What We Mean By “Good For Espresso”

Only some coffees come with our “Good for Espresso” recommendation, and here’s why.

If you’re like me, you want to try every coffee as espresso. No coffee is too bright or fruity to give a run through my machine. But I don’t think the same can be said for the majority of espresso drinkers! Because of this, I try to keep in mind when writing reviews that I’m not the target audience. Hopefully this post provides some context to how we come up with our espresso recommendations. -Dan

For our customers chasing the perfect single origin espresso, we do our best to point you in the right direction. You may have noticed “Good for Espresso” in the short descriptions, or perhaps you use our link to current espresso recommendations in the Green Coffee menu drop down. Whatever the case, not all coffees are created equal, and there are certain criteria we consider when looking for the best ones for espresso extraction.

What makes a good espresso is a pretty subjective question, but I’d venture to say there is middle ground to be found across the espresso flavor spectrum. Whether you enjoy fruited and wild, or bitter and mild, how well a shot is perceived has a lot to do with the interplay of bitter and sweetness in the cup. But flavor is only one part of what’s enjoyable about espresso, the other part being tactile appeal.

See the full list of "Good for Espresso" coffees via the link in the Green Coffee drop-down menu under the "Shop by Type" category at the right of the menu.
See the full list of “Good for Espresso” coffees via the link in the Green Coffee drop-down menu under the “Shop by Type” category at the right of the menu.

In order to make the cut for our recommendation, a coffee has to take well to darker roasting. Bitter is good to a point, and works well as a base that cuts through milk in a cappuccino. Sweetness should be present too, the degree to which will vary from one coffee to the next. Some fruit or acidity are OK, but we generally shy away from coffees like Kenyas with screaming vibrance, or dry process Ethiopias with over the top fruit. And viscosity of the espresso itself has to be pleasing in mouthfeel.

Answers to some common questions about how we categorize a coffee as “Good for Espresso”:

Which coffees are best for espresso?

The answer will differ from one customer to the next, but the ones we tend to lean towards for our recommendations have big body, mild to moderate acidity (“Brightness” on our cupping spider graph), and heavy chocolate roast flavors when developed to Full City/Full City+.

Do all the coffees you recommend for espresso taste the same?

Absolutely not! But they most fit the criteria laid out in the previous answer, but have their own unique flavor profile. We try to include notes on the espresso profile for all coffees we recommend, but do fall short from time to time.

All green coffees that we recommend as espresso will have "Good for Espresso" at the end of the short description on the landing page.
All green coffees that we recommend as espresso will have “Good for Espresso” at the end of the short description on the landing page.

Do you test every coffee on your menu as espresso?

We do not. We can usually tell if a coffee will work well as espresso or not when cupping it. All of our reviews are based off of 2 or 3 different roast levels, and the darker roast is provides a lot of information on how a coffee might perform as espresso.

Does a good espresso require blending?

No. You can enjoy these coffees as espresso without having to blend them. We base our espresso recommendations on how a coffee tastes on its own, what’s referred to as a “single origin espresso”, or “SO” for short. What blending does allow you to do is construct a flavor profile you couldn’t otherwise achieve with a single coffee. Check out our Blending Basics page for more on that topic.

What about coffees that don’t have your espresso recommendation, does that mean they’re bad for espresso?

Not necessarily! We recommend coffees that we think will have the widest appeal, which to some extent means “safe”. But if you like dry process Ethiopia, for example, and are a fan of espresso, there’s a good chance you’ll like it as espresso, even though it doesn’t have our official approval. We encourage you to be adventurous!

The spider and radar cupping graphs in Sweet Maria's green coffee reviews.
I can tell just by looking at these graphs that this Guatemalan coffee should make a chocolatey, big-bodied espresso with mild acidity.

I want to look for other espresso options on your list that aren’t necessarily recommended. Where should I start?

Most of the information you need to get some idea of how a coffee will perform as espresso is in our reviews. We parse out cup characteristics relevant to espresso extraction, like mouthfeel and sweetness, in the Cupping Notes tab. Our spider and radar graphs also give a good visual representation of how different cup characteristics or flavors rate. As a general rule of thumb, stick to coffees with a “Body” score of at least 8.5 on the spider graph and 3.5 on the radar graph. I also look for coffees with a “Cocoa” category score of around 3.5, and a “Sweetness” category score of 8.5 or higher. If you find bright, sharpness in espresso unpleasant, a “Brightness” category (the acidic impression) score of 8.0 or less should be safe, though dark roasts round off the acidity quite a bit, even in the flavor profile of a coffee with a “Brightness” score of 8.5. These numbers aren’t rigid rules, but a general baselines to help guide your search.

Do I need to roast espresso differently than I roast my coffee for brewing?

This depends on how you like your espresso. I tend to roast coffee light for brew, and darker for espresso. Developing a roast into the Full City/Full City+ territory will boost body and round off the acidic bite, which to me, makes for a more pleasing shot of espresso in the end. Our espresso recommendations are always made based on a Full City roasts and beyond. This doesn’t mean you won’t find the acidic vibrance that comes with lighter roasted espresso appealing. I do, though I personally don’t think it pairs well with milk.

Pulling a ristretto shot using the Flair Classic model portable espresso maker
Pulling a ristretto shot using the Flair Classic model portable espresso maker.

Will all of your espresso recommendations produce a really nice crema?

The amount of crema you yield in a shot has as much to do with method (roast level, grind particulates, tamp, etc) as it does the coffee itself. Sure, certain coffee types and post harvest process methods are more conducive to creating that lush, golden layer of emulsified coffee oils. But crema doesn’t necessarily signal “goodness” in espresso, and some espresso drinkers go as far as skimming the bittering layer off altogether before drinking!

Where can I find the espresso recommendation on your website?

You can see the entire list of coffees tagged espresso in our green coffee menu drop down, under the “Shop by Type” list, and selecting “Good for Espresso”. But we also add the “Good for Espresso” note at the end of the short description on the landing page for each coffee, and on the physical coffee labels.

Other espresso resources:

Have a look at our current list of espresso recommendations HERE.

Interested in the basic fundamentals of espresso? Check out Espresso: All Things Espresso

We go over some espresso blending basics Choosing the Right Coffee for Espresso

We offer our own espresso blends HERE.

15 Responses

    1. Thanks for the note Michael! You are correct. I’ve gone back in and updated those terms to match up exactly with the cupping graph terminology. Good call and appreciate the heads up!

      -Dan

    1. Hey there Timothy, it most definitely will just as soon as we have Yemen back in stock! We are expecting arrivals in the next few weeks. You can monitor transit information here, though it’s only updated once a month – March Green Coffee Outlook.

      Thanks again for the note!

      Dan

  1. Great post! I was always a bit curious about what exactly led to the “good for espresso” label. I like my espresso roasts to lean a bit light to avoid too much roast character in the shot. I’ve also found that a little darker roast goes a long way to getting consistently fuller body that a lighter roast won’t have (at least with the shots i’m pulling on a lever machine). This post has encouraged me to get back into SO espressos. Just beware that getting some yucky shots is part of the process, but the magical gem-like shots are hidden within. At least that’s been my experience, and why some of SM’s blends are just always amazing, all the time, and end up being my go-to when I’m being a lazy home roaster (can’t get enough new classic!)

    1. Hey David, I’m also a fan of lighter roasted, bright espresso shots. I have to be careful not to recommend high acidity coffees like Kenya, for example. Just because I like them, doesn’t mean everyone will! Since you tend to enjoy brighter acidity that comes with lighter roasting, I’d say to keep an eye on body score for some of the African coffees on our list. They may not have our official espresso recommendation, but just might suit your preferences. Plus, coffees with high acidity are likely to retain some that vibrance in dark roasts too, making for a really complex shot. Perhaps not for everyone, but something I really enjoy.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Dan

  2. I have been enjoying your 8 pound samplers during the quarantine for espresso. So far I have tried 14 different beans (2 duplicates which were also good). With small batch roasting this is a good way to compare coffee and roasts. I do recommend taking notes as it is easy to get the results confused as you progress. I have developed a very repeatable process for preparing and pulling a shot which leaves the roast and beans as variables.

    You briefly mention blending. Can you point me to any reference material on how to successfully blend?

    1. Hey John, great question and comments. I couldn’t agree more that minimizing the variables that affect the roasting and brewing process is the quickest path to coming up with a repeatable baseline that you can then fine tune. And of course, lots of notes help too! I used to buy the 8 lb sampler too, before I started working here, and always appreciated the variety and value. Glad it’s worked out for your needs too.

      Blending is a great way to construct a flavor profile that can’t be found in a single component. This article on choosing coffee for espresso has good info on blending for espresso as well. Blending can be as simple as 2 beans too….think Moka Java, for example (we have a 2 coffee blend set available here). It’s amazing how different ratios of the same 2 beans can taste so different.

      An 8 LB sample set gives you plenty of raw material to work with in order to construct a nice blend. Tasting a few of them (or all of them!) on their own first should help inform your decision of which coffees compliment each other. You’re already a note taker, and noting the different qualities you pick up on when drinking the coffees as espresso will really help you when considering which coffees to blend.

      You might start with a basic, bittersweet coffee as 50% of the blend, add 25% of a wet process Central or South American coffee for sweetness, and 25% of an Ethiopia or Kenya coffee for acidity and fruited accent notes. Be methodical and keep your approach simple. If you start with coffees that you already enjoy as espresso on their own, it should just be a matter of finding out what ratio works best for the blend.

      Thanks again for your comment John, and happy blending!

      Dan

  3. Thanks! No, I don’t care for espresso but I really like all the characteristics you put in the “good for “espresso category” the way I brew coffee. I was slowly figuring this out on my own but you’ve just made my search criteria easier. For a while I assumed that “good for espresso” meant bad for non-espresso so this article is a good idea.

    1. Wow, I hadn’t even considered that! But it makes sense, and I’m sure you’re not the only one who’s made that assumption. I appreciate you sharing your perspective Matt. I’m going to update the blog post to clarify that point.

      Thanks again for your comment and raising this question Matt!

      Dan

  4. Any chance you would bring the Polar Espresso as a regular blend. Moka Kadir was always my favorite until the Polar Espresso came along.

    1. Hey Norman, thanks for the comment. Moka Kadir will definitely return in a month or so, as soon as we have Yemen back in stock. Polar Expresso is a holiday blend that we only have for a short time in Nov/Dec. That said, our new Espresso Workshop Blend (yet to be named) has Burundi and DP Ethiopia in it, just like Polar Expresso. Where they differ is, the Workshop has a small amount of a washed Latin American ingredient which brings balanced bittersweetness to the bottom end. Hoping to launch this one next week!

      Best,
      Dan

  5. Have been a customer for a while, thanks for explaining this. I always wondered what went into the suggestion. While I am a big fan of Espresso Monkey I roast/drink quite a bit of SO. Guats seem to fit my taste preference but I have enjoyed some Kenyans as well. Variety is the spice I guess. Thanks for the explanation and an excellent product. I just wish I could grow coffee here in Alaska……

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