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The Difference Between Coffee and Espresso

Sheryl Cannes
Updated on: August 05, 2022

Cappuccino, frappe, espresso, mocha—the number of drinks that contain coffee is fairly long and tasty. The differences between them are sometimes subtle and mysterious if you aren’t used to brewing your own cup. When it comes down to espresso and coffee, the differences don’t come so much from the ingredients but how the drink is made. And technically speaking, espresso is a specialty coffee.

The key factors are the roast, grind, and brewing pressure. Brewing time also plays a less significant role. All of those factors come together to change the taste and caffeine content of the brew.

The Big Differences Between Coffee and Espresso

Roast

Coffee beans are coffee beans. However, those beans get roasted before they’re ground, and that’s where big differences between coffee and espresso come in. The same beans are used to make coffee and make espresso. However, “espresso” beans are roasted to a dark or espresso point. A dark roast simply means the beans have been roasted longer.

Beans used for coffee are typically light, medium, or a medium-dark roast. Beans used for espresso go beyond these roast times, past what’s called the second crack to create a richer roast and deeper flavor. The longer roast time releases the bean’s oiliness and acidity before grinding. The differences in acidity and oiliness create a “fuller” feel with a single shot of espresso.

Grind

You usually get your hands on the beans after they’ve been roasted. If you grind your own beans, you get more control over the release of their flavor. There are two main types of grinders—blade and burr. Blade grinders grind like a windmill, leaving behind pieces of various sizes. The inconsistency of blade grinders makes them more useful, though not a favorite, to coffee makers versus espresso makers. (They do well with spices but not so much coffee.)

However, espresso requires a finer, more consistent grind. And that’s why burr grinders are the favorite of both coffee and espresso drinkers for the consistency of their grounds. They allow you to adjust the grind, leaving it larger for coffee and finer for espresso.

Coffee has larger grounds because the grounds stay in contact with the water longer, usually between two and five minutes depending on if you’re using a drip system or French press. A longer time spent in contact with the grounds allows for slow flavor extraction.

In comparison, espresso grounds are only in contact with the water for 20 to 30 seconds. That fast brewing process requires a maximum amount of exposure to the grind. Hence, the fine grind necessary for a good espresso.

Brewing Temperature and Pressure

Both coffee and espresso need an optimal temperature between 195° and 205° Fahrenheit. That’s the temperature at which the flavor compounds in the beans become water-soluble. You can make either espresso or coffee at higher temperatures, but you run the risk of over extracting. The result is a burnt, bitter drink. Conversely, brewing at a lower temperature means that not enough of the flavor compounds dissolve. Then you have a weak, sour cup of coffee or espresso.

However, the two—coffee and espresso—differ in pressure. In fact, drip and filter coffee don’t brew under pressure at all. Espresso is usually made at a pressure of 8 to 9 bars, even though some machines can go as high as 14 or 15 bars. It needs that extra pressure to pass the water through the fine grounds. Too much pressure results in an over-extracted espresso that’s burnt and bitter. Not enough pressure and you’re left with a weak, sour espresso.

Taste

The roast, grind, pressure, and temperature all work together to create the final taste of the coffee or espresso. Changing any one of the variables ultimately changes how the resulting drink tastes. Both coffee and espresso can be over-extracted and burnt or under-extracted and weak. However, the window for the perfect brew is much smaller for espresso.

These different brewing methods create the main differences between the two caffeinated drinks. Espresso’s shorter brew time with a darker roast under higher pressure results in a stronger, less acidic taste with a fuller-bodied, well-rounded finish. However, espresso isn’t everyone’s favorite cup of coffee. Traditionalists prefer the longer brewing of regular coffee to create a drink that’s their perfect morning pick-me-up.

Anatomy of an Espresso Shot

Each layer of an espresso holds unique flavor properties. Knowing what they are and how they affect the drink can only enhance your next espresso.

The Crema

Light and thin—the foamy crema sits atop the espresso. It holds the espresso’s aromatic qualities and delicate tastes of the broken down proteins and sugars. It also has the oils extracted from the beans. At the end of the process, a white ring forms, and that’s when you know it’s time to stop. That white foam has a bitter flavor that can change the entire taste of the shot if too much gets extracted.

The Body

Sometimes the body gets forgotten, but it’s the thin caramel brown layer that’s above the heart and below the crema. This is really just a suspension place between the other two dominant layers.

The Heart

The heart holds the espresso’s bitterness, bringing balance to the sweet crema. It’s a deep, rich brown at the bottom of the shot.

Specialty Espresso Drinks

Espresso only produces a small amount per shot. However, the high concentration of flavor and the perfect blend of sweetness and bitterness make it a wonderful base for other coffee drinks. Here are a few ideas to spark your own espresso creativity:

  • Caffe Creme: Add one ounce of heavy cream to one shot of espresso.
  • Cafe Mocha: Start with two shots of espresso in a tall glass. Add one ounce of chocolate powder or chocolate syrup. Fill the rest of the glass with steamed milk. Top it with whipped cream and chocolate flakes.
  • Cafe Noisette: Add a small amount of milk to one shot of espresso.
  • Coconut Latte: Add an ounce of coconut syrup or coconut cream and an ounce of chocolate syrup to two shots of espresso.

FAQs

Is espresso bad for your health?

In moderation, espresso isn’t bad for your health. A shot or two of espresso a day won’t hurt you. However, if taken to extremes, it can cause some problems. Caffeine is addictive. Once you’re addicted, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, irritability, and jitteriness if you stop consuming caffeine. Excessive consumption over a longer period of time can contribute to osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and can adversely affect the liver.

Does coffee or espresso have more caffeine?

A single shot of espresso averages 63mg of caffeine in comparison to 12mg to 16mg in the average cup of coffee. The fineness of the grind, higher pressure, and optimum temperature used to make espresso extracts more caffeine from the coffee beans. It also gives espresso its intense flavor.

Is espresso stronger than coffee?

Espresso is stronger than coffee. These intense drinks take some of the best characteristics of your favorite cup of coffee and swamp the taste buds with them in a concentrated shot. If it’s too much for you, there are many ways to mix a shot of espresso to make a drink that’s more to your taste.

Conclusion

Whether your favorite brew is regular drip coffee, latte macchiato, or a straight single shot of espresso, you can always expand your palette and enter the realm of a coffee aficionado. There are so many ways to customize your cup that it pays to be adventurous with your coffee grounds, roasts, and brewing techniques.

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