what's the difference between coffee and espresso?

When you walk into pretty much any coffee shop on the planet, you’re usually given a few ordering options on the menu, and two of the biggest, boldest, capital-letters ones are Coffee and Espresso. Under the coffee menu, there might be several different types to order: iced or hot, for instance, or light or dark roast. Sometimes there’s a host of countries or even farms to chose from. Under the espresso list, you’ll find myriad fancy-sounding drinks like lattes, cappuccinos, mochas—you know, the fun stuff.

But…wait a second here, aren’t all of these drinks made from coffee beans somehow? Doesn’t a barista make both of them? What’s going on behind the counter behind all those machines, the secret between these two drinks? What’s the difference between “coffee” and “espresso,” anyway?

My friend, you’ve asked the perfect caffeinated questions: Let’s break down the difference and get to the bottom of the espresso/coffee confusion once and for all.

Strength

To begin, yes, both of these drinks are made with coffee beans, which have been roasted and ground, and are then brewed using hot water. To that extent, they start off basically the same. The main difference, and certainly the most obvious to anyone who’s drinking the stuff without any milk or sugar, is that espresso is a very concentrated coffee beverage: While both a cup of drip coffee and an espresso might start out with the same amount of ground coffee in the recipe (say, 20 grams or so), espresso is brewed with only about 2 ounces of water, instead of 8 or 10—so it packs major punch in the taste department.

The confusing thing for many people is whether espresso has more “oomph” strength, meaning more caffeine: Actually, since caffeine is pretty reliably soluble in hot water, espresso ends up having a not-too-dissimilar amount of caffeine as your standard cup of Joe, somewhere between 80–120 milligrams. The difference is in the caffeine by volume, of course, as most espresso shots are 2 ounces or less, while most brewed coffee is anywhere from 8 all the way up to 20 ounces. (Note that 20 ounces of brewed coffee will have closer to 200 or more milligrams of caffeine, so take it easy on that stuff, pal.)

Espresso’s concentration is what lets it shine through steamed milk in layered beverages like lattes, and it’s also what gives it that creamy texture that coats your tongue. On the contrary, it makes it a hard drink to nurse: No one is still sipping a shot of espresso two hours later, so if you intend to camp out with your laptop I suggest ordering something a bit longer in the cup, so to speak.

Speed

The other main defining difference between espresso and what is generically called “coffee” on the average menu is the length of time each one takes to make. Coffee comes in various styles and preparations, each of which will require a different brewing time: An AeroPress, for instance, can make a very small amount of coffee in under 2 minutes, while a French press or a Chemex might take 5 minutes or more. Cold brew is a 12 to 24 hour situation—which seems like a lifetime when you consider that the ideal espresso shot is fully extracted to its concentrated perfection in under 30 seconds. Yup, in less time than it takes to drop a dollar in the tip jar, that thick coffee elixir is pushed out of the espresso machine. The way that black magic is achieved is one of the other key differences between “coffee” and espresso, and that is…

Pressure

Just like the catchy bass line and fist-pumping chorus of the classic David Bowie and Freddie Mercury song, espresso gets its speed and its chutzpah from the fact that it’s brewed under pressure. While most drip coffees rely on gravity alone to do the slow and steady work of pulling water through the coffee grounds, a well-tuned espresso machine uses mechanical pump pressure—normally around 130 pounds of it—to force very hot water through very finely ground coffee, essentially squeezing all the coffee stuff out of it in no time.

The espresso machine was invented to perform this task very precisely, with an emphasis on speed and strength: The first espresso drinkers were Italians during the Industrial Revolution, who needed a way to prepare their preferred style of coffee (which was more akin to a Middle Eastern or “Turkish-style” brew, very thick and bittersweet) quick enough to shorten their coffee breaks and get back to work in the factories. Steam-powered espresso machines allowed them to stay caffeinated on the quick, and to keep the gears of industry turning.

Roast

Gotcha! This one’s not actually a defining characteristic of espresso vs. coffee, though for many years it was certainly considered a hard-and-fast determination. Many roasters approach coffees differently when they’re developing them to be brewed as filter coffee or espresso, because the nature of preparing espresso can make certain flavors overwhelming and even unpleasant in the cup. Bright fruit notes like citrus or lemon add a nice bit of tang to a filter- or press-brewed coffee, but in a very concentrated shot of espresso they might make your face practically implode, like sucking on a lemon rather than simply getting a touch of zest.

While there are technical ways that a roaster can change his profile to be more “espresso friendly” (such as roasting the beans darker, or at a lower temperature for a longer time—both of which will temper the zingy flavors and bring out more chocolate, nut, and sweet tones), the truth of the matter is that you can use any roasted coffee to make espresso, because there are no rules to flavor. Plus, at the end of the day, coffee beans are coffee beans, and you can do whatever you want with them, no matter what their roast level or place of origin is.

Still have questions about the differences between espresso and coffee? Leave them in the comments!

— Head photo illustration by Chowhound, using: flickr (david pacey)/Pixabay.

See more articles