Coffee vs Espresso: What’s The Difference?

Last Updated: January 21, 2023

Date Published: October 8, 2020
What is the difference between coffee and espresso? What sets them apart? It is the grind? The beans? The brewing method? Discover the answers to these questions and more.
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What is the difference between coffee and espresso? What sets them apart? It is the grind? The beans? The brewing method? In this article, we take a closer look at the difference between coffee and espresso. Plus, we give you some tips on how to pull perfect shots of espresso. 

Isn’t Espresso Also Considered Coffee? 

Yes, because coffee is the liquid that’s extracted from the bean – not the preparation. You can get a delicious cup of espresso through a specific preparation of Arabica or Robusta coffee beans. Think about all the different ways coffee is prepared there’s pour over coffee, percolator coffee, French press coffee, and more. So, all espresso is coffee; however, not all coffee is espresso. 

Further, espresso is not a different coffee bean, although roasters may use a special process for beans meant to become espresso. 

What is the Difference Between Coffee and Espresso?

Below, we highlight the key differences between espresso and coffee.

  1. Origin
    Most people think that the difference between coffee and espresso is in the bean – this is incorrect. Many people think that espresso is made from a different bean; however, the difference actually lies in the process by which an espresso is made. Coffee and espresso actually come from the same origin: coffee bean. There are 2 types of coffee beans that are grown commercially: Arabica and Robusta. An Arabica bean’s flavor can range from tangy to sweet, and when roasted, Arabica beans tend to have a sweeter and more floral flavor. On the other hand, Robusta beans are said to have a nuttier flavor when roasted and their taste is often compared to oatmeal. Espresso doesn’t refer to the type of bean used to make the drink – it is simply the name of the beverage itself. An espresso is made from an Arabica or Robusta bean.
  2. Grinding and Extraction
    Another important difference between coffee and espresso is in the grinding method. For espresso, the beans must be much smaller than for coffee. Why? This is because espresso is prepared much faster – only around 25-30 seconds. Thus, the contact of ground beans with hot water is much shorter. Passing hot water under high pressure through very finely ground beans provides a more efficient extraction. So, when preparing an espresso around 24% of all substances are extracted from the beans, while only around 14% is extracted when making drinks.
  3. Brewing Temperature
    When brewing espresso, the water temperature is controlled by the espresso machine’s thermostat and must be between 190°F and 196° Fahrenheit. However, in the case of coffee, the temperature must be between 195°F and 205°F – the closer to 205°F the better. Never use boiling water as this will burn the beans.
  4. Caffeine Content
    It is often assumed that espresso has more caffeine than coffee. Well, it really depends on how much you have. An average cup of drip coffee contains more caffeine than a shot of espresso. Typically, an 8 oz. cup of coffee contains around 85-185 mg. of caffeine, and a shot (1 oz.) of espresso contains around 40-75 mg. of caffeine. While it’s true that espresso has a higher caffeine concentration per ounce – which is where the confusion likely comes from – you still get less caffeine drinking one espresso shot vs. one cup of coffee. Obviously, this changes if you love drinking espresso and have more than the average recommended espresso shots per day. Note that the recommended espresso shots per day is 5.  

The Anatomy of an Espresso Shot

Here’s the anatomy of an espresso shot:

  • The Crema.
    This delicate foam is the primary visual indicator of a properly extracted espresso shot. It is a reddish-brown, aromatic, and flavorful froth that rests on top of a shot of espresso. It is formed when air bubbles combine with finely ground coffee’s soluble oils. Some people refer to this as the ‘Guinness effect’. Crema helps give espresso that fuller flavor and longer after-taste than drip coffee. 
  • The Espresso.
    When brewed properly, the actual espresso under the crema will have a rich and full taste, an aromatic scent, and a velvety mouthfeel. The shorter period of water exposure draws out less acid than other brewing techniques, while still retaining around 60-70% of the caffeine in the final cup. So, even if it takes only about 30 seconds to brew, it still provides a substantial amount of caffeine. Further, the process preserves more aromatic and volatile coffee oils that you won’t find in a regular cup of coffee. 

How to Make Espresso Coffee

To pull a perfect shot of espresso, follow these general guidelines:

  1. Grind
    Always grind fresh coffee beans right before brewing. Note that the grind texture is a crucial aspect of shot quality – too fine a grind will result in an over-extracted shot that tastes burnt and bitter; while a too coarse grind will result in an under-extracted shot that’s watery, weak, and tastes sour. The ideal grind texture is something similar to that of granulated sugar.
  2. Dose
    The dose refers to the amount of coffee you have to put in the portafilter to make your espresso shot. The dose for a double shot must be between 14-18 grams; however, this depends on your espresso machine and personal tastes.
  3. Tamp
    Tamping ensures uniformity of the extraction by packing and leveling the grounds to ensure consistent and equal water contact is forced through the coffee. The proper tamp method is to hold your elbow at 90 degrees, rest your portafilter on a flat and level surface, then apply pressure until the coffee has a polished, even look. Note that coarser grounds require a firmer tamp than finer grounds.
  4. Brew
    Place the portafilter into your espresso machine’s brew head and place your cup beneath it. Grab a timer (if your machine doesn’t have a built-in timer) and time your shot. Note that timing is crucial to pulling that perfect espresso shot. 

If the grind, dose, and tamp are ideal, the first part of the brew should appear dark before it turns to a golden brown and foamy mixture that flows into the cup in a single, thin stream without breaking. The ideal brewing time you’re looking for is between 20-30 seconds – if the brewing time is taking too long or too short, check your grind, tamp, and dose – then adjust accordingly. If your shots are coming out unevenly from both spouts, your tamp has to be more even.

The Bottom Line

All espresso is coffee; however, not all coffee is espresso. Some of the key differences between a coffee and espresso lie in their origin, grinding and extraction method, brewing temperature, and caffeine content. If you’re looking for tips on how to pull the perfect espresso shot at home, make sure to follow the guidelines provided here. Note that everyone has different tastes, so practice and experiment until you get it just right.

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