“An extra shot of espresso please!” is probably one of the most popular lines you hear in a coffee shop. We already know the basic difference between coffee and espresso but how much do we really know about them? What secrets should we uncover between our favorite black gold?
Coffee – it’s such a general term that covers so many different beverages. Have you ever wondered why your morning drip coffee from your machine at home tastes and looks completely different to the espresso drinks you order in a cafe? You’re not alone! As it turns out, espresso and drip coffee are totally different drinks that suit different people in different situations. Not to mention all of the other types of coffee such as French Press coffee, pour over coffee or even instant coffee.
Entire books have been written on all the different types of coffee and we could talk about this topic for days. In this article therefore, we are going to be focusing on and answering the very important question why would you choose one vs the other?
So, I mentioned that espresso was invented to make the coffee brewing experience faster and more convenient.
Filter coffee was also invented to make it more convenient to brew and filter coffee. From this perspective coffee and espresso are the same. However, this is where the similarities stop.
Drip coffee is brewed just by putting ground coffee beans into contact with hot water. The The hot water and coffee pass through a filter, letting the water extract the flavors from the beans over time. This process normally takes around 4 – 5 minutes. Drip coffee is a gravitation brewing method. We pour water over the grounds and then gravitation pulls all the water through the coffee bed, extracting soluble solids in the way.
For drip coffee to work, we need to grind the beans to a medium grind size. The grind size acts as a timer for the brewing process. Grind too fine, and brewing will take too long, (and over-extract). Grind too coarse and the brewing will be too fast, (will under-extract). The medium grind allows the water to flow for the 4-5 minutes exactly.
On the other hand, the brewing time for an espresso, however, is maximum 30 seconds. How is this achieved?
An espresso machine machine forces hot water through the ground coffee at very high pressure, (around 9 bar pressure), to achieve this quicker extraction.
In order to create the necessary resistance, coffee beans need to be ground much finer for espresso than for drip coffee. The water still needs to be long enough in contact with the coffee in order to extract the right amount of flavors.
The extraction concept applies to espresso as well, too long the extraction, you get bitter coffee. Too short and and you get sour and weak coffee. When you ground too fine, the water will pass too slow through the puck of ground coffee. When you grind too coarse, water will pass too fast.
Check our espresso brewing guide, is truly, one of the best brewing guides online. We go through all of the brewing aspects and show you what you can improve, and how to troubleshoot your espresso.
Drip coffee is thin and has no crema. Espresso on the other hand is thick, oily and, if prepared properly, has a delicious crema sitting on top. Drip coffee tends to taste milder and brighter compared to espresso, which tastes stronger and more full-bodied.
Now, we have discussed how espresso is brewed differently to coffee. Espresso needs high pressure and a fine coffee grind. Drip coffee needs a filter, courser grind and gravity. These different methods of brewing allow for different properties of the bean to pass into the coffee or into the espresso. First let’s deal with the look of the coffee.
We use a filter for drip coffee to stop too many of the potentially harmful properties from the ground coffee getting into our drink. This is because the water is in contact with the coffee for so much longer. The obvious exception to this rule is the French Press, but that’s the topic for another article! The quicker brewing method for espresso has it’s advantages and disadvantages. The fact that the water is in contact with the coffee for much less time means there is no need for a filter.
No filter means one thing to coffee lovers – oil! The oil from the coffee bean contains many microscopic and insoluble substances. With no paper filter, some of these compounds find their way into the espresso, even in the short brewing time. These substances don’t dissolve in water, which is why they don’t pass through the filter. This makes espresso a much thicker, oilier drink.
The oils in the espresso are emulsified into a colloid. What on earth does that mean, I hear you ask? A colloid is basically tiny particles from one substance that are suspended throughout another substance. This is important, because it gives us our crema, and brings us onto the difference in taste between coffee and espresso.
The presence of oil in an espresso means that we get more gorgeous tastes in our coffee from the oil. Crema is really what’s important here though. It acts almost as a cover for the espresso and locks in all of these flavors, keeping espreso flavorful for longer.
Drip coffee, on the other hand, has none of the oily properties, (or at least much, much less), that we find in an espresso, so these flavors are missing. However, all is not lost for filter coffee. The fact that the water is in contact with the coffee beans for so much longer means that it is able to extract different flavors over time that we don’t find in an espresso.
The tasting notes in an espresso tend to be darker, nuttier and more chocolaty (in coffee terms). Lots of espressos will have a more bitter taste than drip coffee. This is due to badly prepared coffee though more than an actual quality of the espresso. Well prepared espresso should be sweet to taste.
Typical tasting notes for filter coffee then, tend to be fruiter, brighter and more acidic (in terms of PH, not actual acid). Whether espresso or drip coffee is tastier or better is completely down to the individual. These tastes can also be adjusted and manipulated depending on the type of bean used and the type of roast, more on that now.
Fun fact: If you add sugar to coffee, as well as making it sweeter, it makes coffee more acidic, which is how we usually deal with badly made coffee!
To a certain extent, espresso blends do tend to be darker roasted, and the main reason for that is that it makes the extraction easier. With darker roasts, a home barista has more chances to get a decent shot than with lighter roasts. Also, this choice favors the roast flavors in darker roasts. For instance with darker roasts we get nutty, caramel and chocolate notes. With lighter roast we preserve fruity, bright, acidic. But this discussion deserves its own dedicated space.
Historically, drip coffee beans have been roasted in the range from medium to dark. The reason was commercial. Firstly, it was easier to roast a consistent blend that way. A blend that people knew and got used to. Secondly, it was cheaper that way. Thirdly, coffee is an acquired taste, and the unprepared coffee lover will have a hard time changing tasting notes with every new bag of beans. And finally, an automatic drip coffee maker gives you no control over the brewing process. Changing beans and roasts requires a higher level of control over all brewing factors.
This is not really the case anymore though, with the development of the specialty and Third Wave coffee movement. Coffee roasters now experiment with and use all types of roast for all types of brewing. I love to experiment with lighter roasts for my espresso machine.
Nearly everybody presumes that espresso has more caffeine than coffee because it is thicker and stronger to taste. I certainly did, and technically that is the case – if we are talking about the same amount of liquid. If we are talking about serving though, our drip coffee actually has more caffeine in it than an espresso.
A standard espresso serving is one fluid ounce. An average cup of drip coffee is 8 fluid ounces, and probably bigger for the standard coffee drinker! This means that a standard espresso has up to 80 milligrams of caffeine whereas an 8 ounce cup of drip coffee has up to 185 milligrams of caffeine.
If you do the quick math, you’ll see that even a double espresso serving contains less caffeine than a standard cup of coffee, so for your caffeine fix – stick to your drip coffee!
I always raved about coffee’s versatility, and how from two ingredients, water and coffee beans we can make so many different beverages. Espresso and filter coffee – two completely different drinks, both technically coffee. They appeal to different coffee lovers,