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 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.

The roasting process of espresso beans

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.

At 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.

The espresso method then makes use of hot water pushed through a machine at high pressure (around 9 bars – more on that here), 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.​

Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans: Which One?

Espresso vs coffee beans infographic

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?

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 mild-flavored varieties.
  • Medium roasted beans will give you a stronger brew, and can be distinguished by its medium-brown color.
  • Dark roasted beans on the other hand stand out for their dark brown color and shiny, oily surface.

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.

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’. 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. Use of the right kind of beans is important too, here’s a quick rundown of the reasons why:

  • Espresso coffee beans will give you the consistency, body, and flavor you want in your shot.
  • Espresso coffee beans usually produce a rich Crema, which enhances your espresso shot experience.
  • 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:​

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