Choosing the Right Coffee for Your New Espresso Machine

So you got that new espresso machine home and set it up. You’ve played with it and worked with it, and you’re pretty sure that you’re doing everything right, but the espresso just isn’t coming out quite right. Before you start blaming it all on your technique, you might take a look at the coffee that you’re using. The pure and simple fact of the matter is that the single most important factor in making good espresso in an espresso machine is – drumroll, please! – the coffee.

Most people who spring for an espresso maker already know that most grocery store coffees aren’t suitable for use in an espresso machine. So how do you choose the right coffee to use with your new espresso machine? It’s not as hard as you think. Here’s a quick overview of how different types and grounds of coffee will work out in an espresso machine, and some suggestions for finding the best coffee to use (hint: a lot of it is personal taste).

Pre-ground coffee

For the most part, your usual grocery store coffees are not designed for use in an espresso machine – the grind is just too coarse. One of the major factors in making a good espresso is coffee that is ground fine enough to “pack” tightly into the filter basket. Most coffees on your grocery shelves are ground to ‘drip’ grind – a coarser grind that allows water to filter through quickly. Espresso needs to be slowed down a bit more.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t find pre-ground coffee for your espresso. There are a few exceptions on the market. Illy, for instance, offers a preground coffee for espresso that is generally good quality and ground to the right fineness. There are also other imported brands that are ground for espresso, and many of the coffees that you’ll find in the “Spanish foods” isle (Goya, Pilon, Caribe) are ground fine enough to pack well. Look for the words “espresso grind” – not “espresso roast” – on the label. Keep in mind that coffee goes stale quickly, and ground coffee goes stale more quickly. Once you open the coffee, store it in an airtight, dark container, and use it up quickly.

Roasted Coffee Beans

Fresh ground coffee beans make the best coffee, and that’s no different when you’re talking about espresso. Which coffee beans should you choose? That depends on the kind of coffee that you like. Grind is extremely important in the process of making espresso, and there is a “right” grind. The variety of coffee bean will certainly make a difference in the flavor of your espresso, but the bean you choose is far more a matter of taste than of right and wrong. There are some general characteristics that can guide you, though.

The Basics

There are two generic species of coffee – arabica and robusto. Arabica beans are lighter and brighter. Robusto beans, cultivated at lower altitudes, are more acidic. Most supermarket coffees are blends of arabica and robusto, unless they say differently. In general, coffee connoisseurs tend to prefer arabica beans for making espresso because the resulting coffee is less bitter.

Aside from species, though, there are literally hundreds of variables that affect coffee flavor, from where it was grown to how long it the green beans sat in the warehouse to how quickly it was roasted. Coffee is as complex and subtle as wine, with no less than 800 flavors that can be identified by professional coffee tasters. If you have a favorite coffee blend, try it in a finer grind in your espresso maker. Chances are that you’ll like it – but you may find that you like other blends and beans better.

Because an espresso maker uses high temperatures and pressure to force water through packed ground coffee, the method tends to extract a great deal more flavor from the beans. You’ll find that this produces a more richly flavored coffee from lighter roasts. Many people prefer a medium-dark roast for their espresso rather than a dark French or Italian roast, which can taste burnt when brewed in an espresso maker. My own personal preference in drip coffee is the darkest roast I can get, but for espresso, I far prefer a lighter roast than what is often labeled ‘espresso roast’ by supermarket brands.

Grinding Your Own Coffee for an Espresso Maker

The grind of your coffee may be the single most important factor in a successful shot of espresso. For espresso, coffee beans must be finely and evenly ground, nearly a powder, with no large, hard grains in the mix. A blade grinder can’t get that kind of fineness without ‘burning’ the beans because it essentially chops up the beans. You’ll get much better results with a burr grinder, which presses the beans between rotating plates or wheels. You’ll spend a few dollars on it, but you’ll find that it’s well worth the price.