Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans- Unraveling the Myth

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As you wander down the coffee aisle of your local grocery store, it’s common to see some bags labeled “espresso beans” and others simply marked “coffee beans.” The distinction between the two may seem straightforward, yet it’s a topic riddled with misconceptions and mysteries. Let’s embark on a journey to uncover the truth behind espresso beans versus coffee beans.

Demystifying Espresso

First and foremost, it’s essential to dispel a common misconception: espresso beans are not a distinct variety of coffee beans. Rather, “espresso” refers to a brewing method. Espresso is a concentrated shot of coffee brewed by forcing hot water through finely ground coffee beans at high pressure. This method extracts intense flavors and produces a rich, velvety beverage beloved by coffee enthusiasts worldwide. So espresso is not a bean but a brew method, and it can be brewed with any type of coffee bean. 

Espresso beans

Origins Of The Term Espresso Beans

The term “espresso beans” originated in the early days of espresso brewing, when lower-quality coffee beans were often utilized. These beans, when brewed for espresso, revealed noticeable flaws in flavor. To counteract this, roasters adopted a darker roast, emphasizing smoky, caramelized sugar notes typical of Italian roasts, but at the expense of nuanced origin flavors.

However, as the coffee industry evolved, specialty roasters had access to high-quality beans. This shift rendered the practice of using dark roasts to mask inferior flavors unnecessary. Today, many third-wave cafes opt for medium-to-light roasts, aiming to highlight the beans’ inherent complexities rather than obscure them.

Understanding Coffee Beans

Contrary to popular belief, “coffee beans” are not exclusively designated for brewing traditional drip coffee. Instead, they encompass a broad spectrum of beans suitable for various brewing methods, including espresso. Coffee beans, whether destined for espresso or traditional brewed coffee, start their journey as seeds within coffee cherries. These cherries are harvested, processed, and then dried to reveal the beans inside. However, while both espresso and coffee beans share a common origin, they are roasted and prepared differently.

Coffee cherries

Distinguishing Characteristics

Roast Level

One of the most notable differences between espresso and coffee beans is their roast level. Espresso beans are typically roasted slightly darker than their counterparts intended for other brewing methods. This darker roast brings out flavors that complement steamed milk, such as caramel, chocolate, and nuts. The other advantage of using a darker, more developed roast for espresso is that it is easier to extract all the flavors in a short brew time. The increased brittleness and porosity of darker roasts enable water to efficiently break down coffee compounds and extract flavor.

In contrast, coffee beans for traditional brewing methods, like drip and pour-over, are often roasted to lighter or medium levels. This lighter roast preserves the beans’ inherent flavors, ranging from fruity and floral to nutty and chocolatey, and contributes to a more nuanced tasting experience. Lighter roasted coffee, being denser, needs to be brewed longer to extract all the flavors, making it good for brew methods like pour-over with longer extraction times. That being said, light-roasted coffee can be used for espresso, it may just require you to tweak different variables like brew temperature, grind size, or shot time to get a well-balanced extraction.

Stages of coffee roasting

Blend vs Single Origin

Another distinguishing factor is the composition of beans. Espresso beans are often blends which means that a roaster will use beans from several different regions and mix them to create a complex flavor profile. Blends also allow roasters to ensure their espresso beans remain consistent over time. Even if there are variations in the coffee beans from different harvests or origins,  a blend generally ensures that the flavor remains consistent batch after batch. 

In contrast, coffee beans for traditional brewing methods are often single-origin, sourced from a specific location to showcase their unique characteristics and flavors. Single-origin coffees are prized for their distinct flavor profiles but again may change significantly from year to year depending on the season, climate, harvest, etc.

Espresso blend

Grind Size

The grind size of coffee beans plays a crucial role in the brewing process, and it differs significantly between espresso and traditional coffee brewing methods. For espresso, a fine grind is required to enable the extraction of flavors quickly, typically within 20-30 seconds.

Conversely, brewing methods like drip, French press, or pour-over use a medium to coarse grind size. The coarser grind allows water to flow through the coffee grounds more slowly, extracting flavors over a longer brewing time. This results in a different flavor profile and mouthfeel compared to espresso.


In terms of taste, espresso beans, with their darker roast profile, yield bold and robust flavors with caramelized undertones, resulting in a full-bodied shot enhanced by a creamy texture and thick crema. On the other hand, coffee beans for traditional brewing methods offer a broader range of tasting notes, from fruity and floral aromas to caramel and spices, providing a smoother and more nuanced tasting experience.

Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans- In Summary

In summary, while the labels “espresso beans” and “coffee beans” may suggest a clear distinction, the reality is far more nuanced. Espresso beans are not a separate variety but are suited for a particular brewing method. Both coffee and espresso beans share a common origin and undergo similar processes, yet they diverge in roast level, composition, grind size, and taste, each contributing to distinct flavor profiles and experiences. The espresso bean label does not mean that the coffee beans inside MUST be used for espresso, however, it is more a RECOMMENDATION from the roaster as to how the beans should be brewed. 

So, the next time you find yourself perusing the coffee aisle, remember that whether you’re craving the intensity of espresso or the complexity of brewed coffee, both types of beans offer unique and enjoyable coffee experiences for enthusiasts to explore.


Can You Brew Espresso With Normal Coffee Beans?

Absolutely! It’s entirely possible to brew espresso using regular coffee beans. Espresso beans are essentially the same as coffee beans, but they might have undergone different processing to better suit the espresso brewing method. Typically, espresso beans are roasted to a darker level, resulting in a full-bodied and concentrated flavor profile.

If you happen to only have a bag of regular coffee beans at hand, fret not! You can still use them to make espresso. However, you may need to experiment with variables such as grind size, brew temperature, and shot time to achieve the desired taste.

Here are some tips to aid in extraction:

  • Grind the beans finer
  • Pull slightly longer shots
  • Increase the water temperature

These adjustments can help optimize the brewing process and ensure a flavorful espresso experience, even with regular coffee beans.

Do Espresso Beans Have More Caffeine?

Despite common belief, espresso coffee beans don’t inherently contain more caffeine than regular coffee beans. Both types of beans originate from the same coffee plant species (Arabica) and can have similar caffeine content per coffee bean. However, the processing, roasting, grinding, and brewing methods can affect the caffeine concentration in the final cup. 

While espresso shots are served in smaller quantities and brewed under higher pressure with a shorter extraction time, they don’t necessarily contain more caffeine per ounce than a standard cup of brewed coffee. In fact, a single shot of espresso typically contains around 63 milligrams of caffeine, whereas a standard cup of brewed coffee can range from 95 to 165 milligrams of caffeine, depending on various factors. Therefore, while espresso may seem stronger due to its concentrated flavor and smaller serving size, it doesn’t necessarily equate to having more caffeine than brewed coffee.

What Is Single-Origin Espresso?

Single-origin espresso has garnered popularity among certain third-wave coffee shops and among coffee enthusiasts. Unlike traditional espresso blends, which combine beans from different origins to achieve a specific flavor profile, single-origin showcases the unique characteristics and flavors of coffee beans from a specific location. Often roasted to a lighter degree, this coffee accentuates the inherent flavors of the bean.

Typically served black, single-origin espresso allows enthusiasts to savor the nuanced flavors without any additives. However, due to the intricate nature of single-origin beans, achieving the perfect extraction can be challenging. As a result, the utilization of single-origin espresso beans is less common among home baristas.