If you’re choosing coffee in your local supermarket, you’ll likely notice that some are marked “coffee beans,” and others are labeled “espresso beans.” But is that something you need to understand before you choose beans for your preferred brewing method, or is it more of a marketing trick?
This article will examine the main differences between coffee and espresso beans, including their roast profiles, blends, appropriate grind size, and caffeine content.
It will also examine whether espresso brewing strictly uses espresso beans or if you can use them in other methods. And how about whether coffee beans can be used in your espresso shots? All will be revealed so that you’ll have a solid idea of the best option, depending on the brewing method you choose. Let’s get started.
Are Espresso Beans And Coffee Beans The Same?
Both espresso and coffee beans come from green coffee beans, meaning that, in essence, they are the same. Most coffee beans on the market are also Arabica, Robusta, or a blend of the two.
The difference between the beans lies in their roasting profile: light, medium, or dark.
However, are there any other differences between the two?
Difference Between Espresso Beans And Coffee Beans
There are a few important differences between espresso beans and other coffee beans because espresso is a radically different brewing method from others.
An espresso machine will extract the coffee in around 20 seconds using high pressure, and the coffee-to-water ratio is approximately 1:2 or 1:3. However, brewing methods, including pour-over and French press, take far longer to extract the coffee. In contrast, the ratio is closer to 1:15 or 1:20.
As a result, espresso beans have distinct characteristics so that you can get excellent coffee even with a short extraction time.
Roast Profiles – Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans
Typically, espresso uses dark roasted coffee beans.
Coffee roasters usually roast espresso coffee beans for longer – more often than not beyond the second crack. Dark roast coffee beans are more robust than light or medium roast beans. They also have a deeper flavor with lower acidity. Another characteristic is they’re more porous, meaning they are easier to extract in a short period. The beans produce thicker crema too, which is essential to an authentic espresso.
If you buy espresso beans from the supermarket, you’ll notice that they are usually dark brown or almost black and have an oily sheen on their surface. However, other coffee beans will be a lighter brown and lack the oily sheen. We explained why coffee beans are oily in another post.
Despite these differences, there is no standard roast level for espresso beans. So, the espresso roast from a certain roaster can be light to medium. This is particularly common among specialty roasters, which use lighter roast profiles to offer a more fruity, complex, and sweet flavor in their espresso. Starbucks also has a lighter Blonde Roast for many of its espresso drinks.
This is a result of a shift in the trends of coffee over the years. A couple of decades ago, espresso was almost exclusively brewed using darker roasted beans. However, as the prominence of specialty shops has increased – and with that, the desire to experiment with all aspects of coffee brewing – the espresso varieties have also widened.
While dark roasted beans are usually used in espresso brewing, it’s worth keeping in mind that they shouldn’t be too dark. That’s because if they’re too oily, over time, they can begin to clog up grinders.
For brewed coffee, light and medium roasts are the most common. However, you can still choose dark roast beans for drip coffee if you prefer it bitter and strong.
Coffee Blends – Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans
Different roasters can opt for 100% single-roast beans or a blend for their signature espresso beans. Also, as stated earlier, espresso beans can use 100% Arabica beans or a blend of Arabica and Robusta.
However, most coffee beans are Arabica as they are generally regarded as offering better quality thanks to being grown at higher altitudes. That means that they offer more sweetness and acidity to produce a more complex flavor.
Arabica beans are most suitable for pour-over and drip coffee. Nevertheless, there is a place for Robusta beans because they have twice the caffeine content of Arabica beans, are easier to grow, and are cheaper to harvest, meaning you’ll often find a blend of Arabica and Robusta if you’re buying either espresso beans or ordinary coffee beans.
Crema – Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans
Crema is one of the most recognizable and important parts of espresso. That familiar foam on top of the espresso typically consists of CO2 from the coffee roasting with the coffee oil. Darker roast beans have more CO2 than light or medium roast beans. Therefore, you can get thicker crema using darker roast beans.
Robusta coffee bean also produces more crema. As crema is integral to espresso, Robusta beans are often used in an espresso blend and are darker roasted than regular coffee.
Check our crema guide if you are interested in learning more about espresso crema.
Grind Size – Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans
If you’re buying ground coffee instead of whole beans, you’ll see a difference between espresso beans and coffee beans in grind size. Espresso grinds are finer than grinds for most other brewing methods (except for Turkish coffee). If you’re grinding for espresso, your grounds should resemble the size and consistency of table salt.
When making espresso, the coffee grounds are tamped to produce the required resistance, allowing hot water to travel through the puck and extract the natural oils and flavor.
It’s important to find the correct grind size when you grind your beans with an espresso grinder. If you grind too coarse, the hot water will move through the grounds too quickly, leading to under-extraction and a sour flavor. If you grind the beans too finely, the water will struggle to move through the puck, over-extracting the coffee and creating an unpleasant flavor.
With other brewing methods that don’t rely on high pressure to extract the coffee, the grind size will be more forgiving. For this reason, it’s often a good idea to begin your domestic brewing journey with a method other than espresso, as there is far less leeway in producing a fantastic espresso shot.
Caffeine Content – Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans
Darker roasts have slightly less caffeine than lightly roasted coffee. However, some espresso blends have Robusta coffee beans, which have double the caffeine content of Arabica beans, so it can be difficult to judge exactly how much caffeine is in each blend.
Typically, espresso beans have a higher caffeine content than regular beans because the shots are more concentrated and have a fuller flavor. That also means they taste far stronger than regular coffee.
Can You Use Regular Coffee Beans To Make Espresso?
There’s nothing stopping anyone from making espresso with regular coffee beans. After all, ultimately, espresso is just another brewing method, meaning any roasted coffee beans are appropriate. You can pull gorgeous shots using lighter roast beans if you have a high-quality espresso machine and grinder.
Nevertheless, there are reasons why espresso beans are preferable for brewing espresso. For example, medium-dark roasts are easier to extract and produce more crema. They’re also easier to dial in for the ideal shot. Also, the flavor of espresso beans is stronger, and they pair better with milk for espresso-based milk drinks, including latte and cappuccino. Because of these reasons, particularly if you’re new to espresso brewing, it is recommended to use espresso beans.
Can You Use Espresso Beans To Make Regular Coffee?
In the same way, you can use regular coffee beans to make espresso, you can also use espresso beans to brew regular coffee, such as drip coffee, pour-over, French press, or even cold brew coffee.
By far the most important thing is to get the correct grind size for each brewing method. If you do that, there’s no reason why you can’t make excellent coffee.
Still, the flavor may be strong and bitter because traditional espresso beans are dark roast and often blended with Robusta beans. At the same time, it’s unlikely to have the complexity and nuance in the flavor profiles. So, ultimately, it will depend on your taste preference.
As this article has explained, there is nothing to stop you from using espresso beans for brewing regular coffee and using regular coffee beans for brewing espresso. However, there are good reasons why there are dedicated espresso beans for pulling your shots and standard coffee beans for other brewing methods.
Dedicated espresso beans are best for espresso as they produce the all-important crema in your shot, offer the correct roast profile to make a strong and satisfying espresso, and are more porous, making them more suitable for the lower extraction time needed to make espresso.
Despite that, as with many things related to domestic brewing, much of your decision as to which are the best beans for you will come down to your taste preference. So, what is the best way to work out if you need an espresso or regular coffee beans for your chosen brewing method? Experiment with both until you find the perfect variety!