I could end this as one of the shortest articles I have ever written by simply saying, “Like Sasquatch, there’s no such thing.” You can call an elephant a dining room table, but that doesn’t make it a good place to set a dinner service for eight (even though there would be room for it).
We often see the very dark roasts in the grocery store plastic bins, covered in oil, labeled as “espresso roast.” These very-dark roasted coffee beans have a tradition that is said to have come from Italy. During the early part of the last century, during hard economic times when quality coffee was difficult to procure, low quality coffee beans were often used. Unfortunately, their taste matched their price point. To overcome that, the roasters pushed the roasting process darker and darker. Eventually they found a roast that was dark enough to remove or mask the actual taste of the coffee beans and create a taste that was overwhelmingly of the roast itself.
There are two main types of coffee beans, genetically speaking: Arabica and Robusta. A lot of that low-quality coffee mentioned above was cheap Robusta. It’s a good thing that it was dark roasted. While there are some quality Robusta coffee beans out there, the majority of them have an aroma and after taste of burnt bicycle inner tubes. It was that taste that the roasters were working to destroy. Robusta is still used today, of course. When quality Robusta is used sparingly in a blend it increases the crema in espresso.
While some beans do like a darker roast, in today’s coffee market there are a lot of very high quality beans and roasting them that dark destroys a lot of the flavor that the growers, processors, and roasters work to develop. These beans offer a wide range of flavors. Not like the artificially flavored coffee beans, but subtle sub-flavors; nuances if you will. Roasting these beans to that dark, “espresso roast” level would be like ordering blackened filet mignon.
So what to look for in beans to be used for espresso?
Beans that have, at the most, a few drops of oil on them. Avoid those that look like they have been stored in ta used oil pan of a ’58 DeSoto.
A nice medium to dark oak color. Some beans like to be a bit darker and some lighter, so don’t be afraid to try different roast levels.
Even when you find a bean you like, experiment! There is no reason to stick yourself in such a rut, only purchasing one specific bean origin, brand, or roast level.
I am often asked which espresso coffee beans are the best. The simple answer is that no one can answer that for you, and you will never know unless you try them all. That is surely not possible, but variety is certainly the spice of life so don’t get stuck in a rut with just once coffee.