Vast bins of coffee beans can be overwhelming to the novice espresso drinker. Do you find that the difference between a French roast and an Italian roast makes your head spin? Are you confused about which beans to use for the best espresso?
Let’s start with some basic information. Cappuccinos and lattes are simply variations on espresso. The difference is that they use different volume of steamed milk to espresso. They both use the same kind of dark roasted bean.
Sellers sometimes market a range of beans to give the impression of a large and varied inventory. But realistically there are just two types of beans available commercially: Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica is typically only found at high altitudes, a minimum of 2,400 feet above sea level. It is recognised by its smooth, slightly acidic taste. It is generally grown in eastern Africa and Central and South America. However, Robusta is grown at lower altitudes and has a more forceful, slightly bitter taste. It is generally grown in Southeast Asia, central Africa and Latin America.
Even though coffee roasters have their own techniques for roasting, in the general process the green, raw coffee bean is roasted at temperatures of 480 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, for a short time — usually for seven to 12 minutes. The high heat brings out the flavor balanced with its natural acidity and bitterness of the bean. The longer the roasting time, the more bitter and the less acidic the beans become.
Even though every roaster has their own “right” way if roasting the beans and sometimes has secret blends of beans, realistically there is no one right way to roast beans for espresso. In fact, espresso is usually made with a blend of beans of different colors and consistencies. It is normal for different geographical areas to favor their own blend. For example, in the west coast of the US, they prefer a very dark roast. But when companies like Starbucks started opening cafes in New England, they quickly learned that traditional North easterners enjoyed a lighter roast.
If you don’t have a coffee roaster nearby, you can mail order from a roaster like Naviera Coffee Mills in Tampa, Florida or if you are desperate, your local grocery may carry some beans that are somewhat fresh.
If you buy from your local grocery, pay close attention to the expiration date on the package. And if you buy from a coffee roaster, the best way to assure freshness is to get the most popular, fastest-selling bean. The faster the beans turn over, the more often they will need to be roasted, increasing your chances of enjoying the most freshly roasted beans. Ideal freshness results from grinding freshly roasted beans just before brewing.
Like a fine wine, the debate over what constitutes the best bean for your espresso will be endless, but in the end it is only a matter of taste. Try some different blends and brands and find the combination that gives you the most pleasure. Enjoy the journey as well as the destination!