The coffee market offers a vast array of beans of every origin, in every degree of roast and grind. With so many options to choose from, how does one go about picking the best bean for making espresso?
It is best to start with the basics. Cappuccinos and lattes are variations on espresso. They differ only in their ratio of espresso to steamed milk. Neither requires its own separate kind of bean.
The inexperienced shopper could easily be fooled into thinking that there are countless assortments of beans to chose from and be overwhelmed. Sometimes, unscrupulous marketers with take advantage of this common myth so they seem to have a larger inventory. In reality, there are only two types of beans available commercially: Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica is a high altitude bean, grown at 2,400 feet above sea lever or higher, characterized by a smooth, yet slightly acidic, taste. It is usually grown in eastern Africa and Central and South America. Robusta grows in the lower altitudes of Southeast Asia, central Africa and Latin America and has a more potent, sometimes bitter taste.
There are many methods and opinions about the best way to roast beans, but the basic process involves exposing green, raw coffee beans to high temperatures, usually about 480 degrees Fahrenheit, for seven to 12 minutes. The heat alters the beans, manipulating their natural bitterness and acidity. The beans become more bitter and less acidic the longer they are roasted.
There is no one right way to roast or grind beans for espresso. In fact, espresso is usually made with a blend of beans of different colors and consistencies. It is not uncommon for different geographical areas to favor a specific blend. For example, in northern Italy, they prefer espresso roast in the medium range, while California tastes lean toward the darker, French roast.
You are not likely to find the freshest beans in a grocery store, and you can bet on that when in comes to pre ground coffee. The best you can do in that situation is pay close attention to the expiration date. You should have better luck finding fresh beans in a coffee house, especially one that roasts in house. Naturally, they will need to roast more of the most popular, fastest selling bean more often, and it is probably the most popular for a reason. Perfect freshness comes from grinding your own just roasted beans immediately before brewing.
Quality beans are a good place to start, but by no means is that the only factor to consider when making espresso. Other things to think about are the time lapse between grinding and brewing, the time lapse since roasting, the condition of equipment and water quality. What makes the best espresso will likely be an endless debate, but the endless options ultimately boil down to a matter of preference.