Espresso Vs Coffee – What’s The Difference?

What exactly is the difference between coffee and espresso?

For some, a tiny cup of strong espresso is the only true coffee, while others think it’s a bitter waste of perfectly good beans. Whichever you prefer, it’s always good to get our of your comfort zone and try something new!

To get you started, here’s a quick guide on what exactly is the difference between the two.

What Is Espresso, Anyway?

Let’s start with basic definitions. Espresso is a method of preparing a cup of coffee that is tiny in size and violently strong in flavor. 

The key distinction comes from how it is brewed.

Espresso is brewed by pushing hot water through the coffee grounds at an extremely high pressure and speed. This is why a special machine is required to make an espresso.

a photo of the espresso-making process

Espresso machines were first dreamed up by Italians in the late 19th century (1) - a lot of scientific know-how was required to make it work.

In comparison, pour-overs are a much simpler method of brewing coffee. Technically, all you need is some water and coffee grounds to make magic happen. There have however, been major innovations in pour-overs as well, particularly from Japan (2).

Some people regard espresso as the “purest” coffee, while others prefer pour-overs for their more mellow and easy-drinking quality. In the end, it boils down to skill: a good barista will be able to make the most of any brewing method.

Espresso vs Coffee showdown: who has more caffeine?

Alright, now let’s take a minute break down one of the classic misconceptions (or at least partial misconceptions) of espresso and coffee: caffeine content.

Chances are you were raised thinking that an espresso has WAY more caffeine than a cup of coffee. And, as you might expect from the above sentence, the correct response to that is both yes ...and no.

Drip coffee being poured

A drip coffee

See, if you take an equal amount of espresso and coffee, then yes, absolutely the espresso will have much more caffeine. But that should be no surprise, right? Especially since everyone and their mother knows that a tiny espresso shot is absolutely LOADED with all sorts of flavors and elements in a much more concentrated way than you get in coffee.

However, if you break things down on by a typical serving size, you’ll quickly find that a typical 8oz cuppa actually has quite a bit more caffeine than your average one to two oz shot of espresso.

Now, as is the case with most culinary facts, the specific numbers can vary quite a bit here depending on the beans you use, the brewing method, the temperature of the water, extraction time, and so on.

However, on average, a typical cup of coffee has between 80 and 100mg of caffeine. Some even put the higher end of the caffeine content up towards 700mg!

an illustration of espresso vs coffee in terms of caffeine content

On the other hand, your typical shot of espresso is going to yield right around 60mg of caffeine, with the higher estimates usually still being below that 80 mg lower threshold for a cup of the brewed stuff.

All of that to say, espresso and brewed coffee have different amounts of caffeine, but both have “more” than the other depending on how you’re looking at it. You can see a thorough breakdown of the caffeine concentration in some brewing methods here!

The Difference Is In The Brewing Method

All coffee comes from the same source, the Coffea plant. There is no real difference between “espresso beans” and other coffee beans. Rather than the beans themselves, the difference between coffee and espresso derives from the way they are processed and brewed.

Detailed comparison of coffee and espresso

Roasting

When coffee beans are harvested, they are pale green, and unfit for brewing. They need to be roasted to bring out their best qualities. For a fascinating look at what happens when coffee beans are roasted, see this:

Espresso beans are roasted until very dark, because this increases their capacity to withstand the high pressure under which they are brewed. A dark roast also brings out a full body with low acidity, and is well suited for drinking with milk (3).

"Simply put, most roasters and consumers seem to prefer espresso to be roasted a little darker when it is to be consumed in milk rather than black." - Scott Rao

Lighter roasts are especially well suited for pour-overs, which tend to bring out the brighter, fruitier flavors of the coffee. But it all boils down to your personal preferences. So get out there and experiment with some different beans!

Grinding

ground beans in a portafilter

Espresso is probably the most unforgiving method of preparing coffee. There’s a lot of science involved: you are working with a very high pressure and a time limit of about 30 seconds. Within these limits, even the smallest changes will have a significant impact on your cup.

Grind size that is too fine will lead to bitter, over-extracted espresso, while coarse grounds will produce an acrid, under-extracted cup. The grind size for espresso should be fine, between flour and table salt. For pour-overs, the grind size is usually more coarse. Because grind size is so important, for good espresso, you need a good grinder.

While hand grinders like Hario Skerton are convenient for grinding some beans for a pour over, they struggle to produce a grind size that is fine and even enough for espresso. To get that perfect espresso grind, you’ll need to invest in a decent machine grinder like the Baratza Virtuoso.

Brewing

This is the most striking difference between the two lies, for which the previous steps have been just preparation.

While filter coffee can be produced in various different ways using a similar core principle, espresso needs to be made using an espresso machine.

espresso dripping from the portafilter

An espresso machine uses about 9 bars (4) of pressure to push heated water through coffee grounds within 20-30 seconds. There’s a lot of engineering involved, with every single detail being important for the resulting cup.

Espresso machines can be automatic, semi-automatic, or manual. Many espresso machines these days are automatic to a large degree, so baristas don’t need to understand all the fine details of their tool.

If you’re curious, here’s an elaborate look at the workings of the espresso machine:

The Difference Is In How You Make It

To recap, espresso is an Italian-style coffee brewed with high pressure and speed. You need an evenly fine grind size and a special machine to make a good espresso. In comparison, other types of coffee are usually made by slowly filtering water through coffee grounds.

So, espresso vs coffee - it’s not a competition! Some coffee aficionados swear espresso is the truest form of coffee, while others prefer smooth and vivacious pour-overs. In the end, it’s mostly about the skill of the barista and the quality of the beans.

Do you prefer one over the other? Let me know why!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do espresso and coffee differ in taste?

Espresso is rich, intense, dark, and creamy. It is LOADED with flavours: bright aromas, creamy thickness, and sugary sweet notes. Regular drip coffee, on the other hand, has an intense, clean, rounded flavour and a smooth taste.

Is espresso healthier than drip coffee?

Espresso is considered healthier than drip coffee because a coffee filter is not needed to make one. The espresso-making process allows coffee’s natural oils, and minerals to flow into the coffee.

It may be worth noting that because espresso is unfiltered, it could raise the cholesterol levels in your blood (5). Although unlike French Press or Turkish coffee, you’ll only get to consume a shot or two of this drink, which means this shouldn’t be a big issue. 

Why is espresso more expensive than drip coffee?

Espresso is more expensive than drip coffee because it takes skills, more effort, and more expensive, complex gears to make it.

You can make a drip coffee simply by putting ground coffee and sufficient amount of water in your drip machine, and wait for it to finish. 

On the other hand, making an espresso requires an individual to use high-quality gears such as a grinder, a tamper, and a good espresso machine. Even with the right equipment, an individual needs skills in tamping, maintaining water pressure, and keeping an eye on the resulting crema – and those things take effort and time.


References

  1. Stamp, J. (2012, June 19). The Long History of the Espresso Machine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-long-history-of-the-espresso-machine-126012814/
  2. Strand, O. (2011, February 10). Coffee's Slow Dance. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/magazine/13Food-t-000.html
  3. Scott Rao. (2017, February 26). Roasting for Espresso vs. Filter. Retrieved from https://www.scottrao.com/blog/roasting-for-espresso-vs-filter/
  4. Coffee Revolution. (n.d.). Which bar pressure espresso machine. Retrieved from https://www.coffeerevolution.net/bar-pressure-espresso/
  5. Jee, S. H., Jiang, H., Appel, L. J., Whelton, P. K., Suh, I., & Klag, M. J. (2001, February 15). Coffee Consumption and Serum Lipids: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Clinical Trials. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/153/4/353/129046
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Alex
 

Alex is the Founder and Editor of Homegrounds.co. He is passionate about brewing amazing coffee at home, and teaching others to do the same.

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