The Best Way To Drink Coffee: Espresso Vs. Coffee

Published on 12/01/2023 · 9 min readExplore the ultimate coffee showdown: Espresso vs. Coffee. Find out the best way to savor your caffeine fix as we compare these two brews.
Jennifer S., Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Jennifer S.

Photo by Amenic 181

What’s the difference between a shot of espresso and a cup of coffee? Why would you choose one over the other? Let’s explore these two distinct types of coffee as interpretations of a common ingredient: coffee beans. There are a range of drinks inspired by these two variations of coffee. In this guide, I’ll help you understand how the size of the drink plays a role, unravel the caffeine content mysteries, and uncover the cultural significance that these beverages hold. Additionally, we’ll look at how roast styles and coffee oils impact the overall sensory coffee experience.

How to Define Espresso Versus Coffee

Espresso and coffee, derived from the same humble coffee bean, offer a rich variety of flavors and experiences. Let’s start with the technical definition of a cup of coffee versus a shot of espresso, and work from there to truly understand the difference.

Espresso

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“Espresso is a miracle of chemistry in the cup.” – Andrea Illy (son of Ernesto Illy, founder of the iconic coffee brand, Illy Coffee)

Let’s establish exactly what an espresso is. Ernesto Illy, the “Godfather of Espresso,” set the industry standard circa 1933, which is largely accepted as standard still today. Crafted under high pressure by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans, espresso emerges as a concentrated, small, and intense shot of coffee.

Espresso translates from Italian as “quick” or “fast.” It derived as a significantly more rapid way for Italian factory workers to have a coffee drink on their way to work.

An espresso machine is also a piece of equipment that makes espresso beverages, along with many other coffee-based drinks. Espresso also refers to the blend of coffee used to make an espresso beverage, although there is not a standardized bean that is grown or used for this purpose.

Coffee

Photo by Kazoka

“I felt the world should recognize coffee as an extraordinary beverage, worthy of the same attention, connoisseurship, money, excitement and sensory engagement as wine.” – Kenneth Davids, author, 21st Century Coffee on the Coffee Explorer Podcast

“Coffee” is a broad term encapsulating a myriad of brewed beverages, each with its unique flavors and characteristics, all derived from the roasted coffee bean. It is a hot (or cold) drink made from the roasted and ground seeds (coffee beans) of a tropical shrub. Coffee beans come in two general species: arabica beans and robusta beans. Inherently bitter like dark chocolate in taste, coffee has a stimulating effect on humans, primarily due to its caffeine content. It is the second most traded commodity globally, following only petroleum.

How are Brewed Coffee and Espresso Different?

Basic Sensory Differences

Espresso:

  • Stronger: Espresso captivates with its robust and intense flavor, extracted through high pressure and a short brewing time, creating a sensory experience akin to savoring premium ice cream.
  • More Dense: The concentrated nature of espresso results in a thick, syrupy texture.
  • Intense: Espresso also has a full-bodied richness, which resembles the complexities found in a spoonful of indulgent ice cream, making it a treat for the discerning palate.

Coffee:

The Perfect Cup of coffee is defined by the amount of dissolved coffee grounds in a given quantity of water. This is referred to as “TDS,” or Total Dissolved Solids.

  • Subtle Flavors: Brewed coffee undergoes a slower extraction process, resulting in a milder flavor profile with lower Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). This means a less concentrated beverage experience, similar to sipping a milkshake instead of a flavor-packed scoop of ice cream.
  • More Diluted: A cup of coffee is about 1.3% dissolved coffee in liquid. By contrast, espresso is a whopping 10% dissolved coffee in liquid and therefore MUCH more concentrated.
  • Less Intense: The lighter and more diverse flavor of brewed coffee reflects a subtle indulgence.

Basic Physical Differences

Espresso:

  • The Grind: Espresso requires a fine grind to facilitate high-pressure extraction, emphasizing the role of grind size in influencing flavor and intensity. Ground espresso is roughly the texture of table salt.
  • Size: Espresso shots are significantly smaller than a standard cup of brewed coffee, catering to those who prefer an intense and concentrated drinking experience.
  • Equipment: Espresso demands a specific brewing device: an espresso machine, which generates the high pressure essential for crafting the signature shot. Sophisticated espresso machines, equipped with features like built-in grinders and precise temperature controls, underscore the importance of equipment in achieving the perfect shot.
  • A range of equipment and devices can be used to prepare a shot of espresso, ranging from a sleek, automated machine like the Terra Kaffe, or a hand powered unit like the Flair or the Aeropress, both of which allow you to easily prepare espresso in an easy and lower cost way.

Coffee:

  • The Grind: A coarser grind is typical for brewed coffee, accommodating the longer contact time with water and allowing for a more gradual extraction. The resulting grind size of coffee resembles potting soil, meaning they are larger than for espresso.
  • Size: Served in larger cups, brewed coffee provides a generous and leisurely drinking experience, diverging from the quick sip associated with espresso shots. While some European servings may be as small as 6 oz., cup sizes generally range from 8 oz. up to enormous 24 oz. portions.
  • Brewing Equipment: Various products contribute to the diverse world of brewed coffee, catering to varying preferences. Diverse brewing equipment, from simple drip machines such as the Technivorm Moccamaster to intricate pour-over set-ups, highlight accessibility in the world of brewed coffee.

Coffee Oils

Present in the beans, coffee oils contribute to the overall flavor and mouthfeel of both espresso and coffee. The presence of oils can vary depending on factors like roast level and brewing method, influencing the drink's body and mouthfeel.

Espresso

The high pressure in the espresso extraction process helps emulsify and extract more oils from the coffee beans. This results in a crema layer and a luscious, velvety texture, contributing to the indulgent experience of sipping an espresso.

Coffee

Methods like the French press tend to retain more oils, resulting in a fuller-bodied cup, while pour-over and drip methods may filter out some oils, producing a cleaner profile.

Cultural Significance

Beyond the technicalities, espresso and coffee hold significant cultural importance. From economic impact in countries like Colombia and Brazil, to the artisan expressions in American cafes and European literature, coffee makes an unavoidable stain on culture globally.

Espresso

With its quick and intense nature, espresso is deeply embedded in European culture, particularly in Italy. There, the act of sipping an espresso at a local cafe is a social ritual. The coffeehouse culture in Europe, centered around espresso, fosters a sense of community and connection.

Brewed coffee

With its diverse brewing methods, coffee has become a symbol of exploration and customization in the coffee culture of North America. The rise of specialty coffee shops and the popularity of artisanal brewing methods contribute to a culture where the act of brewing and enjoying coffee becomes an art form.

In Ethiopia, the ritual of drinking coffee is accompanied by the process of roasting and grinding while having conversation with friends and family. Learn more in this episode of the Coffee Explorer Podcast: Got six hours? We're having coffee in Ethiopia with Sam Demisse.

Caffeine Content

Whether you choose espresso or brewed coffee to get your caffeine fix depends on personal preference. Individual reactions to caffeine vary, with some preferring the quick absorption of caffeine in espresso, while others opt for the gradual release found in brewed coffee. While espresso generally contains more caffeine per ounce due to its concentrated nature, a standard serving of brewed coffee often results in a higher overall caffeine content.

Exploring Different Flavor Profiles

Espresso-Based Drinks

Serving as the base for various drinks, espresso's versatility parallels the myriad of ways ice cream can be enjoyed, from sundaes to milkshakes. Here are some examples:

  • Latte: Espresso mixed with steamed milk, for a smooth and creamy texture.
  • Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam, achieving a balance of boldness and creaminess.
  • Americano: Diluted espresso with hot water, offering a larger and milder alternative.
  • Macchiato: An espresso that is "marked" with a touch of densely steamed milk. The serving size is typically 3 oz.

Coffee-Based Drinks:

Diverse brewing methods lead to an array of coffee experiences. For example:

  • Black Coffee: A simple brewed coffee without additives, allowing the natural flavors to shine.
  • Pour-Over Coffee: Meticulous pouring over coffee grounds for a clean and nuanced cup.
  • French Press Coffee: Coarsely ground coffee steeped in water and pressed, resulting in a full-bodied and robust flavor.
  • Cafe au Lait: A popular combination of half strong drip coffee and half steamed milk.

Choosing Between Espresso Versus Coffee

To summarize the distinctions between espresso and coffee, let's refer to this recap chart:

AspectEspressoCoffee
StrengthStrongerMilder
DensityMore DenseThinner
SizeSmallerLarger
FlavorBold and IntenseSubtle and Nuanced
Brewing DeviceEspresso MachineVarious (Drip, Pour-Over, etc.)
How it's ServedSmall shot (1-2 oz.) or as a base for other beveragesLarger cup or mug randing from 8 oz. to 24 oz.
EquipmentSpecialized espresso machineDiverse brewing equipment
GrindFine (similar to table salt)Coarser (similar to potting soil)
Total Dissolved Solids8-10% dissolved coffee particles in water1.15-1.45% dissolved coffee particles in water

Exploring the distinctions between espresso and coffee reveals a dynamic and multifaceted coffee culture, reminiscent of the contrast between savoring a scoop of premium ice cream and sipping on a smooth milkshake. From sophisticated equipment to diverse drink options, varying caffeine content, roast styles, and the impact of coffee oils, the choice between espresso and coffee becomes a personalized journey through flavor, technique, and preference.

Whether drawn to the bold and concentrated nature of espresso or the milder and larger experience of coffee, both offer a unique and satisfying exploration for coffee enthusiasts.

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