What Is the Difference Between Coffee and Espresso?

Clint Doerfler
Clint Doerfler
Updated: August 2, 2022
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Coffee and espresso are two beverages found all over the world. They have been around for a long time, but what sets them apart?

We explore the key distinctions between coffee and espresso. We also discuss the difference between espresso beans and other coffee beans, so the next time you’re in the coffee aisle at the grocery store, you can make an educated choice on what to purchase.

So, what is the difference between coffee and espresso?

What Is the Difference Between Coffee and Espresso?

The Short Answer

Espresso and coffee are both considered “coffee” and you can brew either one from any type of coffee bean and/or roast level, although coffee roasters do have specific intentions for each brewing method.
The major difference between coffee and espresso is that espresso is brewed under high pressure.
The major difference between coffee and espresso is that espresso is brewed under high pressure, forcing hot water through finely ground coffee beans and into your cup (“shot”) below. The end product is a very concentrated coffee drink with “crema” on top—a direct result of the high-pressure extraction process.

Alternatively, plain ol’ coffee is brewed with gravity—through a standard drip or pour over coffee maker—or through an immersion process like French press, cold brew, or AeroPress.
What is the difference between coffee and espresso - Infographic
Some of the Major Distinctions Between Coffee and Espresso

The Detailed Answer: "How Is Espresso Different Than Coffee?”

In Italian, the word “espresso” translates to “expressed”, or “squeezed out”, which refers to what happens during the espresso brewing method.

Regarding the taste (and not the caffeine), it has a much higher concentration than traditional coffee. This is because of the water to coffee ratio used when brewing espresso.

A typical ratio for espresso is 1:2 (1 part coffee to 2 parts water). Typically, this equates to about one ounce of water to every half-ounce of ground coffee.

Whereas, a good “golden” ratio for drip coffee is anywhere between 1:18 (weaker) to 1:15 (stronger).

For this reason, baristas serve a true espresso drink (just the 1 ounce of brewed coffee) in a much smaller serving vessel compared to coffee.

Espresso is also used to make many other espresso-based drinks, including a latte, cappuccino, and macchiato, by adding steamed milk or more water to it.

To follow are the major factors that set espresso apart from coffee, including:

Roast Level

As stated above, any bean, regardless of origin and roast level, can be used to brew espresso, but coffee lovers prefer dark roasted coffee beans (espresso beans) for brewing espresso.

The reason for this is that a coffee roast that is dark stands up better to the high-pressure extraction process and maintains the body, rich flavor, and consistency synonymous with espresso. This gives it a smoky, toasted flavor that feels heavy and full in the mouth.

A dark roast also produces a richer crema than lighter roasts and medium roast beans.

To get to this level of darkness, coffee roasters will roast coffee beans past second crack, or 462°F–474°F (239°C–246°C). This leaves virtually no original trace of the bean’s origin and imparts all the flavor from the roasting process itself onto the beans.

So if you see a bag of coffee beans with “espresso” on it, coffee roasters roasted them to this level of darkness.

Alternatively, here in the States, we typically use light to medium-dark roasts for brewing drip coffee.

Grind Size

The grind size required for espresso is very fine, typically the consistency of very fine sand. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, because the water is in contact with the coffee grinds for such a shorter duration of time compared to drip coffee, the fine coffee grounds offer more surface area for the water to properly extract the coffee’s flavor.

To better illustrate, imagine brewing coffee with large chunks of slightly broken coffee beans—the result would be extremely weak and gross coffee.

Second, the finer ground coffee beans can actually act as a barrier. This allows you to control the overall pressure when the espresso machine forces the water through.

We can illustrate this by imagining a container of large rocks versus a container of fine sand. Water will pass through the large rocks at a much faster rate than it will the sand.

The same principle applies to coffee grounds. If the grind is too coarse, the water will pass through too quickly—resulting in under-extracted coffee that’s sour and acidic.

Alternatively, if the grind is too fine, espresso machines will have a hard time forcing the water through the grounds. What eventually makes it through will be over-extracted and taste bitter and disgusting.

When you “dial in” the perfect grind size for your particular coffee beans, you’ll end up with a perfectly extracted shot of espresso. The extraction should take between 26 and 32 seconds. When done properly, the result is a well rounded, sweet shot of espresso with a delightful, foamy crema on top.

Dialing in your grind size is a major component of achieving the perfect shot of espresso.

In addition, with espresso, it’s vital that you attain proper dosage (amount of coffee). A good coffee scale is imperative in consistently achieving proper dosage and repeatable results.

Brewing Method

For your average cup of coffee, you can use many brewing methods including, but not limited to, drip brewers, percolators, manual pour over devices, etc. to extract your golden nectar.

For a true espresso, though, you need pressure. This usually means you’ll need an espresso machine capable of producing 9 bars of pressure (or nine times the weight of the pressure at sea level). No pressure, no espresso.

Once you’ve decided on the best espresso machine for you, just know it will take a little time and patience to master. Honing your barista skills can take some time, but it’s well worth the investment. Think of all the time and money you’ll save when you’re crafting your own café-quality drinks every morning from home.

Ideally, you’ll reach a level superior to that of all the major chains.

Overall Taste

Espresso is roasted, ground, and brewed differently from drip coffee. This produces a unique flavor when compared to a regular cup of coffee. Espresso tastes stronger and has a fuller body. The long roasting process also brings out more oils in the beans, which gives it a heavier mouthfeel.

If you’ve never experienced espresso before, try it. It can be a very “eye-opening” experience for your taste buds.

What About Drip Coffee?

Drip coffee simply refers to “normal” coffee—and I think we all know what coffee is. However, as stated above, the method with which you brew drip coffee typically relies upon gravity, a major difference to that of espresso coffee.

Does Espresso Have More Caffeine Than Regular Coffee?

The amount of caffeine in an espresso versus a regular coffee largely depends on how much of each you consume. Espresso has roughly 63 mg of caffeine per 1 ounce (typical shot of espresso), while regular coffee has between 12 to 16 mg per ounce, on average.
So, ounce for ounce, espresso has a lot more caffeine.
However, it’s not likely you’re going to consume 12 ounces of espresso (12 espresso shots!). Likewise, nobody is going to get their fix with a 1 ounce serving of regular brewed coffee.

Adding to the confusion, there are several other factors that can affect caffeine content in espresso and coffee. These include what type of coffee beans (Arabica beans vs. Robusta beans) you buy, coffee roast and how you measure your coffee (weight vs. volume), and your chosen brewing method, e.g., standard drip coffee maker, espresso machine, percolator, AeroPress, etc.

Still, for whatever reason, some individuals insist espresso has more caffeine in it. This may be in part because of the strength in which it’s brewed (1:2 ratio) and other influential factors. Keep in mind, though, that an espresso-based beverage such as a latte or cappuccino mostly consists of either milk, water, and/or syrups.

So maybe if we’re talking about a drink that contains gobs of flavoring syrups (like a latte, mocha, etc.), perhaps part of the kick they’re getting is from the sugar, and not the caffeine?

Is There a Difference Between Espresso Beans and Coffee Beans?

Yes. The coffee beans intended for espresso are roasted for a longer period, and therefore are darker than coffee beans intended for drip coffee. Also, if you buy pre-ground coffee for espresso, the coffee beans will be more finely ground than coffee intended for use with a drip machine.

Both espresso and coffee beans will be of the Arabica or Robusta variety, or a mix thereof.

Can I Use Regular Coffee Beans in My Espresso Machine?

Yes, you can, if they’ve been ground down to the proper fineness.

But keep in mind that darker roast coffees, like espresso roast, perform better than a light roast or medium roast during extraction.

Also, espresso beans (or coffee beans) that are very fresh (roasted a week ago) produce a much better crema than light roasts and/or stale coffee beans.

So, if you drink espresso and you’re in a crunch, you can use regular coffee beans. However, you should buy freshly roasted dark roast espresso coffee beans as soon as you can, for the sake of humanity.

What Exactly Is Espresso?

Espresso is just normal “coffee” for Italians. It’s the process by which a machine forces hot water through finely ground beans. The major things that make espresso different from coffee are the roast level (dark), grind size (fine), water to coffee ratio (2:1), and the brewing process (high-pressure).

You can identify espresso by its rich, bold flavor, small serving size, and crema (the tan-colored foamy layer at the top).

What Is Crema?

Crema is the frothy, caramel-colored layer that floats atop the espresso shot. It results from hot water emulsifying the oils in the coffee beans.

It’s actually a micro-foam made up of tens of thousands of CO2 bubbles—the same phenomenon that creates the foam in a soda beverage.

What Is the Difference Between Espresso and Americano?

Espresso and Americanos are virtually the same, with the exception that an Americano is simply an espresso shot with added water. The flavor and size of the drink change with the addition of water, making Americanos larger, smoother, and less intense than an espresso.

If you’re looking for a straightforward drink that packs an intense punch though, order an espresso shot (or two). But if you prefer your coffee drinks customizable with milk and other add-ins or served over ice, try an Americano.

What Is the Difference Between Espresso and Cappuccino?

The difference between an espresso and a cappuccino is what’s added and what sits on top.

An espresso drink is simply a very strong concentrated coffee, and because of the method of high-pressure extraction, it has a bubbly crema on the surface.

A cappuccino, on the other hand, is just a shot of espresso with the addition of steamed milk and foam on top.

To your coffee journey!
Clint Doerfler
From a very young "growth-stunting" age, Clint Doerfler has had a deep-rooted love for coffee. As a result, he founded Coffee Gear Gurus® to share his passion for incredible home brewed coffee with others. When he's not watching true crime shows with family or playing music, he's devoted to helping fellow coffee feins make amazing coffee at home - regardless of their experience.
Featured Image Photo by tabitha turner
This article was last updated: August 2, 2022

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