Espresso vs Coffee – What are the Differences?

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Coffee - it’s such a general term that covers so many different beverages. Have you ever wondered why your morning drip coffee from your machine at home tastes and looks completely different to the espresso drinks you order in a cafe? You’re not alone! As it turns out, espresso and drip coffee are totally different drinks that suit different people in different situations. Not to mention all of the other types of coffee such as French Press coffee, pour over coffee or even instant coffee.

Entire books have been written on all the different types of coffee and we could talk about this topic for days. In this article therefore, we are going to be focusing on and answering the very important question why would you choose one vs the other?

Learn the differences between drip coffee and espresso. Choose the right drink at the coffee shop and sound like a barista when you explain it to your friends.

A Brief History of Coffee …

Coffee is absolutely everywhere, it is a big part of most of our lives. Research shows that approximately 90 percent of adults and 73 percent of children (can you believe it?) consume caffeine in some form. But where did it come from?

Origin of Coffee

Caffeine has likely been consumed by humans since the Stone Age. Evidence suggests that our ancestors chewed on caffeinated plants to benefit from their magical properties. However, coffee as we know it was most likely first invented in the 15th century in Ethiopia and exported to the Yemen.

The First Espresso Machine

Espresso came along a little later. There are some sources that suggest espresso may have been invented as early as the 16th century. However, the first official espresso machine wasn’t patented until 1884 in Turin, and was invented by a man called Angelo Moriondo. It is said that Moriondo wanted to speed up the process of coffee preparation, and found a way to do so using pressure. The word ‘espresso’ therefore, has its origins in the words ‘pressure’ and ‘express’.

antique espresso machine

Electra Antique Espresso Machine

The Invention of Modern Espresso

Moriondo’s machine wasn’t like the espresso machines we are familiar with today. It was invented for bulk brewing and not for individual cups of coffee. Moriondo’s design was improved upon by another Italian, Luigi Bezzera in 1901, so that the machine was able to brew per cup which allowed the espresso to be served much fresher. The patent for this machine was then bought by the the business man Desiderio Pavoni (so many confusing Italian names) who marketed the espresso machine and brought it to the masses. The first espresso machine to be used in the States was a La Pavoni in the 1920s.

Drip Coffee Invention

Filters for drip coffee were actually invented at around the same time in 1908 by a German called Melitta Bentz. The first electric drip coffee maker wasn’t invented, unbelievably, until the 50’s and electric drip coffee machines became the home standard in the 70s.

automatic drip coffee maker

Wigomat 100 - The first automatic drip coffee maker

Preparation Makes the Difference!

So, I mentioned that espresso was invented to make the coffee brewing experience faster and more convenient.

Filter coffee was also invented to make it more convenient to brew and filter coffee. From this perspective coffee and espresso are the same. However, this is where the similarities stop. 

Here is a table with the brewing parameters compared side by side. 

Brewing Parameter 

Drip Coffee  

Espresso

Grind Size

medium

fine

Brewing Temperature

190 to 196 °F

198 to 205 °F

Brewing Time

4 - 5 minutes 

22-30 seconds

Method of Extraction

gravitation

pressure

Drip Coffee Preparation

Swan Neck Spout Kettle

Manual Drip Coffee

Drip coffee is brewed just by putting ground coffee beans into contact with hot water. The The hot water and coffee pass through a filter, letting the water extract the flavors from the beans over time. This process normally takes around 4 - 5 minutes. Drip coffee is a gravitation brewing method. We pour water over the grounds and then gravitation pulls all the water through the coffee bed, extracting soluble solids in the way. 

For drip coffee to work, we need to grind the beans to a medium grind size. The grind size acts as a timer for the brewing process. Grind too fine, and brewing will take too long, (and over-extract). Grind too coarse and the brewing will be too fast, (will under-extract). The medium grind allows the water to flow for the 4-5 minutes exactly.

For our drip coffee tutorial, check this page: How To Make Drip Coffee. Is a great article, aimed at all barista levels from beginner to advanced.

On the other hand, the brewing time for an espresso, however, is maximum 30 seconds. How is this achieved?

An espresso machine machine forces hot water through the ground coffee at very high pressure, (around 9 bar pressure), to achieve this quicker extraction.

In order to create the necessary resistance, coffee beans need to be ground much finer for espresso than for drip coffee. The water still needs to be long enough in contact with the coffee in order to extract the right amount of flavors.

Espresso Brewing and Extraction

The extraction concept applies to espresso as well, too long the extraction, you get bitter coffee. Too short and and you get sour and weak coffee. When you ground too fine, the water will pass too slow through the puck of ground coffee. When you grind too coarse, water will pass too fast.

Check our espresso brewing guide, is truly, one of the best brewing guides online. We go through all of the brewing aspects and show you what you can improve, and how to troubleshoot your espresso. 

Espresso vs Coffee - Look and Taste

Drip coffee is thin and has no crema. Espresso on the other hand is thick, oily and, if prepared properly, has a delicious crema sitting on top. Drip coffee tends to taste milder and brighter compared to espresso, which tastes stronger and more full-bodied.

Now, we have discussed how espresso is brewed differently to coffee. Espresso needs high pressure and a fine coffee grind. Drip coffee needs a filter, courser grind and gravity. These different methods of brewing allow for different properties of the bean to pass into the coffee or into the espresso. First let’s deal with the look of the coffee.

Appearance

We use a filter for drip coffee to stop too many of the potentially harmful properties from the ground coffee getting into our drink. This is because the water is in contact with the coffee for so much longer. The obvious exception to this rule is the French Press, but that’s the topic for another article! The quicker brewing method for espresso has it’s advantages and disadvantages. The fact that the water is in contact with the coffee for much less time means there is no need for a filter.

Espresso Shot In Cup

Espresso Shot

Drip Coffee Cup

Drip Coffee Cup

Coffee Oil

No filter means one thing to coffee lovers - oil! The oil from the coffee bean contains many microscopic and insoluble substances. With no paper filter, some of these compounds find their way into the espresso, even in the short brewing time. These substances don’t dissolve in water, which is why they don’t pass through the filter. This makes espresso a much thicker, oilier drink.

The oils in the espresso are emulsified into a colloid. What on earth does that mean, I hear you ask? A colloid is basically tiny particles from one substance that are suspended throughout another substance. This is important, because it gives us our crema, and brings us onto the difference in taste between coffee and espresso.

Taste - Espresso

The presence of oil in an espresso means that we get more gorgeous tastes in our coffee from the oil. Crema is really what’s important here though. It acts almost as a cover for the espresso and locks in all of these flavors, keeping espreso flavorful for longer.

Taste - Drip Coffee

Drip coffee, on the other hand, has none of the oily properties, (or at least much, much less), that we find in an espresso, so these flavors are missing. However, all is not lost for filter coffee. The fact that the water is in contact with the coffee beans for so much longer means that it is able to extract different flavors over time that we don’t find in an espresso.

Espresso - Tasting Notes 

The tasting notes in an espresso tend to be darker, nuttier and more chocolaty (in coffee terms). Lots of espressos will have a more bitter taste than drip coffee. This is due to badly prepared coffee though more than an actual quality of the espresso. Well prepared espresso should be sweet to taste.

Filter Coffee - Tasting Notes

Typical tasting notes for filter coffee then, tend to be fruiter, brighter and more acidic (in terms of PH, not actual acid). Whether espresso or drip coffee is tastier or better is completely down to the individual. These tastes can also be adjusted and manipulated depending on the type of bean used and the type of roast, more on that now.

Fun fact: If you add sugar to coffee, as well as making it sweeter, it makes coffee more acidic, which is how we usually deal with badly made coffee!

Various coffee bean roasts

Typical Roasts for Espresso and Drip Coffee

To a certain extent, espresso blends do tend to be darker roasted, and the main reason for that is that it makes the extraction easier. With darker roasts, a home barista has more chances to get a decent shot than with lighter roasts. Also, this choice favors the roast flavors in darker roasts. For instance with darker roasts we get nutty, caramel and chocolate notes. With lighter roast we preserve fruity, bright, acidic. But this discussion deserves its own dedicated space.

Historically, drip coffee beans have been roasted in the range from medium to dark. The reason was commercial. Firstly, it was easier to roast a consistent blend that way. A blend that people knew and got used to. Secondly, it was cheaper that way. Thirdly, coffee is an acquired taste, and the unprepared coffee lover will have a hard time changing tasting notes with every new bag of beans. And finally, an automatic drip coffee maker gives you no control over the brewing process. Changing beans and roasts requires a higher level of control over all brewing factors.

This is not really the case anymore though, with the development of the specialty and Third Wave coffee movement. Coffee roasters now experiment with and use all types of roast for all types of brewing. I love to experiment with lighter roasts for my espresso machine. 

A Myth Debunked - Caffeine!

Nearly everybody presumes that espresso has more caffeine than coffee because it is thicker and stronger to taste. I certainly did, and technically that is the case - if we are talking about the same amount of liquid. If we are talking about serving though, our drip coffee actually has more caffeine in it than an espresso.

Caffeine Quantities in Espresso vs Drip Coffee

A standard espresso serving is one fluid ounce. An average cup of drip coffee is 8 fluid ounces, and probably bigger for the standard coffee drinker! This means that a standard espresso has up to 80 milligrams of caffeine whereas an 8 ounce cup of drip coffee has up to 185 milligrams of caffeine. 

If you do the quick math, you’ll see that even a double espresso serving contains less caffeine than a standard cup of coffee, so for your caffeine fix - stick to your drip coffee!

I always raved about coffee's versatility, and how from two ingredients, water and coffee beans we can make so many different beverages. Espresso and filter coffee - two completely different drinks, both technically coffee. They appeal to different coffee lovers, 

Equipment

Espresso equipment is among the most expensive among all brewing methods. The espresso coffee makers are complex machines that need to heat water and pump that water under pressure. The standard barista equipment also includes a good coffee grinder, and a tamper at a minimum. This can get expensive. A superautomatic espresso machine removes the need of the tamper and grinder, but is more expensive than the average semi automatic.

The drip coffee equipment can be very inexpensive, especially for manual brewing. We recommend spending a bit on a good coffee dripper, but you would probably be okay even with a plastic one. You still need a decent coffee grinder, but the overall budget is smaller.

For a decent automatic drip coffee machine, we recommend on of the SCAA certified coffee makers. These are tested by SCAA in their lab and they are certified to strictly follow the SCAA guide for specialty coffee brewing.  

Sources

happycoffee.org

www.diffen.com

www.factretriever.com

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espresso

www.historyofcoffee.net