A coffee beverage could be anything from a latte to a cappuccino, while an espresso is a coffee beverage prepared, brewed and served in a very specific way.
But that’s not all there is to it. Understanding the difference between an espresso and your usual brewed cup of coffee takes a little more learning. A traditional cup of coffee is usually dripped coffee – unless you’re using instant coffee, in which case you need to take a long hard look in the mirror and spend a few hours browsing our blog.
At Coffee Dorks we appreciate all kinds of coffee beverages, including both espresso shots and drip coffee drinks, for what they are. You don’t need to pick a side… although you may find by the end of this article that you have a firm favorite!
The Difference Between Espresso and Coffee
The process of creating coffee through slow, dripping extraction is not modern – the electric drip coffee machine dates back to the mid-20th century. In comparison, the espresso has been around since the 1800s, when an Italian patented the first espresso machine. Both have come quite far since then!
Whichever coffee you choose to drink, it can be high quality or poor quality, depending on the ingredients and method used. A good espresso machine and a good coffee brewer are both perfectly capable of delivering very high-quality beverages. So, the difference comes down more to brewing/serving processes and personal taste.
- Volume: 1fl oz.
- Flavor: rich, slightly bitter with a thick crema (layer of coffee foam).
- Strength: very strong with notes of other flavors depending on the beans used.
- Brew Time: 20 to 30 seconds.
- Serving Style: served in a miniature mug that holds 1floz or 2floz for a double espresso.
- Machine: espresso machine is essential (more on method below).
Espresso is meant to be consumed quickly but sipped rather than swallowed like a shot of alcohol. It’s designed to give you a caffeine hit when drunk alone, or can be used to create other drinks like a latte. You can’t make a true espresso without a machine, due to the pressures needed.
- Volume: traditionally around 5fl oz, but often larger mug sizes are used.
- Strength: strength is dependent on your coffee to water ratio; it is very adaptable compared to espresso.
- Brew Time: as little as 3-minutes in top-of-the-range machines, but usually around 5-minutes for a multi-cup carafe.
- Serving Style: in a mug of any kind or size, with milk and sugar to taste.
- Machine: optional – you can use a rudimentary coffee machine with filters and pans over a campfire, or use a drip coffee brewer to fill up an entire carafe with barista quality coffee.
A mug of drip coffee is very customizable – it simply doesn’t have the restrictions and clearly defined parameters that an espresso has. You can create a very strong drip coffee, or a weaker one, with modern coffee brewers offering a variety of strength settings. The way it is consumed is different too. You might add milk, you might have it black, with sugar, in your favorite mug, in a paper cup in the office…
You could use the same beans for an espresso and a regular coffee! The key difference between the espresso and the drip coffee beverages is the brewing process and style in which it is served, which in turn will alter the taste.
How Much Caffeine Is in Espresso vs Drip Coffee?
According to USDA, there’s 63.3mg of caffeine in a shot of espresso, while according to the NCA (those brilliant people over at the National Coffee Association) there can be anywhere from 75mg of caffeine to a staggering 165mg of caffeine in a single 8fl oz mug of coffee.
It really does depend on how you like your drip coffee as to how much caffeine you’re getting. The FDA doesn’t have a clearly defined recommendation for how much caffeine you can have in a day but has stated that you can have up to 400mg without experiencing adverse health effects. So, unless you want to beat Richard Branson to the moon on a coffee-fueled rocket, avoid having more than 4 cups of very strong drip coffee in one day.
How Is the Brewing Process Different?
This is where the magic happens. Starting with the same beans, you can make 2 very different coffee drinks…
For an espresso, you need fine grinds. Using a burr grinder, you want to achieve a grind that’s similar in texture to table sugar. The extraction process is very quick when making an espresso, so you need to ensure that the grinds are fine to allow the water to really extract every molecule and draw out those delicate coffee oils.
Evenly distribute the grinds in the basket and tamp (press down into an even layer). This step is important as having uneven grinds or gaps/cracks in the pressed coffee will lead to poor saturation. Areas where there is too much coffee will be undersaturated, while areas with too little coffee will be over saturated.
Lock on the basket and let your coffee machine apply the pressure to shoot steam through the coffee grinds. Depending on your machine, this will take between 20 and 30 seconds. It takes 9 bars of pressure to make an espresso, which is impossible for you to do yourself no matter how much weight lifting you do.
The espresso and crema will drain into the tiny espresso mug ready to be served.
Drip Coffee Method
Your drip coffee method will vary depending on the machine you use (if you use one).
Generally, you’ll add a set amount of coffee grinds into the basket or slot, fill up the reservoir with fresh, filtered water and set the dial to however much coffee you want to make.
The amount of coffee used will usually be clearly stated in the manual of the machine – more coffee and less water is going to be a strong brew. If you are using a pod machine, you won’t even need to measure the grinds that go in.
It’s not an instant coffee experience – you will need to wait several minutes as the water filters and drips through the coffee. Because of this, your coffee grinds will need to be larger to prevent oversaturation.
Check out our method for cowboy coffee if you want to go hardcore without a coffee maker or filter!
Espresso & Coffee FAQ
Question: Is espresso thicker than coffee?
Answer: yes, espresso tends to be thicker. Drip coffee saturates and drips through the grinds, while an espresso is pressured with steam. The interaction of pressured steam and coffee oils creates a very rich crema that thickens the coffee.
Question: Can I use the same beans to make espresso and drip coffee?
Answer: yes, you can. Just remember to grind the beans more finely for espresso. The process of each coffee drink may create 2 different flavors from the same bean. The steam from an espresso will generally highlight the more delicate notes of the coffee oils while the drip coffee will create a bolder flavor with more caffeine. If you’re adding milk, you may want to avoid certain coffee beans altogether.
Question: Can I make espresso without an espresso maker?
Answer: no. You need an espresso maker for the 9 bars of pressure to create that espresso flavor and crema. You can find ways to make mock espresso drinks in our article here.
Regardless of which you prefer, remember to use high-quality coffee and a reliable coffee brewer to create an outstanding cup! Browse our coffee maker reviews and guides to find the best for your kitchen.
Anthony is a professional barista in the city of Chicago. He has written for many online publications on various topics related to coffee.