Espresso Vs. Coffee – What Is The Difference?

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Espresso vs. coffee – what exactly is the difference? I’m sure you’ve heard espresso and coffee used almost interchangeably over the years. But the question remains, are they the same?

Some coffee lovers might think that coffee and espresso are precisely the same. But the truth is, they aren’t. Do you know that jittery sensation you get after a shot of espresso? Well, that’s a little different from regular coffee’s effect.

Although one is contained in the other, espresso and coffee are not the same. What do we mean by that? Well, let’s take a look and find out the difference between them.

Is Espresso Coffee?

To put it simply: yes, espresso is coffee. Going back to our earliest logic classes, we can assume that, while all espresso is coffee, not all coffee is espresso.

Nuova-Point-espresso-cup-with-saucers

Espresso is a specific brewing method used on finely ground beans to create what is essentially a coffee concentrate. Espresso uses high pressure and boiling water to extract all the coffee it can in a short amount of time. 

The result is a shot of espresso, a tiny but strong serving of coffee that usually consists of one to two ounces. The intensity of the espresso brewing method means that the concentrated coffee extract has a rich, syrupy body and a delightful crema that sits atop the shot. 

The crema is arguably the best part of the espresso shot. It’s a nice, thin layer of foam that results from natural oils from the coffee bean and the CO2 created in the roasting process. A good crema is one way of knowing if you have a good shot of espresso or not.

coffee-crema

Add steamed milk to espresso shots, and you have flavorful espresso drinks that satisfy your taste buds, such as latte, flat white, cappuccino, macchiato.

Difference Between Espresso and Coffee

So if espresso is always coffee but coffee is not always espresso, how do we correctly understand the differences between the two? Well, let’s take a look.

EspressoRegular Coffee
Coffee EquipmentEspresso machineDrip Coffee Maker, French Press, Cold Brew, Pour Over, etc.
FlavorIntense, strongMilder
Grind SizeFineMedium to coarse
Brew Ratio1:2 – 1:41:15-1:18
Serving Size1-2 oz5-20 oz per cup or a coffee pot
BudgetHighLow
Caffeine60-75 mg/oz9-17 mg/oz

Coffee Equipment

The equipment you use to make your coffee or espresso is one fundamental way of understanding the primary differences between these two drinks.

Making espresso, or “pulling” an espresso shot (as the experts say), requires an espresso machine. An espresso machine is a very sophisticated piece of equipment that requires special care and maintenance and requires very particular operating procedures.

There are different levels of intensity that you can get with an espresso machine. You can find a semi-automatic one, which tends to be a little simpler and just brews the coffee. You’ll need to grind the espresso, tamp it in the portafilter, and lock it in place in the machine.

super-automatic-vs-semi-automatic-espresso-machine
A Fully Automatic Vs. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

Or you can get a super-automatic machine, which will grind the coffee, tamp it down, and brew it all for you. It will even steam milk for you and stop automatically when it reaches a preset temperature. 

Brewing coffee doesn’t require high pressure. You can make regular coffee in a very basic coffee pot, a French press, a pour-over, or a Chemex. You can also put it in a pot and stick it over a fire, and you’ll eventually get a cup of coffee. Preparing coffee is much more straightforward.

pour-over-coffee-makers
Pour Over Coffee Makers

Brewing Process

Espresso requires high pressure that it can use to push the hot water through finely-ground coffee. Typically, an espresso roast is ideal for making espresso, although you can substitute any dark solid roast.

Brewing espresso requires tamping the coffee grounds down evenly in the portafilter. An even tamp ensures that the brew will come out properly distributed, and you won’t end up with any weird-tasting espresso.

pull-espresso-shot

Espresso works as the basis for most coffee drinks that you can purchase at a coffee shop, like lattes and cappuccinos. And espresso machines almost always come with a steam wand so that you can steam some milk to go with your espresso.

The variety of ways you can make a cup of regular coffee is one key difference between espresso and coffee. Regular coffee either uses filtration methods such as pour-over and drip coffee, or immersion methods such as french press or cold-brewed coffee. These coffee brewing methods are much different than the espresso machine. 

timemore-gooseneck-kettle-pouring
brewing-coffee-with-french-press

However, any beans will work for all brew methods, and espresso beans just mean the bean is suitable for making espresso.

Coffee Taste

Espresso is known to have a sharp, deep, rich, bitter taste. It should never taste bad unless someone used an evil bean or pulled the shot incorrectly. Although it is intense, it should have a slightly sweet tone. It’s almost caramel-like in its texture and complexity. If you pull a shot with a lighter roasted coffee, the flavor will be more complicated.

Regular coffee has a wide variety of tastes that you might experience. For example, dark roast coffee is usually bittersweet and a little toasty. You might also detect some notes of chocolate.

A light roast coffee is going to be brighter and more acidic. It has a much lighter body, which means a tangy, almost citrus flavor replaces the rich, bittersweetness of the dark roast.

No matter what roast levels or beans you choose, espresso just has a deeper flavor because of the brewing process.

espresso-and-brewed-coffee

Coffee Beans and Roast Levels

Traditionally Italian-style espresso uses darker roasted coffee beans. Many espresso blends include robusta and arabica beans, which produce a robust and rich crema. As we’ve noted before, the crema is a good indication of the quality of the espresso. 

dark-roast-coffee-in-bag

Modern cafes have also brewed espresso with lighter roast and single-origin arabica coffee beans in recent years. Sometimes called a blonde espresso, lighter roasts produced something slightly brighter in texture and a little more citrusy in flavor. 

In comparison, lighter roasts are suitable for pour-over coffee. A pour-over requires a certain amount of attention, and the coffee grounds are filtered rather quickly. This helps prevent a more acidic flavor in your coffee.

Medium to dark roast is suitable for french press, drip coffee, or cold brew. They are incredibly versatile and usually more popular choices for general purchase. You can also use them in place of espresso if necessary, and they’ll produce a very lovely espresso for you.

light-roast-beans

Grind Size

Espresso use finely ground coffee beans. And that is not an understatement. The grind size is essential for espresso, and it’s good to know why. The regular setting for a fine grind on average coffee grinders is probably not fine enough for what espresso needs.

The water can’t go through the coffee puck if the grind is too fine. This will result in a slow drip that produces a nasty-tasting over-extracted espresso. But if the grind is too coarse, the espresso will be under-extracted as the pressurized water simply flies through it.

For regular coffee, grind size is more forgiving. You still want to be careful, mainly depending on the brewing method you use, but your margin for error is much larger when making regular coffee.

For example, a French press needs coarsely ground beans. This allows for the proper amount of flavor extraction during the longer extraction process. A regular pot of coffee, however, generally uses a medium grind. Like espresso, coffee that is ground too fine will slow the brew down and produce something that tastes a little off. 

Different brewing grind sizes

Brew Ratio and Serving Cup Size

Since espresso is a concentrated shot of robust coffee, it’s typically only one or two ounces. You might find one as big as four ounces if you order an espresso. However, most espresso machines recommend programming to one or two ounces. Some are variations of espresso based on coffee to coffee brew ratio:

  • Ristretto: 1:1.5
  • Espresso: 1:2
  • Lungo: 1:3 to 1:4
ristretto-vs-espresso-vs-lungo

The cup size depends on where you are. Some places will give you the largest cup with the tiniest espresso shot inside. Some have particular espresso cups, called demitasse. You can order espresso in these to feel fancy.

Now, if you order something like a latte or cappuccino, the sizes will be different. At Starbucks, they serve an 8 ounce for a short, a 16 ounce for a grande, and a 20 ounce for a venti cup. 

Regular coffee usually uses a 1:15 to 1:18 ratio. This means that there are 15 to 18 grams of water for every gram of coffee used. Typically, this allows for the best extraction possible in a regular pot of coffee. 

Regular drip coffee is generally served in a mug or a regular coffee pot. The average cup size is about 8 ounces. You can also order coffee in the exact cup sizes as latte drinks if you visit a coffee shop.

Budget

Finding a good espresso machine means finding something that will probably cost you more than $100. A premium espresso machine that brews a perfect shot will start from $1200. There are cheaper versions available, but you can’t always trust them.

If you’re looking for a manual espresso machine to use in your house, you might be looking at something closer to $400 or $800. 

You can find an excellent French press or pour-over drippers for about $25 at your local supermarket. Sometimes a nice one will run a little more, but that might mean something closer to $50. At the most, you could reasonably spend around $120 to $500 on a good drip coffee maker that makes excellent filter coffee and will last you a decade.

Caffeine

The caffeine content of espresso and regular coffee are incredibly different. This might be why people can chug four cups of coffee in a day but get the shakes after one shot of espresso.

For every ounce of espresso, there are 63 milligrams of caffeine. And in a regular cup of drip coffee, one ounce contains about 12 to 16 milligrams of caffeine. That means that the caffeine content in espresso is not just a little higher: it’s exponentially higher. 

Although espresso contains more caffeine concentration per ounce, coffee aficionados drink espresso in small cups. The total caffeine level depends on the cup size. For this reason, drinking no more than 3 shots of espresso (2 oz per shot) or 2 cups (8 oz per cup) of pour-over coffee is ideal for the safe daily caffeine intake (400mg per day).

Caffeine Infographic

The Verdict

So espresso is always coffee, but coffee is not always espresso. There are different types of coffee, and espresso just happens to be one. Whether you’re a fan of regular brew or you like a nice shot, it’s good to know what sets them apart and makes them so different.