I've been a die-hard coffee drinker for most of my life—it flows through my veins!—but only last year did I have my first proper espresso drink.
I was graciously gifted a Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine, and this thing has really lifted my appreciation for coffee and coffee-based drinks.
But coffee is a complex beverage, and it's impossible to say for certain that "espresso is the pinnacle of coffee" because there's so much depth and variety to explore.
Here are my thoughts on espresso, coffee, and how they differ.
What Makes Espresso Special?
Espresso is a type of coffee. To be even more technically correct, espresso is a coffee extraction method.
Just as you can use a Chemex coffeemaker for pour-over extraction or a French press for immersion extraction, you use an espresso machine for espresso extraction.
The espresso extraction method takes finely ground coffee beans and forces steam (or hot pressurized water that's close to steam) through the grounds.
When the steam/water touches the grounds, the flavor compounds are pulled out and carried along with the steam/water, which ends up in the cup. You need an espresso machine to do this because it's a delicate and precise process.
But what's so "good" about this way of making coffee?
Espresso Is Fast
Pour-over coffee is usually ground to a medium size and brewed for 1-2 minutes. French press coffee is usually ground to a coarse size and brewed for 4-6 minutes. But an espresso shot? It's ground super fine and "brewed" within 20-30 seconds.
Espresso Is Concentrated
Since the coffee beans used in espresso are ground so finely, you don't need much steam to fully extract the goodness from them.
As steam flows through espresso coffee grinds, it condenses into liquid—and you end up with all the flavor compounds from the coffee beans in a much smaller volume of liquid than if you had done a drip, pour-over, or immersion brew.
Whereas a normal cup of coffee is 6 ounces, a shot of espresso is only 2 ounces. (This is technically a double shot, but nobody pulls 1-ounce shots of espresso anymore. The double shot is now standard, at Starbucks and elsewhere.)
The concentrated nature of espresso makes it a more flexible ingredient for coffee-based drinks, which is why most coffee drinks start with a shot of espresso.
Espresso Produces Crema
Crema is a layer of foam that naturally occurs on top when pulling a fresh shot of espresso.
When coffee beans are roasted, their chemical makeup changes—and one of the results is a build-up of carbon dioxide within. This carbon dioxide gets flushed out during the extraction process.
That's why you see bubbling when doing pour-over or immersion brews: that's the carbon dioxide being released! The amount of gas released is a sign of how freshly roasted the beans are; if there isn't much crema, the beans have likely gone stale.
The same thing happens when pulling espresso: carbon dioxide is released when the hot, pressurized water touches the fine grounds. That gas comes out with the espresso, bubbles up to the top, and creates the layer of foam that we call crema.
And espresso tastes different when it's mixed with carbon dioxide, which is why crema tastes different than straight espresso—and it can change the taste of your espresso if it gets mixed in.
The Taste of Espresso vs. Coffee
When coffee grinds touch water, the flavor compounds within the grinds start to seep out. But different compounds have different rates of diffusion!
For example, the "earthy" compounds may extract quickly while the "bitter" compounds take longer.
Even if you start with the same exact coffee beans, a shot of espresso will taste completely different than a French press brew—because they have different ratios of flavor compounds.
Remember how an immersion brew takes up to 6 minutes while an espresso shot can be pulled in just 20-30 seconds? That difference is what brings out different flavors in the bean.
Don't believe me? You can test this out yourself.
Grab yourself a drip machine, an AeroPress, a French press, a Chemex, or whatever combination of coffee brewing methods you want to compare.
Using the same exact beans, brew 6 ounces of coffee using each method. Then pull a 2-ounce espresso shot and add 4 ounces of water. (This is called a cafe Americano.)
Then compare the tastes.
You'll notice that espresso-plus-water tastes a lot stronger than normal black coffee—even despite the same volume of liquid. That's because espresso extraction produces a more intense ratio of flavor compounds.
I always thought that "black coffee" and "cafe Americano" were the same thing, but my world was rocked the first time I tried this.
No Such Thing as "Espresso Beans"?
The bags labelled "espresso beans" are using the term "espresso" in a misleading way.
Remember: espresso generally tastes stronger than coffee. The "espresso bean," which is basically just a darker roast, is meant to satisfy coffee drinkers who want stronger-tasting coffee.
You can make espresso using any kind of coffee bean; dark roasts are not necessary. In fact, espresso made with lightly-roasted coffee beans can taste amazing.
"Espresso" refers to the method of extraction. That's it!
Espresso vs. Coffee: The Final Verdict
Is espresso better than coffee? Well...
- Espresso is a specific method of making coffee.
- Espresso tastes different than brewed coffee.
- Not everyone likes the taste of espresso.
- You can make an amazing cup of coffee using a $30 AeroPress, and you can make a terrible shot of espresso using a $3,000 espresso machine.
Drink what you like. Your preference is your preference. I love both!