A novel single-particle technique to measure emittance has been developed and used to characterise seventeen different muon beams for the Muon Ionisation Cooling Experiment (MICE). The muon beams, whose mean momenta vary from 171 to 281 MeV/c, have emittances of approximately 1.2-2.3 π mm-rad horizontally and 0.6-1.0 π mm-rad vertically, a horizontal dispersion of 90-190 mm and momentum spreads of about 25 MeV/c. There is reasonable agreement between the measured parameters of the beams and the results of simulations. The beams are found to meet the requirements of MICE. © 2013 The Author(s).