Coffee and espresso belong in the same breath in the same way a whisky and a dark rum do. They share much in common while feeling entirely distinct from one another. Birds of a feather, if that feather involved alcohol and a distilling process.
And in the same way those drinks share a common element, so too do coffee and espresso: the coffee bean.
Confused? Don’t be.
Espresso Beans Vs. Coffee Beans
The surprising truth is that there is no difference between espresso and coffee when it comes to the bean. They share common origins and simply take different paths in their journey to your mug or demitasse.
Here’s the skinny: coffee is familiarized to us as a slow drip brew that’s gone through a filter and is poured in a serving of, at a minimum, eight ounces. Because of this slow drip—or immersion, using a French press—the water in contact with coffee for several minutes will draw out a less concentrated brew. This generally produces a more sweet, tangy, and (likely) more acidic beverage than espresso.
Espresso, on the other hand, is a much faster and aggressive brew method of coffee. Espresso, it should be emphasized, is not a type of coffee, but a type of drink. It’s produced by using an espresso machine to pump water through a very fine, sand-like grind of coffee—which is, aside from the high-pressure water, a key difference between espresso and coffee. Coffee grinds will always be coarser for a standard slow drip or immersion.
What’s the difference in flavor?
Perhaps the biggest difference between brewed coffee and espresso is the flavor.
Espresso derives its noticeably concentrated flavor and caffeine content from how soluble its grinds are. You’ll end up with a richer, full-bodied coffee with espresso that boasts less acidity. It bypasses “sour” and goes right to a balanced or bold end of the spectrum on the flavor wheel.
Another smaller detail is that, because the process happens so quickly, there’s no loss of water temperature during the brewing process, as there might be with a slow drip that takes several minutes. Espresso is notoriously well-rounded and consistent. While not always the case, coffee beans meant for espresso are usually roasted hotter and longer, meaning it’s going to be a darker roast. So, while there is no difference between espresso and coffee beans, there is a tendency to at least roast those beans differently. However, more and more specialty coffee shops are experimenting with lighter espresso roasts and selections that are enjoyable as both espresso and pour-overs.
Coffee, of course, is a much more variable brew, which is delightful for seasoned manual brewers who’ve experimented enough to know just how to make the coffee they like, while frustrating those who can’t quite get the grind size or ideal water temperature down pat. But coffee does open the door to more acidic, floral, and fruity flavors than espresso, and is much more palatable for sipping on its own sans milk.
What’s the Difference in Caffeine Content?
Espresso has a reputation as the wild child of caffeine, but the truth is that it contains less coffee than the standard eight-ounce serving of coffee. An ounce of espresso—an “espresso shot”—packs anywhere from 40 to 64 milligrams of caffeine, depending on the coffee and how it’s prepared. Coffee weighs in with 100 milligrams of caffeine.
In short: Two espresso shots, or a “double shot,” is about equal to one cup of coffee, or potentially slightly more. Espresso is only actually a bigger caffeine jolt if you’re consuming it in a beverage that’s small and consumed quickly, like a macchiato or cappuccino.
Different Types of Espresso and Coffee Drinks
Espresso is more commonly known for the drinks it’s the star ingredient in—namely: the latte, macchiato, cortado, cappuccino, flat white, and mocha. That’s because espresso is often roasted with milk in mind, and so it will balance well with milk’s flavors, shining through enough to be tasted and enjoyed while not overwhelming the quality and creaminess of the milk.
Meanwhile, those wanting the best of both worlds—drip coffee and espresso—can have the caffeinated champion’s brew that is the red eye. Which is exactly what you might imagine: coffee punctuated with an ounce of espresso on top. Almost like the Dark ‘n’ Stormy of coffee.
No matter whether you prefer your bean processed as coffee or espresso, savor each sip.