Coffee vs Espresso: What’s The Difference

coffee machine

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For centuries, we’ve been reaching for a cup of joe in the morning. This rich, bold drink gives you the energy you need to start the day, and can be the perfect mid-day refresh. For some people, a pitch-black cup of drip coffee is the perfect wake-up call, and for others, a large caramel macchiato is the go-to every morning.

Some people don’t realize it, but many of these drinks are actually made with espresso, not coffee. This confusing distinction can lead many to wonder about the difference between coffee and espresso. Even though they use the same ingredients, they have incredibly different tastes. Understanding these differences is both interesting and can help you pick the perfect morning drink.

These two drinks may seem as old as time, but both are actually pretty recent developments. They both emerged after World War II, and quickly replaced older methods of making coffee.

The Drip Machine

Coffee as we know it has been around since around the 1950s, when German inventor Gottlob Widmann patented the first drip machine. Before this, coffee was typically left in a pot of hot water and then strained out. This new method would slowly drip boiling water over a tray of beans.

This is the classic method we use today. It’s so popular that when you just say “coffee” when you mean “drip coffee”. This cheap, easy way of making coffee would become standard by the 1970s, and affordable manufacturing ensured that every home in America had a drip coffee brewer.

The Espresso Bar

Espresso has actually existed for quite awhile. Vintage machines required a barista to manually push a lever to pull hot water through finely ground beans. The result was a rich, powerful drink that only took a few seconds to make. Right before World War II, the electric espresso machine was invented, and after the war it spread.

This machine made rich, bold drinks for a fraction of the cost of hand-powered machines. It’s unwieldy size made it tough for home instalment, so it would become a staple of coffee houses all over Europe. Starting in the 1970s, this machine would spread all over America, giving us the current coffee market.

How Do You Make Them?

These drinks have hugely varying flavors, and that’s exclusively the result of how they’re made. You can use the same beans at the same roast, but by grinding and brewing them differently, you get two completely different drinks.

Coffee

Most people are familiar with the coffee brewing process. The average American drinks more than 2 cups of coffee per day, and it’s usually made at home. The standard brew method is with the flat-bottom drip machine. Using medium-coarsely ground beans, boiling water is steadily poured over a basket of beans. The typical ratio is ¼ cup of coffee to every cup of water.

Coffee typically refers to drip, but can also refer to french press, pour over, and percolator brew. Percolator and french press are coarsely ground, and have the coffee submerged in the water before being strained. Pour over is like a manual drip coffee, where you pour hot water over a cone-filter of coffee. These brews all have subtle differences, so it’s all about personal preference.

Espresso

Espresso is the premium way to have coffee. Most Americans don’t have countertop espresso machines, so coffee shops are the best way to get a rich, bold double shot. Espresso is very finely ground, and uses less than an ounce of coffee per ounce of water. Hot water is then pressurized and filtered through the coffee.

Espresso machines pressurize at about 9 bars, or 9 times the air pressure at sea level. That’s over 130 pounds per square inch, and it should take about 30 seconds to pull an ounce of espresso. To get the resistance right, the finely ground coffee is “tamped,” or pressed down. This process is why espresso machines are so big, and why the drink is so strong and flavorful.

Flavor Differences Between Espresso and Coffee

The flavor of any coffee drink mostly depends on the roast you use. However, there are a few fundamental differences between coffee and espresso that are always there. Depending on your preference, you may find yourself reaching for each one depending on what you’re craving that day.

The body

The body of any drink is what we think of as the “taste”. It’s how the drink feels while it’s in your mouth, and is what most people go for in a drink. Drip coffee is mostly water, so it has a much lighter flavor than espresso. Even an extra-bold cup of black coffee has only about half of the flavor strength of an espresso shot. Typically, people will have up to about 3 ounces of milk in a standard 12 ounce cup of coffee, depending on the drinker’s preference.

Espresso, on the other hand, is far too strong for the average coffee drinker. While a few hardened espresso drinkers can handle it without any milk, most people have to dilute it with milk or water. Espresso is so bold and forward in its body that 2 ounces of espresso can make 10 ounces of milk taste like coffee.

The finish

The finish is what real connoisseurs pay attention to. It’s the aftertaste, the mouth feel, and the lasting effects the beverage has on your palate. Drip coffee usually has a very bitter aftertaste, since it has so much more volume than espresso. You typically gulp coffee, so it reaches more parts of your mouth.

Espresso is usually a sipping drink, so it mostly touches just your tongue. Depending on the roast, the finish can have a very distinct aftertaste, and can range from a bright, citrusy flavor to a dark, nutty flavor. The finish is one of the main draws for dedicated espresso drinkers, delivering a complex, delicious experience.

Which Roasts Should You Use?

The most defining part of a coffee’ flavor, of course, is the roast used. While the same beans will have a different flavor if used for espresso or coffee, the more desirable flavors can be brought out with each method.

Dark roast

Dark roast is an all-around great choice for any coffee method. Whether it’s espresso or coffee, the rich, caramelized flavor of a good dark roast will make for a rich morning drink. Drip coffee tends to bring out the brighter flavors, since the water has more time to extract the acids. Espresso will alway pull out the earthier, nutty flavors, so it’s all preference when it comes to dark roast.

Medium Roast

Medium roasts tend to have a rich, nutty flavor balanced with the natural flavors of the coffee flower. Most medium roasts are used for drip coffee, since the mix of flavors will be brought out in a drip machine. While you can use medium for espresso, you would be wasting the natural acidic flavors of the medium roast.

Light roast

Light roasts have become extremely popular in America over the past 10 years. They aren’t roasted for very long, preserving the natural, fruity flavors of the coffee berry. Because of this, drip light roast will be very acidic and sour. While some people enjoy the flavor, espresso is the way to go for light roasts. It gives you an explosively bright and floral flavor.

Why They Taste So Different

These simple differences in brewing methods create massive variation in flavor. The secret to this flavor difference comes from the chemistry involved in each brewing method. Factors like the surface area of the coffee, the temperature of the water, and the type of roast will create these results.

When making coffee, the grinds are more course. This causes the water to flow through the beans more quickly, and you have less surface area in the coffee. Combine this with the much longer brewing process, and you have a coffee that is more acidic, less powerful, but more aromatic.

Espresso, on the other hand, is so finely ground and pressed that it requires tremendous force to push through. The brew time for an espresso shot is about 30 seconds, so the water doesn’t have as much time in contacting the coffee. This creates a more forward, less acidic, very concentrated drink.

Espresso may be seen as a more luxurious drink because of its complex brewing process, but most people need to cut it with milk. Of course, combining milk with espresso will impact the flavor even more, allowing for lots of experimentation with your favorite drinks.

Picking Your Brew

As with any beverage, choosing between coffee and espresso comes down to preference. Some people prefer taking a half an hour every morning to sip on a large cup of coffee, while others love the rush of knocking back a double espresso. The differences in flavor all come down to preparation, which is why you typically go out to get the espresso drink, but make the drip coffee at home. Picking your ideal drink comes down to what you want out of your morning beverage, and what you want to put into making it.

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