Coffee versus Espresso

Making coffee at home

Coffee versus Espresso

What the heck is the difference between coffee and espresso? Is espresso coffee? Aren’t there different beans for espresso? Espresso is just for Europeans and those fancy people who like cappuccinos, right?

The answers to these questions are often misrepresented. This gives many people the wrong ideas about the subtle differences between coffee and espresso.

Let’s clear some of these misconceptions up today.

Preparation

First of all, espresso IS coffee! It comes from the exact same bean (coffea), and can even be the same roast as the cup of black coffee right next to it. What makes it espresso is the preparation of the coffee. Regular coffee as we usually think of it is made with medium (700-800 microns) or coarse (~1500 microns) ground coffee beans that are combined with hot water through immersion (think French press) or poured over the grounds and through a filter (think pour-over or Chemex). The hot water (~195°F) does all the particle extraction for these methods. The coffee to water ratio is between 1:12 and 1:16. This means a few beans make more liquid. The average 12-ounce cup of coffee will use between 2 and 4 tablespoons of coffee grounds depending on the strength, the bean, and the roast.

Main ideas for regular coffee: medium or coarse ground beans, hot water with either immersion or gravity filtering, and a big cup.

Espresso, on the other hand, is finely ground coffee (225 microns) that is packed tightly against a mesh filter and has hot water (~195°F) forced though it with a pressurized machine. For a normal double shot of espresso, the standard is 18 grams of grounds with approximately 8 atmospheres of pressure makes 2 ounces of liquid. This added pressure provides a concentration of the caffeine, texture, and flavors found in the coffee. The coffee to water ratio for espresso is usually between 1:2 and 1:3. So, in the case of espresso, we get much less liquid when we ‘pull a shot’ from the espresso machine. This is why espresso is usually served as a 2 ounce ‘shot’ instead of as 8, 12, or 16-ounce cups like black coffee.

Main ideas for espresso: finely ground beans, pressurized hot water forced through the grounds, and a tiny cup.

Final Product

So, there’s a difference in how it’s prepared, no big deal. But what’s the difference in the final product?

I’m glad you asked. The coffee that is made with a drip filter or French press will have a smaller concentration of the flavors and will be thinner in texture, think something like skim milk. This makes it great to put in a mug and sip on while conversing with a friend or reading a great book. A 12-ounce cup of coffee will typically have about 140 mg of caffeine.

Espresso, on the other hand, will give you 2 ounces of beverage that has more concentrated flavors and is much thicker, think whole milk. Espresso will also have a “crema” on top, which is a foamier portion of the beverage that is slightly lighter in color than the bottom half. A normal double shot of espresso will have approximately 130 mg of caffeine. Since it has about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, it can be added to steamed milk and some flavored syrup to be made more palatable to those who want the caffeine boost but don’t like drip coffee.

Okay, at least I know the differences now but which one is better?

Conclusion

One isn’t better than the other, and don’t let anyone try to tell you that it is! Everyone has his or her own preferences. That’s why we can go into a coffee shop and find drip coffee, an espresso machine, maybe even a French press or pour over! I love sipping on a warm mug of black coffee that I just poured from my home Chemex, but I also appreciate the creamy texture and intense flavors packed into an espresso shot.

I would encourage you, if you always have your coffee one way, to give the other side a try. Try making coffee in a French press or an aeropress. If you’re a black coffee drinker, try an espresso doppio (just a straight double shot) and see how it compares to your usual cup of joe. Whether you drink coffee for the caffeine or the taste, as part of your morning ritual or while catching up with an old friend, take a moment to appreciate the wonderful gift that coffee is!