Nowadays, many roasters, cafes, and home baristas will make espresso from any blend or type of coffee bean. There may be specific blends that are used for a cafe’s house espresso. Those espresso beans will likely be a traditional blend that is palatable to the everyday latte drinker; think Intelligentsia’s Black Cat, Stumptown’s Hair Bender, or Counter Culture’s Big Trouble, Espresso Vivace’s Vita Blend. Most are roasted a bit past second crack or can be described as a medium roast that is closer to dark than it is to light. You’ll usually find tasting notes to include chocolate, nutty, and sometimes a bit of fruit to balance out the flavor profile.
However, before this third wave of specialty coffee, most cafes would have specific beans for espresso. Back then, maybe I was just less informed about coffee, but it seemed that stores wouldn’t advertise the origin of their espresso beans. Flavor descriptors were more like “bold, rich, smooth” instead of actual flavor descriptors used by most specialty roasters today. It was just labeled “espresso” and roasted super dark. Generally, most people would define “espresso” beans in terms of a roast level – if the beans are super dark and oily, then it qualifies. Coffees that fall into this more old school category would be Starbucks, Illy, Lavazza, etc.
The great thing about espresso is that there are so many different versions that you can try. It doesn’t have to be only old school or new school – I consider them almost to be different drinks. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a darker roast that goes well with a bit of sugar. Other times, I like a well crafted cortado or cappuccino.