider world of espresso coffee.
This was a definite strong contender for me. Why? One, I like milder but creamy flavors that tend towards the sweet side, which this nails with tastes of almonds and honey. Two, I like more medium roasts as that hits the sweet spot for me of being strong enough to start the day without making me feel jittery.
It’s not perfect, I tend to like single origin coffees more, which this is not. It has beans from South America and South Asia, and it uses both Arabica and Robusta. Still, Lavazza knows what they are doing, and this is a good example of why they have been successful thus far!
This coffee definitely wins the award for best packaging! From the makers of Death Wish Coffee comes this spin on their original caffeinated vehicle to the afterlife. Though it claims to be for those who “bleed black”, most people actually find this blend on the easier-to-handle side of caffeine rushes compared to traditional Death Wish coffee.
All the best parts are still there, the smooth flavors and the strong kick, but it may not keep you going all day. With all that and being on the pricier side, it’s a solid coffee with some minor limitations.
Koffee Kult is focused on building a dedicated following with local fans, and it seems to be working for them. They pride themselves on a clean and consistent process that produces a mild yet flavorful coffee with low acidity.
It’s a darker roast that never tastes heavy or burnt. Their beans come from all over the world, but especially Arabica beans from South America. Highly rated, friendly service, decent price, all around they make a fine product.
Allegro coffee has been in the coffee game for over 40 years, and it shows. The coffee tastes good, and they’ve been carefully intentional about every step of the production process.
When you buy their coffee, you know that someone who works for Allegro has actually met the farmer that grew these beans in Indonesia. This medium/dark roast with some excellent sweet flavors is perfect for mixing with a little milk and sugar.
Italian for gold quality, if there was a standard after-dinner coffee from Lavazza, this would be it. It blends together beans from six different countries, all Arabica, and claims to do so in a way that seamlessly blends each country’s flavor with the others. Overall, the taste of this medium roast is delicate, and it’s a fine example of Italian espresso. Mostly fruity in flavor with a mild sweetness.
This coffee can be brewed in a variety of ways, but it was made to really shine as an espresso bean. It boasts bold and rich flavors that are heavy on the chocolate. This makes it a strong contender for your breakfast coffee, especially if you have a bit of a sweet tooth. The flavor really shines when it’s straight up, but drinking it with a little milk won’t ruin your experience. Eight ‘o Clock prides itself on brewing great coffee right here in the US using beans from around the world.
Not all of Lavazza’s coffees are organic, but they explore growing more sustainable crops with this brand. We think it shows, because the flavors in this are full but also bouncy, light. There’s almost the sensation of really being among the trees and plants that grow this coffee and around this coffee, with fruity and floral sensations throughout. It’s a lighter medium roast from South America, and a comfortably warm experience.
Few coffee brands do it as sustainably as this strain of coffee bean. They’ve found a growing region where they don’t have to use any pesticides because coffee pests don’t naturally occur, and where they use worms and the refuse from old harvests as fertilizer for the growing process. Based in Honduras, this medium coffee has low acidity and tastes of chocolate and caramel. We recommend enjoying this with a light snack!
You usually expect your quality coffee brands to come out of the Northwest, New York, Europe, or other exotic locales, which is why Verena Street is such a pleasant surprise coming out of small towns in Iowa! This roasts an espresso that’s sweet but also velvety, something great for sipping and savoring on the tongue to feel all the flavors. It’s definitely a darker roast, so be ready for a bolder taste, but they do a good job of keeping the acidity reasonable. With Arabica beans sourced from around the world, this midwestern product may be up your alley.
Mayorga coffee started out just importing beans from Latin America, but soon they learned two things. One, they could probably roast it better themselves, and two, if they started selling the beans rather than just importing them, they could do even more to benefit the farmers they worked with. Over 30 years of roasting history has culminated in this dark, smooth, and nutty espresso with a chocolate finish.
These beans don’t have the most distinctive flavors or flavor profile, but it’s a solid espresso. And here’s the thing; at this price point, a five-pound bag of organically grown espresso beans with a toasty flavor profile is not a waste of your time.
There’s a reason Starbucks is one of the most well-known names in coffee, because they know how to make a good cup of coffee. The rich caramel flavors in their dark roasted espresso are no disappointment, but also not a show-stopper. If you were to walk into a Starbucks right now and order a latte, the espresso you’d get would be this. Not too acidic, mixes well with milk and other flavors.
In the military, AK47’s are seen as sturdy rifles that will always get the job done. That’s the idea behind Black Rifle’s espresso roast. They’ve blended light beans from Columbia with dark Beans from Brazil to create a flavor profile that’s an interesting mix of citrus and chocolate. The best part? No matter how you roast it, this will come out fine, though it was definitely made to be an espresso. Overall, it’s on the lighter side of a medium/dark roast.
If you were looking for a coffee that seemed to be made for brewing into cappuccinos, I would say this is your bean. Stone Street is a New York brand that brings five different coffees together into this blend that ends up pretty smooth. Nothing stands out, but the flavor is strong enough to work well with the steamed milk and foam of a cappuccino. You can even go breve with the latte as this roast isn’t too dark to overpower cappuccinos on the lighter side.
Illy coffee is a worldwide brand, with their own range of roasts, brewing machines, and even teas and assorted accessories. They’re on the higher end of coffee brands in terms of price, and what you get in quality and brand recognition, you lose in terms of a real connection to your brewer. This coffee comes in slick air-sealed canisters that preserve freshness, and when cracked open, you get caramelly-goodness. This coffee is good but, honestly, it’s a little overpriced for what you get.
Chances are if you’ve tried this coffee it was served to you in a coffee shop in LA, their hometown. They target small businesses who are looking to serve great coffee at decent prices, but there’s nothing wrong with bringing this stuff into your kitchen. Dark roast, low acidity and caramel flavor, what’s not to like?
Whew! Ok, we just covered almost two DOZEN different coffees for you to try. They couldn’t all be winners, but based on what you’re looking for, there’s no bad choices in the bunch.
Now, let’s talk about what you should be looking for when shopping for espresso in the first place. What should you expect from this type of coffee? Which one is the right one for you and your home? What determines things like flavor, fullness, acidity, and everything else that makes your coffee what it is?
Here’s the deal: There is no such thing as an “espresso bean”. All coffee beans can be used to make espresso, because making espresso is about the process you use to actually brew and extract flavors and caffeine. Now, there are plenty of coffee roasters who have their particular way of selecting and preparing beans that they intend to be used for espresso.
See, when it comes to coffee, espresso is known for having richer flavors and a more intense caffeine kick. Therefore, if you want to make espresso as espresso-y as possible, you are going to prefer beans that, from the beginning, are more likely to have more caffeine and stronger flavors. Makes sense, right?
All of that is to say, when you are buying espresso, you’re buying coffee that has probably been selected for its flavor profile and intensity to be a good match for a particular espresso drinking experience. Which espresso drinking experience depends on what you want.
If you want to read more about what goes into espresso preparation, we recommend it, it’s a fascinating process, but long story short: espresso is made by shooting high pressure water through finely ground, highly compressed coffee. That’s why it’s made so fast while still being a decent shot of caffeine.
Yes and no. Yes, per ounce of espresso, you are getting more caffeine than you are in a cup of coffee. But there is more caffeine total in a cup of coffee than there is a single shot of espresso. Think of espresso as a faster, smaller, cup of coffee. There’s less to drink and it brews faster than drip coffee, and pound for pound it’s more intense.
Since you’re just buying coffee, here’s a little more info about what defines a cup of coffee, and how to assess those factors
Almost all coffee sold commercially today is one of two varieties, Arabica or Robusta. Robusta beans have fallen out of favor with all but the cheapest coffees because of their harsher flavors and stronger acidity (though they do have more caffeine). Arabica beans have lower acidity and smoother flavors. All of the coffees we recommend for espresso are Arabica beans.
It may seem like the geographic origin of your beans has a large impact on their flavor, and it does, but it’s very complicated. We could write a whole other article just about the different growing regions, countries, and how they are known in the world of coffee.
Some regions, like the America’s and SE Asia, are known for particular flavor profiles, eg lighter berry notes vs smoother spicy tastes, respectively. But here’s the thing: The soil, climate, type of bean grown, and the post-harvest prep all impact the flavor. For example, Vietnam grows a ton of coffee, but it’s primarily Robusta, so the flavors are very different than the higher quality types grown in Sumatra. A roaster in Iowa can get smoky dark flavors while a roaster in Canada gets light berry florals.
All that is to say, origin is important, but also tough to pin down. If you have a particular region in mind, go for it, but don’t worry too much about it, at least not to start.
As part of the coffee preparation process, beans are roasted. The longer you roast the beans, the more you change the flavor. There’s a whole gradient of roasts you can achieve, but you can understand them for now as three distinct classes: Light, Medium, and Dark
Grind and Brewing
In short, how finely you grind your coffee changes flavor profile and intensity, as well as other attributes. The grind you use is more determined by your brewing process than anything else. This article is about espressos, so you’ll want a fine grind and an espresso brewing process, but you can read more about the differences in the processes in our other article about coffee in general.
There is no right or wrong time to drink espresso. If you want to grab a shot in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, you go right ahead! Coffee is made to be enjoyed, and if you are looking for a fix and a smooth, warm, flavorful pick me up, do it.
Traditionally espresso is consumed in the following ways at the following times.
Straight, First Thing in the Morning
Some of us just don’t have the time or patience for a cup of coffee! While an espresso shot doesn’t have quite as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, it’s still got a great kick. 1-3 espresso shots around breakfast time will definitely get you going. It’s great because you can just knock it back quickly and it’s typically ready faster. If you are drinking your espresso straight, you may want to mix it up prior to drinking. It’s not always a perfect mixture. Beans that have smoother flavor profiles with less acidity are better for this type of consumption.
In an Americano
An Americano is when you add hot water to an espresso shot, making it more similar to a traditional cup of coffee. The story goes, when Americans were first exposed to Italian espresso, they wanted to make it more like what they were used to (ie drip coffee). Some espresso aficionados will argue that this ruins the full flavor and experience of brewing true espresso. We tend to agree, to a point. That is to say, there is nothing wrong with drinking an americano, but it’s better to use a bean that has a strong flavor that won’t be ruined by adding water. I also tend to avoid making Americanos with my nicer espresso roasts. If I’m making espresso with top-of-the-line beans, I want to savor it.
Part of a drink with milk and/or foam
This is for your cappuccinos, lattes, and macchiatos. However you prefer to get some creamy flavors in your morning espresso. If you’re making these, as with Americano’s I tend towards flavor profiles that blend well with creamy textures and that don’t lose too much taste in dairy.
As a Drink After Dinner or With Dessert
Though in America we see coffee as primarily a drink to give you energy to get through the day, it has more diverse uses around the world. Some people drink coffee
In recent years, we have all become much more aware of how the products we buy impact the planet. This means how did we treat the farmers that grew the beans, how did we grow the beans in the first place, and how did they literally get from the field to your coffee cup?
There are dozens of certifications companies, growers, brewers, and distributors can get that identify them as responsible members of the agricultural value chain. The three designations you’ll want to look out for are Organic, Sustainable, and Fair Trade.
This is the term that’s been around the longest, but it’s still a little tricky to pin down. Coffee is one of the most highly traded commodities in the world. We produce, worldwide, over 9 million tons of coffee every year. That’s beans, which means we are brewing way more than that. When you are trying to hit production numbers that high, you are incentivizing processes that prize output volume over everything else.
As we started to recognize the impact of unfettered coffee production on the local environment, we started to develop standards for reducing it. Organic coffee is grown without using pesticides or herbicides and relying on more natural techniques to encourage growth, limit pests, and limit weeds. Whether that’s relying on natural fertilizers, growing companion plants to limit insect populations, or whatever else, when you buy organic, you can be relatively certain your coffee didn’t devastate the local ecosystem.
This is where the environmental and economic factors merge. Were the inputs to the production process acquired at prices that can maintain all participants? Was the local ecosystem impacted in a way it can recover from? Did the transportation include less damaging forms (eg more boats, less planes)?
All of these questions and more are weighed when assigning this label. It’s even harder to cleanly define than organic but the basic idea is sound. The goal is to create a production process that, if run year after year, won’t eliminate the ability to maintain itself.
As mentioned in the section on organic, when you are focused on output, people can get hurt. There is a long history of less-developed countries having their farmers and economies exploited, sometimes terribly, in order to get things like coffee. Fair Trade efforts are a response to that.
The goal is to put the farmers, harvesters, dryers etc. who are in the field on the same level of consideration as the major companies who buy, distribute, and sell coffee beans en masse. This means paying them fair rates and it means considering the livelihood of them and their community in how you plan your coffee production.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this article about finding the best espresso. We certainly enjoyed writing it. Coffee is our passion and finding the best ones takes time and work. But it’s worth it to find that right start to your day.
There are plenty of great options out there, so find the one that sounds best to you and get brewing! Smooth and rich flavors await as you play around with this classic Italian product that has endured for over 100 years.
As always, check out the rest of our site if you want to learn even more about coffee. It’s a deep and fascinating industry, and it’s hard not to love.