Espresso vs. Coffee: Understanding the Difference

Most of us coffee drinkers have wondered about the difference between espresso and coffee. Coffee & Espresso Expert Jeff Sutton finally answers this age-old question!

Espresso drips from the machine into a white cup.

Photo by Mark Prince & CoffeeGeek

On an average day, any number of people shout over the sound of the roaster that I’m working on to say, “Hey Jeff, what's the difference between coffee and espresso?” I normally yell something back about the difference being the amount of water and the size of grind that is used to extract the drink, depending on how early in the morning it is and how much of my Americano I’ve put back. Now that I have the time, let's break down the basics and work our way from cowboy coffee all the way through to modern-day espresso.

Coffee & Espresso Expert Jeff Sutton holds a cup of coffee next to his roaster.

This is me taking a coffee break during the coffee making. Photo by Savannah H Photography

A cup of coffee varies as much—if not more—than any wine, beer, or spirit on the planet, so someone should try multiple options before making up their mind one way or another about what they like in a coffee. There are two main types of coffee and they are Arabica and Robusta.

Arabica beans are of a higher quality but produce less than Robusta. Most of your higher-quality beans on the market today are of the Arabica variety. “So which ones are the espresso beans?”, you’re probably asking. The short answer is any coffee can be made into an espresso—it all just depends on how you brew it.

An infographic breaking down the differences between espresso and coffee (in both an immersion brew and a percolation brew).

The most important factor when thinking about coffee should be to know the brew method you plan on using, along with what grind size will work best. Both of these factors directly influence how the coffee will taste. Coffee brewing methods can be broken down into two broad categories: percolation and immersion.

Immersion Brewing

A french press of coffee sits on a table.

Photo by Izzy Rivi

In immersion methods such as a French press or good ol’ cowboy coffee, hot water soaks in grounds for multiple minutes before being separated. Grinding for immersion brews is generally done with as large of a grind size as possible. Because the ground beans sit fully immersed in the hot water, if it is too finely ground, the coffee will become over-extracted very quickly, causing a bitter-tasting shot.

Immersion methods are the most commonly used method of brewing worldwide because of their simplicity. Another major reason is that you don’t need much, if any, equipment. If you want to get these methods perfected, my recommendation is to always measure ounces of water per gram of ground coffee beans. These brewing techniques create a thicker-bodied coffee with a tendency to have stronger flavor characteristics.

Immersion techniques are generally best with medium roasts all the way through darker roast coffees where a powerful cup is desired. One of the major advantages of immersion brewing is the ability to do it when not at home. Many variations of the French press have come out over the last 10 years to make coffee while camping and traveling easier than ever.

Percolation Brewing

A woman pours hot water into a coffee percolator.

Photo by Kayla Phaneuf

Percolation methods require hot water to be passed through ground coffee, normally with the aid of a filter. These methods include drip coffee makers and pour overs, and they usually produce a clean, softer-bodied cup of coffee compared to immersion methods.

The size of the ground coffee bean is very important in any of these coffee extraction processes. Percolation methods will use a finer grind size than immersion because the coffee needs to be extracted faster due to limited contact with the hot water. For drip and pour-over coffee, a medium (drip) to medium-coarse (pour over) grind will produce the best cup of coffee. Incorrect grind size can create a coffee that is over- or under-extracted, producing watered down or sour-tasting coffee.

All types of coffee can really shine when made through percolation methods as long as proper coffee to water ratio is used as directed by your coffee machine's label (or the industry standard of 60g coffee per 1000g water). It’s all right to play around a little to find the ounces of water per gram of coffee you enjoy the most.

Another important part of percolation brewing is the amount of time that the water is exposed to the ground coffee. In a pour over, for example, it is ideal to do what is referred to as a bloom pour to begin with and then subsequently fill until the desired amount of water has passed through the grounds. This can be timed out into multiple pours of hot water every 25 or 30 seconds. For more on brewing the perfect pour over, check out this guide.

Espresso’s History

A coffee grinder is full of beans.

The first espresso machine was created in 1884 by Italian Angelo Moriondo. His idea was to create a faster cup of coffee by using steam pressure to push water through a puck of finely ground coffee. His machine pushed water through at a rate of 0.75 atms and created what we would think of today as a cup of drip coffee. The function of this wasn’t to create a new, exciting beverage for the masses but instead to speed up the brewing process. It was taking over four minutes to make a single cup of coffee at the time so a coffee break for a group of people was no small undertaking for a café. The new “espresso” machines sped up the process to 45 seconds for an 8oz cup. This idea of a faster cup of coffee is what eventually gave birth to what we now call espresso, but for the first 50 years, espresso had more to do with being an express cup of coffee than the small concentrate we love today.

Modern Espresso

Coffee drips out of a machine.

Photo by Blake Verdoorn

The kind of extraction we now think of as espresso didn’t come into being until the 1940s when the company Gaggia produced the first commercial machine capable of forcing water through an espresso puck at a rate of 9 atm. This increase in pressure led to the creation that we are familiar with today.

The high-pressure extraction allows for oils and colloids of the coffee beans to form the heart, body, and crema of what we all recognize today as a shot of espresso. The shot creates something that is unique from a cup of coffee due to its thickness of body and bold flavor. This potent shot can be diluted with cream or milk and still maintain a strong coffee-flavored base.

An infographic breaking down the different parts of an espresso shot—the crema, body, and heart.

In concentrating the flavors, people are able to create a multitude of drinks that are based upon the combination of steamed or frothed milk in differing ratios to shots of espresso. The creation of the espresso shot allowed for the cortado, macchiato, cappuccino, and latte. The difference between these drinks is basically the ratio of milk to espresso, a cortado having the least milk and a latte having the most. Most of these options have a fairly traditional coffee-forward flavor due to the strong profile of espresso.

Caffeine Content

Two cups sit on a table, one has coffee in it and one has beans in it.

Photo by Jessica Lewis

There are many ideas people will cite about how much caffeine is in any given type of drink—from your average cup of drip coffee to a double shot pulled at your favorite coffee shop. Regular coffee will have lower caffeine amounts than espresso when concerning volume, but one 8oz cup of coffee will have more caffeine than 30g (double shot) of espresso.

Another factor that comes into play when discussing caffeine amounts in coffee is the roast level of the beans. I’ve often heard people say that lighter roasted beans have more caffeine because less is baked off in the roasting process. The problem with this is that it’s not true! In fact, the roasting process changes the caffeine content very little.

What does change from the roasting process is the density of the beans. The longer a bean is roasted, the more it expands and loses its density. If someone is making a cup of coffee and uses a scoop to measure the beans every day, then they will put more beans in if they are lightly roasted. This causes there to be more caffeine in a light roast if the barista measures by volume and not weight. On the other hand, if the barista measures by weight, then a darker roast will have more caffeine because more dark roasted coffee beans will be used to equal the weight of fewer light roasted beans.

So, What Now? Coffee or Espresso?

The beauty of coffee is that nobody is wrong on what flavor they think is best. It's all a matter of opinion, and the most fruitful way to find out what you think is the best will be to let your taste buds do the exploring. It may be a regular cup of coffee with a little cream, a bright and floral Ethiopian pour over, or a flat white made with your favorite espresso. I hope this helps you find what kind of coffee you'll love best!

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Written By
After Graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in supply-chain management I moved west to the Colorado mountains in order to take the road less traveled. I started my western experience working in the ski industry. I opened and managed a demo ski shop for 8 years in Telluride, Color...

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