If you are new to the coffee scene, you may be wondering what the difference is between espresso and coffee. The words roll off the tongues of coffee lovers, but people seldom slow down to explain exactly what they mean and what the difference is.
We have written this quick guide to introduce the key differences between coffee and espresso. When most people talk about coffee, they mean regular drip coffee or pour-over, and when they talk about espresso, well… they mean espresso.
Espresso vs Coffee- The Quick Answer
The short and simple answer to Espresso vs Coffee is that espresso is coffee! Espresso and coffee are not two distinct drinks; instead, espresso is one of the many brewing methods of coffee.
Espresso vs Coffee
What is Espresso-The Basics
Espresso is a method of preparing coffee that produces a concentrated syrupy shot of coffee. Espresso is made when hot water is forced through finely-ground coffee at high pressure. Because the water is at high pressure, the contact time between the water and coffee is short, taking only around 30 seconds to pull a shot.
The shot produced has a thick, almost syrupy body and is topped with a layer of crema (Italian for cream). The crema adds to the rich, robust flavor and leaves a lingering aftertaste. Because espresso is so quick to brew, as well as strong and delicious, it is the beverage of choice for most coffee shops.
Espresso was born in Italy in the late 1800s. Originally steam was used to generate pressure; however, these machines were difficult to use and produced inconsistent results. Later in 1947, Achille Gaggia developed the first lever espresso machine, and with it, the term ‘pulling a shot.’ Since then, espresso has become a treasured drink worldwide. Espresso is one of the more complex brewing methods. It requires investing in some serious gear (an espresso machine and coffee grinder) and some skill to brew.
What is Coffee- The Basics
Coffee is the overarching term encompassing many different brewing methods. This term covers everything from simple brews like cowboy coffee, to Moka Pot, Pour Over, Siphon, Aeropress and Espresso. In this article, we compare espresso to pour-over coffee; a popular brewing method in the specialty coffee world.
Drinking coffee dates back to ancient days in Ethiopia. According to legend, a young goat farmer noticed his goats acting energetically after eating red berries on a tree he didn’t recognize. He took some of the fruit to a local abbot at a nearby monastery who pronounced the fruit as satanic and cast them into a fire, after which they cast off a delightful aroma, and coffee was discovered. The story goes on that the abbot made a drink from these magic beans, which helped him stay awake during the long hours of evening prayer. And thus, coffee was discovered!
When most people compare espresso with coffee, they think of drip coffee or pour-over coffee, which will be our focus in this article. Pour-over coffee is a simple brewing method that has seen a resurgence since the so-called third wave of coffee. It is brewed by pouring water slowly over coffee grounds in a coffee dripper. The continual supply of water extracts the maximum flavor from a bean.
Pour-over coffee tends to be a light and bright drink with almost tea-like consistency. Most pour-over drippers also utilize paper filters, which catch many of the oils released from the cup, leading to a very clean cup. Pour-over coffee highlights the clarity and flavor notes of different single-origin beans.
So now, let’s get into comparing these two different brewing methods.
Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans
Regarding the coffee beans used, there is no real difference between espresso beans and coffee beans. All coffee beans come from the same plant, typically Coffea arabica. The main difference between espresso beans and coffee beans is how the beans are roasted.
Espresso blends are traditionally brewed with dark roasted beans. These coffee beans have been roasted longer, typically to the second crack. Dark roasted beans are well suited for drinking with milk as they have lower acidity and produce a full-bodied cup.
In saying that, modern espresso is more commonly brewed with medium roasted blends or single origin beans.
In contrast, pour-over coffee is typically brewed with single-origin light roasted beans. Light roasted beans have only been roasted for a short time and stopped on or just before the first crack. Light roasts retain many of the bean’s origin flavors and highlight a coffee bean’s bright, floral, fruity notes.
So, in summary, espresso can be brewed with any coffee beans but tends to work best with medium to dark roasted beans. Pour-over coffee is better with lightly roasted beans.
Coffee and espresso use very different and distinct grind sizes. To brew espresso, you need to use an extra-fine grind size. The ground coffee should resemble flour. An espresso grind is one of the finest grind sizes, with the exception of Turkish. The fine grind size is necessary because the brew time is so short. It increases the surface area so that the hot water can extract all the flavors out of the coffee grounds in a short amount of time.
Espresso is a very unforgiving brewing method when it comes to ‘dialing in’ the grind size. Small changes to the size of ground coffee have a significant impact on the final coffee. If the grind size is too fine, the espresso will be bitter and over-extracted. Conversely, if the grind size is too coarse, the espresso will be sour and under-extracted.
If you want to grind for espresso, you really need to invest in a decent grinder like the Baratza Vario + or Eureka Mignon Specialita. These grinders offer enough grind settings to fine-tune your grind size while providing excellent grind consistency.
The grind size for pour-over coffee depends on your method, but generally, a medium grind size is the most common. A medium grind size is a similar consistency to sand. A hand grinder is a good option if you want to grind for pour-over. These are affordable and offer good grind consistency. The downside is they do require some arm work.
This is where the most noticeable differences between coffee and espresso lie. Espresso is brewed quickly, using an espresso machine to force water through finely-ground coffee in under 30 seconds. Espresso relies on high pressure to extract coffee and produce the characteristic crema.
Coffee can be produced in many ways. The two most common brewing methods are drip and immersion. Drip brewing is a straightforward method of making coffee. Hot water is evenly poured over coffee grounds, and with the help of gravity, drips into a vessel below. Drip coffee or pour over brewing takes around 3-4 minutes to brew a cup of coffee. Drip methods include v60, Kalita wave, Chemex, and drip coffee.
Immersion brewing is where coffee grounds are steeped in hot or cold water to extract flavor. Immersion methods include French press, Aeropress, and cold brew.
Another aspect of brewing that differs between espresso and pour over coffee is the brew ratios used. A brew ratio is the ratio of coffee to water added. When brewing espresso, you use a high ratio of coffee to water, typically 1:2 coffee to water. This produces a concentrated and syrupy shot of espresso.
In contrast, coffee uses a lower ratio of coffee to water, anywhere from 1:12-17 coffee to water. This produces a more diluted brew with a milder flavor.
Caffeine in espresso vs coffee
A common misconception is that espresso has far more caffeine than coffee. And while this is true in theory, in reality, it comes down to serving sizes. Espresso is generally served in much smaller sizes than coffee, so in practice, there is no real difference between the caffeine content of espresso and coffee.
For any espresso or espresso-based drink, there are around 63 milligrams of caffeine in a single shot of espresso and 125 milligrams of caffeine in a double shot of espresso. In comparison, a standard cup of drip coffee contains around 95 milligrams of caffeine.
To put this into context, health experts recommend a maximum daily intake of 400 milligrams of caffeine per day for healthy adults. So you do the math; the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee (either espresso or brewed coffee) makes up around a quarter of your daily recommended caffeine consumption. See our guide to caffeine in a cup of coffee for a more in-depth rundown.
Espresso is a versatile drink that forms the base for many coffee drinks like lattes, cappuccinos, and flat whites. However, if you are a purist and order a straight Espresso, it is served in much smaller sizes. Typically a single to double shot of espresso (1 -2 oz). In contrast, a cup of drip coffee is usually served in an 8oz cup.
An espresso shot is an intense coffee drink. It is concentrated and bold with low bitterness. It has a thick, syrupy body as many oils reach the cup. Many consider espresso to be the very essence of a coffee drink.
Coffee is a more mild brew. If you are brewing pour-over coffee, you will find it to be more complex than regular drip coffee. The paper filters produce a clean cup with tea-like consistency. Pour-over coffee is usually brewed with single origin beans as it highlights the origin flavors.
It is also worth noting that pour over is almost exclusively drunk black.
Espresso vs Coffee- Final Thoughts
In answer to the question of the difference between espresso and coffee, well espresso is coffee! It is like asking what is the difference between apples and fruit. It is not a particularly accurate question.
However, objections aside, espresso is a means of brewing coffee that produces a concentrated shot topped with crema. This golden elixir has taken the world by a storm and become the base for many of our favorite caffeinated beverages.
Coffee by contrast is the other coffee brewing methods and particularly drip coffee.
If you are starting your coffee journey, you may consider beginning with a simpler brewing method like pour-over. Pour-over coffee is easier to brew than espresso, doesn’t require investing in an expensive espresso machine to start, and produces a delicious cup of coffee that will open up the world of coffee to you.
All in all, both espresso and drip coffee are delicious beverages, and which one you favor and decide to brew is a matter of personal preference. As an honesty clause, we love both so much that we actually brew and drink both almost every day.