Espresso Beans Vs Coffee Beans: The difference will surprise you!

By Shabbir
Last update:

Once you graduate to true coffeedom, you’re going to be finicky about which coffee beans and roasts you use, since you’ll get the hang of noticing the subtle flavor notes and begin to enjoy them more and more.

So when you’re picking out beans, it’s no surprise that there are special beans for espresso and special beans for coffee. So between espresso beans vs coffee beans, what’s the difference?

Well, it’s not so much the bean as it is the roast, but that’s a little tidbit of knowledge you can utilize once you graduate to the final stage of coffeedom – roasting your own beans at home!

espresso beans vs coffee beans

How are coffee beans roasted?

If you’ve ever tried a variety of roasts for your coffee, you’ll know how much of a difference there is between a light roast and a dark roast.

As you’re most certainly aware, coffee beans don’t look the way they do in the bag off of the tree. The classic brown, hard bean we’ve come to know and love is actually the roasted bean.

The process starts with the cherries of the coffee plant, which are the green coffee beans you can sometimes find at the store.

The cherries are roasted with varying intensities and for varying times to get a desired roast.

It’s important to roast the cherries because if you tried to grind the cherries and throw them in boiling water you’d end up with a very strange and weird beverage indeed!

Roasting helps to bring out the oils and flavor in the coffee cherries, which we then capture in water during the brewing process.

During the roasting process, the beans are exposed to high levels of heat, and the amount of time you let them roast determines if your roast will be:

  • light
  • medium
  • dark

Light roasts have the most caffeine and the most distinguishable flavor. These roasts are well-suited to drip and pour over brews as the brewing process is able to extract a lot of the flavor.

Medium roasts have a balanced flavor and more intensity. Medium beans are good for all kinds of brews in my opinion. They’ll make for great pour overs, french press, and even for a slightly less intense espresso.

Dark roasts have intense, bitter flavor. They’re really well-suited to french press and ideal for espresso as the bitter, complex flavor is really brought out in espresso.

It’s worth remembering that once you get freshly roasted coffee beans, drink up within 2-3 weeks for maximum freshness.

How espresso is made

Espresso is typically consumed as a small shot, no more than 1 to 2 ounces, and very intense and full bodied, with a slightly bitter taste.

Usually, to enjoy straight up espresso, you need to develop the taste, otherwise you may find it too intense and prefer instead to have a shot of espresso with foamed milk(as a latte, macchiato, or cappuccino).

Espresso is brewed very fast, typically in less than 40 seconds. The very strong flavor is achieved by forcing steam at very high pressure through a compressed puck of coffee.

The compression of the grounds is so important that there is a special word and technique for it called tamping. The espresso grounds are tamped in a device called a portafilter, which is shaped to house the coffee beans.

The grounds must be very fine, too, in order to increase the surface area enough that as much flavor is extracted as possible.

Brewing espresso is actually quite a science! You need to find the correct type (roast) of beans, which then must be ground to a fine powder. A finer powdery grind is needed to increase the surface area of the coffee. This enables the most flavor to be extracted in the shortest time.

Additionally, tightly packing a fine powder leaves very little air in between, which means the puck of coffee grounds will almost be solid.

That means a significant amount of pressure is required to force the water through the puck and into the cup below.

All of these factors lining up correctly result in a good espresso shot!


The difference between espresso beans and coffee beans

So all of that introductory know-how brings us to the actual question. What is the difference between espresso beans and coffee beans?

Coffee beans can be any beans, roasted to any degree. You can enjoy drip coffee or french press with a light roast, medium roast, or dark roast, whatever you wish.

Whatever roast you choose will determine the flavor: from distinct notes in light roasts, balanced flavors in medium roasts, and intensity and slight bitterness in dark roasts.

For espressos, darker(not necessarily darkest) roasts are preferred, because the prolonged roasting brings out the oils in the coffee.

This is why dark roasted beans have an oily shine to them.

If you have not had a chance to notice this before, please go ahead and make a note of it next time you see some coffee beans!

Medium roasts will be slightly better, and the darker roasts will produce the richest tasting espresso.

I must point out here that while there is such a thing as an authentic espresso, if you feel that the darker roasts are too intense for you, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a lighter or medium roast.

The beauty of coffee is that there are so many variables and so many ways to make it your own, so don’t get too bogged down by what should be.

What about crema?

Probably the most iconic part of espresso is the thick layer of crema that forms on top. The color of the crema is a good indicator of the type of coffee bean or espresso bean you used!

If the crema is very light in color, the bubbles of carbon dioxide are much larger and you may have an under-extracted shot.

If the crema is very dark, the roast was probably a very dark roast. As a rule, dark roasts tend to produce less crema anyway.

Putting it all together

That was quite a bit of information to take in! So the ideal espresso bean is something that:

  • Brings out a deep, bold flavor
  • Produces a rich and frothy crema
  • Is well suited to high-pressure brewing

That’s why I feel that the ideal roast to use for espresso is a medium-dark roast, which falls very nicely right between light and dark, but goes more towards the dark side for added flavor. It can still produce a good crema, too.

The grind

The last difference between espresso beans and coffee beans is the fineness of the grind. Unlike the roast which I mentioned above, the grinds are something you can’t compromise on. You absolutely MUST use a very fine grind for espresso, otherwise your coffee just won’t brew correctly.

To grind properly, you’ll need a good burr grinder.

The fine grind greatly increases the surface area of the coffee, allowing more water molecules to interact with it. It also helps release more of the flavor and oil from the coffee than a coarser grind would.



There you have it – the difference between coffee beans and espresso beans summed up. It’s safe to say that all beans can make good coffee but only a few kinds of beans can make good espresso.

Frequently asked questions

What happens if you make espresso with regular coffee beans?

The end of the world! Just kidding :). You can make good espresso with regular coffee beans as long as they are medium roasted and finely ground.

What about espresso made with decaf beans?

Decaf beans can make espresso too, though the flavor will be slightly different than what you are used to. Decaf is quite heavily processed after roasting. But if you need your coffee and must avoid caffeine, decaf is better than no coffee. You still want to stick to medium-dark beans.

Can I use french roast coffee in espresso?

I would stay away from french roast as those beans are very, very dark. In fact, french roast is almost charred. The resulting espresso will be too strong to enjoy.

Coffee Brewster is completely reader supported. When you buy via the links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. We appreciate your support!
About Shabbir

Shab is the Chief Caffeine Officer at Coffee Brewster. When he's not weighing out coffee beans for his next brew, you can find him writing about his passion: coffee.