Espresso vs Coffee: What are the Differences?

espresso brewing
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Coffee can be brewed in a number of ways in order to provide a variety of flavor profiles. For instance, in your home kitchen, you might use an automatic drip-style coffee maker that passes water slowly through a brew basket into a carafe.

Brewing methods get more sophisticated in your average cafe where a talented barista will apply high-tech equipment like the Beehouse or V60 in order to do a pour over.

All of these are methods of manually brewing a cup of coffee, but the espresso is not one of them.

This is the main way a coffee and espresso differ: brew method.

What is Espresso?

If you want to get technical, the Specialty Coffee Association defines espresso as:

Espresso is a 25–35ml (.85–1.2 ounce [×2 for double]) beverage prepared from 7–9 grams (14–18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195°–205°F (90.5°–96.1°C) has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds. While brewing, the flow of espresso will appear to have the viscosity of warm honey and the resulting beverage will exhibit a thick, dark golden crema. Espresso should be prepared specifically for and immediately served to its intended consumer.

Specialty Coffee Association

Brewing coffee requires heating water to the proper temperature (195°–205°F) in which to steep the coffee grounds and extract the best flavor array possible.

In the espresso machine, high temperatures, pressures, and steam work together to make this all to happen quickly and efficiently. The process reduces the preparation time from minutes to seconds and provides a smaller cup of condensed coffee essences.

espresso tools

In other words, what makes the espresso brewing method so special is its capacity to brew coffee under high pressure. In addition to the brewing method, the way the coffee beans are ground for the espresso maker also set the espresso process apart.

Grind

This is where the difference between a regular coffee and espresso begins. The coarseness of the grind must be selected for the brewing process for which it is intended.

Espresso

The favored grind for brewing espresso is on the finer end of the spectrum (think confectionery sugar), though not quite as powdery fine as those used for Turkish coffee. Espresso coarseness is about the same size and dimension as your average grain of table salt.

When ground just right, espresso coffee grounds stick together when small amounts of pressure are applied (which is why the tamper works well). Any bean can be selected for an espresso brew, but most aficionados will recommend a medium-dark roast for the best espresso experience.

Coffee

There are different ways to brew a cup of coffee and different levels of grind are suited for each one. 

For your regular drip style coffee maker, you will find that the grind is twice the size of the espresso. This will be roughly the consistency of couscous and will not stick together under pressure. 

Beans and roasts can be selected for personal taste and preferences.

Brewing

The main difference between regular coffee and espresso is the way they are brewed.

Espresso

Brewing an espresso involves a very specific set of factors. The pressure inside the espresso machine will build up to 15 ATM (atmospheres). This will force the hot water up the shaft and into the tightly packed coffee container (portafilter).

The result is a thick shot of coffee in concentrated form, most often served in a 1oz or 1.5oz serving. When done just right, the espresso has a distinctive head of foam, called the “crema.”

This process is broken down nicely by James from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in the video below:

Coffee

Brewing regular coffee also applies hot water over coffee grinds, but is not done with the pressure of an espresso system. 

The ground coffee will be placed in a brew basket containing a filter. Water is then heated and distributed through the shower-head over the grounds and slowly released into the awaiting carafe or coffee mug below.

Taste

The coarseness of the grind combined with the distinctive brewing methods will produce very different flavor experiences.

Espresso

As you are probably aware, espresso is known for having a much stronger flavor and concentrated effect than regular coffee. The “crema” atop your espresso will feature a slightly sweeter taste that brings the coffee’s full flavor profile to an apex. For the most impactful flavors and astounding aromatic profile, this should be served in its simplest form, the 1oz. shot.

Coffee

Brewed coffee certainly tastes similar, but it is not nearly as strong. While it is not as thick, regular coffee is a robust and full-bodied brew with an array of flavor complexities that are not as overpowering and more tangible. Furthermore, it is easier to drink black and experience these flavors without the addition of cream and sugar.

Caffeine Amount

This is a point of which there is considerable confusion. Many people assume that an espresso is a faster delivery route to get a powerful jolt of caffeine, but this really depends on a few factors. You will need to consider how much you are drinking and how you are drinking it.

You can imagine that the average one ounce of cup of espresso has about 70 mg caffeine. Your regular coffee made in a percolator or drip coffee maker will have about 12- 16 mg in an ounce. Most people will order two shots of espresso, and enjoy a full 140mg of caffeine.

But, someone who drinks a 12oz cup of coffee can potentially ingest 180mg of coffee.

Coffee and espresso can also be prepared and served in a wide variety of ways to suit any taste. For espresso beverages, we will describe a few popular preparation methods. For the coffee sections, you will find a variety of different brew methods.

Espresso Beverage Types

Latte

The latte is the most popular way to serve espresso and is made by combining the freshly brewed shot with various forms of milks and creams. If you have a hot latte, the shot will be poured into steamed milk and feature a lovely head of thick foam on the top (don’t forget the cinnamon sprinkles).

Iced lattes are made by combining the espresso with cold milk and serving over ice.

Americano

The Americano is another alternative to producing a drip-style coffee. It combines the espresso with hot water to create a full-bodied coffee with a very balanced flavor array.

Cappuccino

It is common to mistake any espresso drink that has steamed milk for a cappuccino, but this is not the case. The cappuccino is similar to the latte in that it has foam and steamed milk, but in the cappuccino the ratio of half foam/ half steamed milk provide a lighter experience and slightly sweeter effect from the foamed milk.

Coffee Beverage Types

Here are some coffee beverage types.

Drip

The most basic and common of all coffee brew types involves dripping coffee into a filtered brew basket full of coffee grounds. From here it will drip slowly into the awaiting cup or carafe below through the shower-head.

French Press

This method of coffee brewing requires especially course grounds of coffee. When brewing in a French Press, the coffee grinds are added to the carafe before hot water is poured over them. 

The entire apparatus is allowed to sit for several minutes. Once the coffee has been brewed the filter will be pushed downward trapping the grounds at the bottom, and allowing a pure cup of coffee to be served.

Turkish

The Turkish brewing method is one of the most ancient and time honored. This involves grinding the coffee to a fine powder and mixing with hot water. As the drink starts to froth and boil, the first third is poured evenly between the cups. It is then returned to a boil to froth and then the remaining coffee is poured. 

Pour-Over

This is an improved variation of drip brewing and allows the barista more control over the exact brew result. Coffee is placed in a filter or basket and hot water is carefully poured over the grounds before they are passed to the cup or receptacle below.

Cold Brew

This is by far the easiest way to enjoy a full-bodied smooth cup of coffee within 12 to 24 hours. Simply soak coarsely ground coffee in cold water for a half day to a full day. Strain out the grounds, serve and enjoy.

Conclusion

Now that you have a better perspective on the differences between espresso and regular coffee, you can begin your own enlightened adventures with this remarkable drink. By knowing how the intricacies of the brewing process affect the final outcomes you can appreciate the science and art of brewing coffee

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