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Espresso vs Coffee: What's the Difference?

Let's break it down.

by Ever Meister | September 12, 2022

One of the most common questions people ask when they’re first getting interested in coffee (or after they’ve been interested in it for a while but finally have the courage to ask the question) is, “What’s the difference between espresso and coffee?”

There are plenty of reasons for the confusion: For one, the two often have separate sections on a café’s menu. They certainly taste very different and are even consumed differently most of the time. They are also brewed on very different equipment.

And espresso is mythologized in a very peculiar way, with everything from online forums full of arguments about what’s “proper” espresso to the fact that it requires a specially trained professional—a barista—to prepare it, all the way down to the types of language we use to describe it. (I’m looking at you, “God shot.”)

Before you purchase your morning cup of coffee or opt in for a coffee subscription, let’s get to know the differences between coffee and espresso.

Espresso is coffee brewed under pressure; coffee is not

One of the primary differences between coffee and espresso is how they are made: For most other coffee brewing methods, the extraction process takes place over a moderate amount of time (4–5 minutes) either by full-immersion steeping, like in a French press or through a kind of progressive extraction aided by the force of gravity, like with a pour-over or drip brewer.

Espresso, on the other hand, is brewed using the force of significant additional pressure. (Think of the “press” in “espresso” as a reminder.) In the original days of espresso coffee, this pressure was created using steam power; today, most modern espresso machines use electric pumps that can force water through the bed of coffee grounds at 9 atmospheric bars of pressure, or about 130 pounds. This pressurized brewing allows the extraction to happen much faster, typically between 20 and 30 seconds.

Espresso is a concentrate; coffee is diluted

In addition to being brewed by the force of considerable pressure, espresso is also brewed as a concentrate, meaning there is less water and more coffee flavor material (along with other compounds) in the finished beverage. While you can certainly brew a stronger, or more concentrated, cup of drip or French press coffee, you will still likely have a final product that contains less than 2% of extracted coffee. An espresso, on the other hand, generally contains between 10–13% coffee material.

Does espresso have more caffeine?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: It depends on how much of either you’re drinking.

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A shot of espresso typically contains around 50 to 60 milligrams of caffeine per ounce. Since most espresso comes as a double shot, or two ounces, you may be drinking about 120 milligrams in your Americano or macchiato. On the flip side, a cup of brewed coffee can contain around 18 milligrams of caffeine per ounce, but you’re likely to drink more of it: An 8-ounce brewed coffee can have 144 milligrams of caffeine content or more.

Does espresso require different beans than coffee?

Are you curious about how to make espresso? Espresso is just another way of brewing coffee, just like poaching is just another way of making eggs: You don’t need to buy different eggs to poach than the ones you buy to scramble coffee beans are the same way.

Many roasters will advertise particular bags or blends of coffee as “espresso beans,” but that’s just a suggestion: Because espresso is such a potent flavor experience, some roasters design special coffee blends or roast the coffee bean blend slightly differently in order to create a balanced profile that will be approachable to home espresso drinkers. But you can use any coffee beans to make espresso. Some people prefer single origin coffee over coffee blends just like some people prefer light roast coffee over dark roast coffee. It really just comes down to your taste preference.

When to drink espresso versus coffee

There are many reasons someone might opt for drip coffee over a variety of espresso coffee drinks and vice versa.

Espresso is often faster to make than drip coffee, and it can be made to order: If you go to a café and are unsure how fresh the coffee in the carafes is, you can order an espresso and know that what you’ll receive has just been prepared before your eyes.

You can easily make single servings of coffee when you prepare it as espresso, whereas a drip or pour-over coffee drink might be better for a crowd or for sharing.

Some types of drip coffee become overwhelmed by the addition of milk and sugar, while the stronger flavors of espresso can show up more prominently in a milkier coffee drink.

Flavor preference comes into play, too: While some folks love the more delicate and lighter flavor of coffee, some prefer the punchy taste that espresso packs. If you’re curious about your own preferences, take our coffee quiz to help determine the best brew for you!