Espresso and drip coffee are two of the most popular coffee beverages enjoyed around the world. So in a debate on espresso vs coffee, what is actually the difference?
While they are made from the same basic ingredient(coffee) the two drinks are quite different in taste and preparation.
Espresso is a type of coffee
Espresso is a very intense, strong coffee with a thick mouthfeel and a layer of foam on the top called crema. It is usually consumed as a shot by itself or mixed with foamed milk to make cappuccinos and other beverages.
The origins of espresso
Espresso is originally Italian and is made by forcing water at extremely high pressure through a puck of compressed, fine coffee grounds.
The extreme pressure of the water combined with the compacted grounds extracts an intense flavor in a very short time. Along with the coffee, if you use the right grounds, a rich foamy crema of oils and air bubbles forms on top of the espresso shot.
As you can imagine, it is not easy to make an espresso without a machine – which is why Italians began coming up with espresso machines in the 19th century.
Since then, espresso machines have come a long way – from manual espresso machines that still work like the good ol’ days, to super automatic espresso machines that do everything for you from grinding the beans and foaming the milk, there’s something for everyone.
The key to good espresso is pressure
To get the best espresso, you need an espresso machine. This is because the high amount of pressure required is difficult to generate by hand. Even devices like the Aeropress which brew using manual pressure only generate a fraction of the pressure possible with a proper machine.
You can make an espresso without a machine but the results will be a little bit sub-par compared to espresso from a machine.
Espresso machines are more hands-off solutions, since the have heating elements to boil the water and force the steam through the puck of coffee grounds.
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What kind of coffee grounds are used in espresso?
Beans are a very subjective matter and will greatly depend on personal tastes more than anything else. Ideally, you can use the same beans with espresso as you do with coffee and it would work well.
Generally though, it is a matter of personal preference as to which roasts you prefer for espresso. For more information you can check out this post on the best espresso beans. You can also read up on our comparison of espresso beans and coffee beans.
Espresso requires very fine coffee grounds that are almost the consistency of a powder. While you can make espresso with any kinds of coffee beans, medium-dark to dark roasts work the best for extracting thick crema and a rich flavor.
To make the puck, you put coffee grounds into the portafilter, and use a tamper to press down on the grounds and really compress them.
You then attach the filter to the machine, and turn it on – the water inside the tank will boil, turn into steam, be forced through the portafilter and puck of grounds, and you’ll get a nice shot of espresso.
Espresso vs coffee caffeine content
Espresso is much stronger than dripped coffee, but one serving of dripped coffee contains more caffeine than an espresso. A typical 2 ounce shot of espresso contains around 80 mg of caffeine, whereas an 8 ounce cup of dripped coffee contains close to 140 mg of caffeine.
If you compare servings of coffee, then one serving of dripped coffee contains more caffeine than one serving of espresso.
However, if you compare by volume, 8 ounces of espresso contains more nearly 320 grams of caffeine, more than double the caffeine content of 8 ounces of coffee.
How does espresso taste compared to coffee?
Espresso shots are strong. Much stronger than your typical black coffee, in fact. The taste is very intense as are the flavors, and depending on the beans you use, every flavor profile it contains will be greatly amplified due to the concentrated nature of the shot.
Black coffee made from the same kinds of beans will be much milder, since the coffee is diluted in a lot more water – it’s like the caffeine effect, but in reverse.
Is espresso bad for you?
Aside from the benefits of caffeine and potential drawbacks, there is one more surprising facet of health information when it comes to coffee and espresso.
Drip coffee uses a paper filter to filter the coffee as it drips into the pot – the paper filter is very good at catching two specific compounds amongst others: cafestol and kahweol – which may contribute to raised LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Since espresso does not have a paper filter, only the portafilter, these compounds make it through into the espresso. Of course, microscopic amounts won’t make such a huge difference but if you already have elevated cholesterol levels then you may choose to avoid any potential raising agents.
French press and aeropress and any other coffee which is not brewed with a paper filter will also contain cafestol and kahweol.
Finally, straight black coffee or a straight espresso shot contains very few calories. When you add milk and sugar, of course, you’re piling on the calories so that’s something you should also be mindful of.
Is espresso more acidic than coffee?
Here’s an interesting fact: when you normally think of acidity, you think of pH, but in coffee, acidity and pH are two different things.
Coffee acidity is a reference to the taste of the coffee – higher acidity is called “bright”, low acidity is called “smooth”, and too low is called “flat”.
The pH of coffee is usually 5 – tomato juice is 4, and milk is 6, for reference. It should be noted that pH is a logarithmic scale, which means 5 is 10 times less than 6 and 4 is 100 times less than 6.
The two acids that coffee beans actually contain are phytic and tannic acids. If the brewing method is not done correctly the phytic and tannic acids can leak into the coffee and product the bitter taste often associated with poorly made coffee.
Dark roasts generally are less acidic in terms of flavor and pH. How long you take to extract will also influence the levels of phytic and tannic acids.
Espresso, for example, has a much shorter brewing time so there will be less acids. Cold brew, on the other hand, even though it is brewed for much longer, also contains much less acid.
Types of espresso machines
Simple, inexpensive espresso machines will brew as much espresso as the amount of water you put in.
Fancier, automatic machines will brew the amount of coffee you select(usually with a button or a dial to indicate how much you want).
Many espresso machines also have frothing wands to steam milk so you can enjoy a nice cappuccino or macchiato.
What is drip coffee?
Drip coffee is the standard coffee we’re used to seeing pretty much everywhere: offices, airplanes, and diners. The all too familiar scene of a round pot of coffee in a coffee maker that everyone pours from is a standard in American and global culture.
Drip coffee is much milder than espresso, usually consumed in greater volume, and a little milk or creamer can be added to taste.
Some people prefer good ol’ black coffee, though.
What kind of coffee grounds are used in dripped coffee?
Drip coffee is prepared using slightly coarser grounds than espresso. You can use any kind of coffee bean, but the key is a medium ground.
The grounds are placed in a filter, and hot water is gradually dripped through the coffee bed and through the filter.
How to brew drip coffee
Instead of using pressure to extract flavor(as in espresso), dripped coffee relies on the pull of gravity to help the water come in contact with the coffee grounds.
The key is to drip the water very slowly, so each drop takes its time to pass through the grounds and into the cup below.
This is a much simpler process compared to espresso, so you don’t really need advanced machines to make it. You can simply pour hot water over coffee grounds, filter it, and you’ll have some ready drip coffee.
There are of course machines that help automate some of the processes, like heating the water and gradually dripping it over the coffee(instead of pouring it all at once).
Drip coffee machines usually have a heated plate that keeps the coffee pot warm so you can make a large preparation of coffee last for a longer amount of time.
Dripped coffee is really simple to brew. If you don’t have a machine, you can just use a filter and funnel. Place the filter inside the funnel, and the funnel inside a jug or mug.
Slowly pour hot water over the grounds. As the water drips through the grounds, it will absorb the flavor of the coffee and you’ll get a nice brewed coffee.
Alternatively, you can use a drip coffee machine – these are quite cheap and do a good job.
The drip machine does the same thing you did by hand – except it does it automatically.
While not technically “dripped” coffee, you can also use a french press to brew a really rich and flavorful coffee.
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Frequently asked questions
Why does espresso cost more than coffee?
Dripped coffee can be made with very little or inexpensive equipment, while espresso machines tend to cost quite a bit of money. Additionally, a lot more care and effort is required to make an espresso.
Can you make espresso without a machine?
It’s very difficult to generate the 9 plus bars of pressure required for espresso unless you have a machine. The best you can do is make a coffee that tastes similar to an espresso.
Can I buy espresso at the grocery store?
Some brands sell pre-ground espresso at grocery stores, but I would not suggest buying those. It’s always better to buy coffee beans and grind just before brewing. If you must, buy freshly ground coffee from a craft roaster so you know you’re getting fresh coffee.