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.
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What is espresso?
Espresso is a very intense, strong coffee with a relatively high dose of caffeine. It is usually consumed as a shot by itself or mixed with foamed milk to make cappuccinos and other beverages.
How is espresso prepared?
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 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 aeropresses and 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.
What is drip(pour over) 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, usually consumed in greater volume, and a little milk or creamer can be added to taste.
Some people prefer good ol’ black coffee, though, like an Americano.
How is dripped coffee prepared?
Drip coffee is prepared using slightly coarser grounds. The grounds are placed in a filter, and hot water is dripped through the filter very gradually.
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 making, 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.
How do you brew espresso?
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 unless you have a very specific device like an Aeropress.
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.
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.
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.
How do you brew dripped coffee?
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.
Is espresso stronger than coffee?
In terms of taste, yes – but more on that below. In terms of caffeine, you may be surprised.
First off, it depends on what kind of coffee you’re using to make the espresso. Lighter roasts tend to have more caffeine since the beans have come into less contact with heat, whereas darker roasts will have less caffeine because a lot of it is burnt off.
Lighter roasts have milder flavors and darker roasts have more intense flavors.
Comparing coffee caffeine content to espresso caffeine content is a little interesting, because it may seem like espresso has more caffeine because it is a stronger drink.
However, espresso shots are just 2 ounces and a full cup of an americano is 8 ounces. So the americano actually contains more caffeine than a typical espresso, if you’re using the same kind of beans.
Regular coffee has about 80-100 mg of caffeine per serving, and some even go up to a whopping 200 mg. Yikes!
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.
Espresso vs Coffee: Health
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.
Espresso vs Coffee: Beans
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.
They key difference however is in the kind of grind that you use. For drip coffee, you want a coarser, more gravely grind.
For espresso, you want a very fine, sandy grind. Since the espresso brewing time is so short, you need to increase the surface area as much as possible to let the steam come in contact with as much coffee as possible.
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.
Espresso vs Coffee: Acidity
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.