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The Difference Between Coffee And Espresso Beans [Yes, There’s a Difference]

You know you’re a true blue coffee fan when you’re picky with your beans and roasts, and when you realize you’re a know-it-all when it comes to different beans.

When loading up on coffee beans for your new brew method, have you noticed that you can buy coffee beans or espresso beans? What if I told you they are not the same thing? Espresso beans vs coffee beans – there’s a difference?

Many are unaware of what sets them apart, and when one must be chosen over the other. Time to clear up the fog.

A Quick Look at the Roasting Process

Apart from the brewing method, the roasting process (1) is every bit a part of your resulting coffee too, as it affects how your brewed coffee will ultimately taste like. See you start with fresh coffee beans, and by that we mean the green ones from the ‘cherries’ of the coffee plant.

By itself, the green beans cannot be used for brewing. It is the roasting process that actually unlocks the oils and sugars within the bean, which in turn gives the coffee that distinct aroma and flavor.

The beans are subject to high temperature, and the length of time that they go through the process determines the light to dark roast profiles. Lighter roasts tend to give a more distinct flavor, medium ones offer more balanced acidity and flavor, and darker roasts are less acidic and more on the bitter side. (2)

The general rule is that a light roast works best with a slower extraction method, such as a filter coffee, and a darker roast with a quick method such as espresso.

But the end of the day, all these roasted beans are also called coffee beans that may be used for just about any brewing method.

What is Espresso?

Isn’t espresso that little drink you get when you need a quick and effective wake-up sip? Well, yes and no. An espresso shot is the result of brewing coffee through the fast and high-pressure espresso method.

The fine-ground coffee used must be packed tight in a basket called a portafilter, which is then placed into your espresso machine. It must be tamped into the portafilter with thirty to forty pounds of pressure.

weighing an espresso shot
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The espresso method then makes use of hot water pushed through a machine at high pressure (at least 9 bars) within about twenty-five to thirty seconds. The resulting shot, is a thick, full-flavored brew with just the right amount of espresso crema. This shot is often used as base for other drinks like the macchiato and cappuccino.

Sounds like an easy task right? Not really. Pulling the perfect shot requires the harmony of all variables concerned – from water, to grounds, to tamping, and water pressure among others.

What is Espresso Crema?

Crema is often mentioned with reverence in relation to espresso. It refers to the light-colored layer that forms on the surface of brewed coffee during the extraction stage.

While brewing espresso, carbon dioxide coming off the compacted fresh grounds meeting with hot, pressurized water cause the trademark ‘bubbles’ to form.

But within Crema you have different colors. These slight differences show either the kind of roast used, how long the espresso shot was, or a possible problem with the consistency of your coffee grounds.

Too light means the bubbles are larger than usual: you may have under-extracted your espresso. Too dark on the other hand can either be a result of over-extraction, or the use of a darker roast (which also usually produces less crema). Over-extracted coffee can result in a bitter cup.

Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans: Which One?

Now that we know more about the roasting process and the espresso method, let’s try to answer that mysterious question – what’s the difference between espresso coffee beans, and regular ol’ coffee beans?

Espresso vs coffee beans infographic
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Coffee beans refer to any bean roasted and readied for brewing. You can choose a light roast if you want the full distinct flavor of your bean, which can vary depending on which country it came from.

  • Light-roasted beans do not have an oily sheen, and are best for white coffee, and non-pressure brew styles, like pour over coffee or cold brew coffee.
  • Medium-roasted beans result in a different flavour profile, and based on the bean origin, can be used for many styles of brewing.
  • Dark-roasted beans on the other hand stand out for their dark brown color and shiny, oily surface. Most of the time, they are used for espresso brewing.

Espresso coffee beans usually belong to the dark roast category, as this is the stage in which the beans offer the least acidity with a fuller body. You will still be able to get slight hints of the bean flavor too. Here are the best espresso beans.

The dark roast of espresso beans are richest in coffee’s natural oils, evident in the oily sheen you can see on the beans. Emulsification of these oils, along with other compounds in coffee, prove helpful in producing the so-called espresso crema.

Using regular beans to make espresso may not produce the kind of brew you expect in a ‘perfect shot’, no matter how good they are. Some varieties are too light, others may be too charred or dark.

Here’s a video that may help you brew that great cup of espresso.

Making a good cup of espresso is not rocket science, but it’s not exactly just about throwing ground coffee and hot water into the espresso machine. Here’s a quick rundown of why you must use the right beans for good espresso:”

  • Espresso coffee beans will give you the consistency, body, and flavor you want in your shot.
  • They help in achieving a rich crema, which enhances the whole drink.
  • Regular coffee beans are great for a variety of brewing methods, but espresso coffee beans hold up best with high-pressure methods.

So if you don’t know, now you know, baristaaaa! (Sorry, I know that was totally geeky. It’s a Biggie Smalls pun.) Next time someone asks you “espresso beans vs coffee beans – is there a difference” you’ll be sure to put them in their place – after all, you’re fast becoming an espresso aficionado.

Here’s a little video from the legendary folks over at Seattle coffee gear to help you get this into your head:

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, technically you can use regular coffee beans in an espresso machine but the drink you’ll make may taste sour, funky, and tart. We recommend that you use dark roasts to make better tasting espresso with rich crema.

The best beans for making espresso are medium-dark to dark roasts as they more soluble and extract more quickly. They are rich in oils, which help produce a richer crema. They also give your espresso that great consistency, body, and flavor you want in your shot. Check out this list if you want espresso beans.

The extraction process for pour-over coffee is longer than an espresso. For this reason, we highly recommend that you use light to medium roasts. You may choose between Hawaiian beans and Guatemalan beans. Just make sure that the grind is not too coarse yet not too fine to make sure that your coffee has gentle and flavorful undertones, and tastes neither bitter nor sour.

  1. National Coffee Association. (n.d.). Coffee Roast Guide. Retrieved from https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/Coffee-Roasts-Guide
  2. Pines, H. (2019, July). Roasting For Filter Coffee vs. For Espresso. Retrieved from https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2019/07/roasting-for-filter-coffee-vs-for-espresso/
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    My world consists of coffee, Travel, water sports and Dogs...sometimes all at the same time! I spent years as as a travelling barista where I learnt the art of brewing-coffee-on-the-road. I'm a bit of a street art fanatic, and my favourite type adventure usually ends at a coffee plantation.

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