6 Best Coffee Beans for Espresso, Latte, and Cappuccino

ES Fil FR KO VI

How to kickstart a wonderful day? For many people, nothing beats a strong Espresso or a silky-smooth Latte or Cappuccino. This article will guide you on how to choose the perfect coffee beans for Espresso and introduce you to the top 6 options in the American market, including the Italian classic “illy,” domestic specialty coffee brands and exclusive delivery services.

TL;DR

illy Classico
– Classic Italian Espresso
8.8oz whole bean $14.99
8.8oz ground $14.99
  • Roast: Medium
  • Origin: Not specified
  • Flavor: Caramel, Orange Blossom, Jasmine
Lavazza Espresso Italiano
Cheaper Alternative to illy
35.2oz whole bean $14.98
48oz ground $33.49
  • Roast: Medium
  • Origin: Central and South America
  • Flavor: Hazelnut, Chocolate

Lavazza Qualità Rossa
Best for automatic coffee machines
35.2oz ground $21.99
35.2oz whole bean $24.36
  • Roast: Medium-Dark
  • Origin: Brazil and Africa
  • Flavor: Cacao Nibs
Lifeboost Grata
– Best Single-Origin Coffee
12oz / 340g $24.60
Available in whole bean or ground
Subscribe & Save
  • Roast: Medium
  • Origin: Nicaragua
  • Flavor Notes: Chocolate, Fig, Nuts
Intelligentsia Black Cat
Legendary specialty coffee
12oz / 340g $16.50
Choice of beans or ground
  • Roast: Dark
  • Origin: Brazil, Colombia
  • Flavor: Chocolate, Molasses
Drink Trade Coffee Delivery
Renowned Customization
Starting at $15.75 per bag
  • Roast: Multiple options
  • Origin: Various locations
  • Flavor: Many choices

*All prices are as of writing

Things to Know About Espresso Beans

Single-Origin vs Blends

Hardcore coffee enthusiasts might tell you that single-origin is the way to go. It means the coffee comes from a single estate or, at the very least, from a specific region like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, where there are many small coffee farmers. Single-origin coffee allows you to experience the flavors and characteristics of a particular origin, making the taste more intriguing.

Coffee farms on the high mountains of Nicaragua
Photo: Dennis Tang (CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, for many regular folks, blended coffee beans are a great choice. A lot of busy coffee shops also use blends, and there are two main reasons for that:

  • On one hand, many people are already accustomed to the familiar taste of “the espresso.” It doesn’t actually represent the flavor of any specific single-origin coffee.
  • On the other hand, single-origin coffee can be expensive. Blends often use cheaper coffee beans from countries like Brazil and Indonesia as the base, and some even throw in 20% robusta beans, making them more budget-friendly.

Single-origin coffees are usually roasted to a medium to medium-dark level. You’ll likely easily taste the richness of acidity and the aroma of fruits and flowers. Single-origin coffees roasted to this level are best enjoyed on their own, without mixing them with milk for lattes, mochas, or cappuccinos.

Coffee Roast Levels

Espresso is typically roasted to a relatively darker level. It’s the familiar taste that most people associate with “Espresso.” If you’re making a latte or cappuccino, you need a darker roast to balance the flavor of the milk.

For beginners, the usual recommendation is to choose a roast level between medium and medium-dark. Whether you’re making a latte, pour-over, or single-shot espresso, you can achieve good results with this range. If the roast is too dark, the taste may become bitter, especially when drinking a single shot.

You can judge the roast level of coffee by its appearance:

  • If the coffee beans are dark in color but have a dry surface, it’s called a “full city roast.” It’s slightly darker than a medium roast and can be used for making espresso.
  • If there’s oil on the surface of the coffee beans, it means the roast level is darker than a full city roast and has reached a “dark” level.
  • If the coffee beans have a lot of oil on the surface, almost shining, it means they are French or Italian roasted, which is “very, very dark.”

The table below shows a comparison of common roast levels.

Cinnamon
Light
Light Roasts
  • Perfect for cold brew coffee
  • Light brown color
  • Surface is not oily
  • Taste the unique flavors of the coffee’s origin
  • Acidity: ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Bitterness: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
  • Oiliness: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
City
Medium
Medium Roasts
  • Good for cold brew, pour-over, drip brewing, single shot/single origin
  • Medium brown color
  • Slightly sweeter than light roast
  • Balanced taste, aroma, and acidity
  • Acidity: ★ ★ ★ ☆
  • Bitterness: ★ ★ ☆ ☆
  • Oiliness: ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Full City
Dark
Medium-Dark Roasts
  • Ideal for espresso and French press brewing
  • Rich color with a slightly oily surface
  • Bittersweet aftertaste
  • Flavor and aroma emerge, acidity diminishes
  • Acidity: ★ ★ ☆ ☆
  • Bitterness: ★ ★ ★ ☆
  • Oiliness: ★ ★ ★ ☆
French
Italian
Dark Roasts
  • Best for espresso
  • Shiny black color with an oily surface.
  • Pronounced bitterness
  • Original flavors fade, roasted notes prevail
  • Acidity: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
  • Bitterness: ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Oiliness: ★ ★ ★ ★

Freshness is key when it comes to coffee, and the same goes for espresso. The optimal timeframe is usually within 1 to 4 weeks after roasting. If you’re purchasing from online retailers like Amazon, it’s best to choose brands that sell and ship directly, increasing the chances of getting freshly roasted coffee beans.

In recent years, there’s been a roasting method called “Omni.” Omni is derived from Latin and roughly translates to “any” or “every.” As the name suggests, the goal of this roasting method is to be “suitable for any brewing method,” including espresso, pour-over, and French press. To achieve this, it has to strike a balance and compromise. For example, it can’t be roasted too dark to be suitable for pour-over. If you prefer the traditional espresso flavor or want to make lattes and cappuccinos, you might find its taste on the lighter side.

Arabica vs Robusta

Robusta coffee doesn’t possess the same level of sweetness and acidity as Arabica. Its overall flavor profile is considered rougher, but it does contain more caffeine and produces more crema, which some people may appreciate.

Espresso, due to its darker roast level, doesn’t showcase a lot of acidity. From this perspective, well-grown Robusta beans can actually be used to make espresso or espresso based drinks. Many commercially available espresso blends incorporate a certain percentage of Robusta beans — like mentioned earlier, they contain more caffeine, produce more crema, and, importantly, Robusta is more cost-effective.

Arabica CoffeeRobusta Coffee
FlavorDelicate, nuanced, and complex flavorsBolder, stronger, and more bitter flavors
AcidityHigher acidity levels, often bright and vibrantLower acidity, sometimes described as earthy or woody
CaffeineLower caffeine content (1.2-1.5%)Higher caffeine content (2.7-4%)
AppearanceElongated, curved shape with a smoother surfaceRounder shape, darker color, and rougher surface
GrowingGrown at higher altitudes (600-2000m)Grown at lower altitudes (sea level to 600m)
CultivationRequires specific conditions and careful cultivationTolerates a wider range of growing conditions and easier to grow
ProductionApproximately 60% of global coffee productionApproximately 40% of global coffee production
PriceUsually more expensiveUsually cheaper
BlendingOften used as a base for espresso blends and specialty coffeesFrequently used in instant coffee and commercial blends
AromaMore diverse and aromatic, with floral and fruity notesLess aromatic, with more earthy and nutty notes

If you’re into sipping on a strong cup of espresso, I recommend going for brands that use 100% Arabica coffee beans, preferably ones that blend in some high-altitude beans from East Africa or Central America. This will give you a taste of fruity flavors. You don’t need to go too dark with the roast — if the surface is shiny and glossy, it might be a tad too dark.

If you enjoy coffee with milk, like a latte or cappuccino, you might want to consider a blend with a darker roast, maybe even including some Robusta beans. The deeper roast is necessary to cut through the milk’s flavor.

The Classic Italian Espresso: illy Classico

illy, the renowned Italian company, is practically synonymous with “espresso.” Despite being a big player in the industry, they put great care into selecting coffee beans and blending their coffees, rarely disappointing. The illy Classico is a 100% Arabica blend with a medium roast, suitable for almost all brewing methods and was used in world barista championships.

8.8oz / 250g whole bean $14.99 at illy.com
8.8oz / 250g ground $14.99 at illy.com

These days, some people may feel a bit “bored” of illy’s classic beans, and they may not always come out on top in highly demanding coffee competitions. However, regardless of the brewing method you use, illy Classico won’t let you down. If you have a grinder at home, I recommend getting whole beans, but remember that espresso requires a very fine grind (extra fine) – your grinder should have the ability to make precise adjustments.

Coffee grind chart; Image: grosche.ca

For those without a grinder, illy also offers pre-ground Classico coffee at the same price. You can purchase it from their official website for guaranteed freshness or through illy’s store on Amazon.

Budget Alternative: Lavazza Espresso Italiano

Lavazza, just like illy, is an Italian brand. They are like the BMW and Mercedes-Benz, or KFC and McDonald’s, in coffee industry. The Espresso Italiano from Lavazza is also a 100% Arabica blend with a medium roast. Its flavor profile is subtle yet balanced, with hints of hazelnut and chocolate. It’s a versatile coffee that can be enjoyed on its own or used for milk-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.

14,814 Reviews

35.2oz / 1000g whole bean $14.98
48oz / 1360g ground $33.49

Lavazza Espresso Italiano is a great alternative to illy Classico. We think its quality is on par with illy but at a more affordable price. Perhaps that’s why it remains a consistent bestseller on Amazon.

Best for Automatic Coffee Machines: Lavazza Qualità Rossa

Qualità Rossa is another classic offering from Lavazza. It’s a blend that includes a higher percentage of Robusta beans (60% Arabica + 40% Robusta), making it bolder and less acidic with fewer subtle flavors. It excels in its crema, mouthfeel, and texture, representing a traditional Italian espresso with notes of cocoa. It also features a medium roast, without the oily nature of Starbucks coffees.

10,698 Reviews

35.2oz / 1000g whole bean $24.36
35.2oz / 1000g ground $21.99

Despite not being 100% Arabica, many people love this coffee because of its unique qualities. It’s definitely worth a try. Additionally, thanks to its rich crema and bold flavor, it’s particularly well-suited for super-automatic coffee machines as it compensates for the extraction limitations that many of these machines have.

Best Single-Origin Coffee: Lifeboost Grata

Lifeboost Coffee is our favorite single-origin coffee. It hails from the shaded slopes of Nicaragua (set between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea), where 100% Arabica beans are meticulously grown. These beans are nurtured without the use of pesticides, hand-picked, washed with spring water, sun-dried, and undergo three rounds of heavy metal and toxin testing. They have earned the USDA organic certification, making them the healthiest and most reliable coffee brand on the market. Plus, they are freshly roasted with every order!

Lifeboost Grata | 12oz / 340g
$24.60 at lifeboostcoffee.com
Whole beans or ground; Subscribe & save

Grata, in particular, is a medium roast that boasts a rich and full-bodied flavor. It has a smooth and velvety texture, striking a perfect balance between aroma, taste, low acidity, and high sweetness. Its flavor profile resembles chocolate-covered figs with hints of creaminess and nuttiness, accompanied by a subtle fragrance of dried fruits.

America’s Specialty Coffee Brand: Intelligentsia

Intelligentsia is a legend in the world of specialty coffee in the United States. Founded in 1995 in San Francisco, they have been practicing direct trade since 2002, sourcing coffee beans directly from the farms at a reasonable cost while maintaining exceptional quality. If you’re tired of the marketing tactics of big multinational brands, this homegrown specialty coffee brand is definitely worth a try.

12oz / 340g $16.50 at intelligentsia.com
5lb / 2267g $91.50 at intelligentsia.com

Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Coffee, hailing mainly from the Carmo de Minas region in Brazil (blended with coffee from Colombia), offers a rich and mysterious flavor. This coffee is sun-dried, creating a smooth and velvety mouthfeel with notes of chocolate, caramel, and syrup. Its low acidity makes it a perfect choice for milk-based drinks and those with sensitive stomachs. You can choose between whole beans or ground for this Black Cat coffee. If you opt for ground coffee, you can select from a range of grind sizes, with 1 being the finest for espresso. The roast date is noted on the packaging.

Drink Trade’s Coffee Subscription

In recent years, coffee subscription services have been gaining popularity, and Trade Coffee is one of the best in the game. While most small-scale coffee subscriptions focus on a specific roasting style, Trade Coffee partners with dozens of roasters across the United States. This not only caters to a wider range of tastes but also allows you to explore different styles without having to switch subscription providers.

You have the option to choose from different collections like light roast, medium roast, dark roast, and espresso select. Alternatively, you can answer a series of questions to let them determine which coffees are best suited for you:

  • Your preferred brewing method
  • Your level of knowledge and experience with coffee
  • Whether you like to add anything to your coffee or prefer it black
  • Your preferred roast level
  • Whether you prefer traditional flavors, a hint of innovation, or love experimenting
  • Whether you prefer whole beans, ground coffee, or a mix of both
  • Whether you prefer regular coffee or decaf
Trade’s Espresso Collection
$19.50 / bag at drinktrade.com
First bag free for subscription
Choose between whole beans or coffee grounds with multiple levels of fineness.

Once you’ve nailed down your preferences (which you can change anytime), you can select how often you want your coffee delivered (2-4 times per month). New members get their first bag for free, and you can cancel anytime. Based on feedback from many people, Trade’s coffee selection algorithm is accurate, and the delivered coffees align with their taste preferences. If you’re looking to try specially curated, freshly roasted espresso beans made just for you, Trade is an excellent choice.

Derek Yang

I’m an immigrant living with my family in a small town on the East Coast. I love classical music, enjoy a good cup of coffee, and have a soft spot for BMWs. I believe in lifelong learning and look forward to connecting with you to share our life experiences. Twitter @mrderekyang.

Disclosure: We are an Amazon Associate. Some links on this website are affiliate links, which means we may earn a commission or receive a referral fee when you sign up or make a purchase through those links.

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