When you think of espresso, what comes to mind?
A small, highly concentrated cup of coffee should be popping up in your head right now. While this is essentially what a shot of espresso is, there is much more to understanding the true differences between espresso, and a good old cup of brewed coffee.
Here, we’ll go over some misconceptions, some basics, and a few things that might surprise you.
Main Differences Between Espresso and Drip Coffee
First, let’s go over the basics.
Espresso and drip coffee are not just the names of drinks, but they’re also technically brewing methods.
The espresso brew method was designed to expedite the process of brewing fresh, individual cups of coffee. Using pressurized steam, hot water is forced through a tightly-packed “puck” of finely ground coffee, which rapidly extracts all of the wonderful flavours and aromas of any particular bean or blend, resulting in one to two ounces of concentrated coffee. Hot water, steamed milk, or milk alternatives can be added to dilute, provide more volume, or alter the flavour of the espresso to an individual’s liking. Check out our blog on the different types of espresso drinks here.
Drip coffee is very common, and brewed using a drip coffee brewer - you likely have one in your kitchen right now.
It’s important to mention that, while technology is reaching the point where it is becoming more and more possible to brew good espresso at home, a decent home espresso machine will likely set you back hundreds of dollars. It may need to be specially ordered online - while a decent drip brewer can be picked up for less than $100 and can be easily found at your nearest department store.
Consistent steam pressure and temperature is crucial to brewing good espresso, and it’s a difficult feat for “budget-friendly” espresso makers. The simple nature of the drip brewing process requires no pressure at all, thus eliminating the need for a boiler, pump, temperature regulators, and everything else which makes an espresso machine so costly. Coffee must also be ground very fine, and very consistently in order to brew a great shot of espresso.
Most budget-friendly coffee grinders will not achieve such a quality grind… which means you will likely need to invest in a more expensive grinder in addition to your espresso machine, or opt for a machine with a grinder built-in. If you are thinking of taking this route, I suggest you really do your research to find an “all-in-one” machine that’s right for you. Drip coffee is more forgiving when it comes to grind consistency, but the biggest difference is that beans must be ground quite a bit coarser than with espresso.
Difference in Flavours
Now, what about the differences in flavour?
Drip coffee generally results in a clean-bodied brew, thanks in no small part to the use of a paper filter, which filters out any small coffee particles and sediment. However, paper filters also notoriously hold onto a good amount of oils that are present in coffee, which are key to producing complexity in the flavours and aromatics of any given coffee.
With espresso, no paper filters are used. Instead, espresso is pressurized through a fine metal filter. While no noticeable grounds should end up in a shot of espresso, very fine particles and oils do pass through, increasing the richness and overall body of the resulting brew. Coffee aficionados may prefer espresso, especially when using high-quality, specialty coffee beans, to bring out and enjoy its complexities - kind of like a glass of wine. Espresso is also versatile and allows for creative milk-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. Since the volume of coffee in a shot of espresso is so low, it doesn’t overly dilute the delicately steamed milk needed for such traditional and sought-after Italian drinks.
Does Espresso or Drip Coffee Have More Caffeine?
A common misconception is that a shot of espresso is more highly caffeinated than a cup of drip coffee. Studies show that a standard 2oz shot of espresso will contain around 80mg of caffeine, whereas a 12oz cup of drip coffee will contain about 120mg.
Caffeine is water-soluble, so in a drip coffee brewer, the bed of coffee grounds is being saturated with hot water over a much longer period of time than when brewing espresso. It takes a drip brewer several minutes to brew a pot of coffee, whereas a shot of espresso takes around 20-30 seconds max. The high pressure and typically higher water temperature in an espresso machine help to extract caffeine quickly and efficiently, however, there will be slightly less caffeine present in the brew due to the nature of the process.
The myth debunked!
Finally, what beans can be used for each brew method?
Well, some coffee roasters will roast a particular coffee, or blend of beans, specifically to be used for espresso.
Does this mean that “espresso beans” can only be used for espresso? Nope!
Coffees that are roasted to be brewed for espresso are typically just roasted somewhere between a medium-dark and straight-up dark roast. While brewing espresso brings out a lot more of the intense character of a coffee, it can also bring out some characteristics that might overshadow other desirable flavours when brewed in such away. Lighter roasts tend to showcase very specific flavours of a coffee, and are generally most enjoyed using other brew methods, such as drip.
Over the past decade or so, we are seeing more coffee roasters tend to roast a bit lighter for espresso - something more like a medium to light roast, with the ambition to strike that balance between richness and complexity.
So, a coffee’s roast does not dictate how it can be brewed… and a bag of beans “roasted for espresso” can be brewed as drip, and sometimes vice versa.
That being said, it is always a good idea to ask your favourite specialty coffee roasters which coffee beans to buy for your desired brew method. Coffee professionals will be able to guide you. Some might prefer a bright and wild shot of espresso, in which case you might lean toward a single-origin medium roast. Others might prefer a traditional, “Italian-style” espresso, in which case, dark roasts are preferred.
Most good specialty roasters will have a specific blend of espresso beans or specific coffee that they roast with espresso in mind, which will again, strike that balance between richness and complexity. If you do wish to try brewing an “espresso roast” using a drip brewer, just make sure you are using whole beans, and grinding it coarsely as you normally would. Coffee pre-ground for espresso will be way too fine for use in a drip brewer! Now go forth with this knowledge and decide which is more appealing to you: the complex, rich flavours and aromas of espresso, or the bold, clean, and a slightly more caffeinated cup of drip coffee.
We suggest trying out our Mixtape Espresso coffee, as this well-balanced blend will keep you moving and grooving throughout your day. The best part is, it can be used for both smooth espresso and a delightful drip!
Author John Ohrn