I’ve been a die-hard coffee drinker for years—it flows through my veins—but it was only three months ago that I had my first proper espresso drink. For Christmas 2018, I was graciously gifted a Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine that 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. These 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?
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. An espresso shot is ground super fine and “brewed” within 20-30 seconds.
Because coffee beans are ground so finely in espresso, and because they can be extracted so quickly, you don’t need much steam to reach full extraction. As the steam flows through the 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 pour-over or immersion brew.
Whereas a normal cup of coffee is 6 ounces, a shot of espresso is 2 ounces. (Technically this is 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.
It Produces Crema
Crema is a layer of foam that naturally occurs when pulling a shot of espresso. When coffee beans are roasted, their chemical makeup changes—and one of the results is a build-up of carbon dioxide. While the gas does slowly leak out over time, it flushes out quickly 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.
When pulling espresso, the same thing happens: carbon dioxide is released as soon as the pressurized water touches the fine grounds, and it comes out with the espresso. The gas in the espresso then bubbles up to the top, creating the layer of foam that we call crema. Because of this incorporation of gas, crema tastes different than the espresso it sits on, and can change its taste if it’s mixed in.
Espresso vs. Coffee: Is There a Difference in Taste?
Chemical compounds are extracted from coffee grounds through diffusion for as long as those coffee grounds maintain contact with water, and different chemical compounds have different speeds of diffusion. Even if you start with the same exact coffee beans with the same exact roast, an espresso shot will taste completely different from a French press because the final cup will consist of a different ratio of the various compounds that were within those coffee beans.
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 extraction methods you want to compare. Start with the same weight of coffee beans and brew 6 ounces of coffee. Then pull a 2-ounce espresso shot and add 4 ounces of water. Taste it. (This is called a cafe Americano.)
I always thought that “black coffee” and “cafe Americano” were the same thing, but my world was rocked the first time I tried this. You’ll notice that espresso plus water tastes a lot stronger than normal black coffee—not as strong as a pure espresso shot, but still strong nonetheless. That’s because the espresso extraction methods produces a more intense ratio of flavor compounds.
No Such Thing as “Espresso Beans”?
You can make espresso using any kind of coffee bean. The bags labelled “espresso beans” are using the term “espresso” in a misleading way.
Recall that espresso generally tastes stronger than coffee. For coffee drinkers who want stronger tasting coffee, the “espresso bean” is meant to satisfy that itch, which essentially means a darker roast. You don’t have to make espresso with darkly roasted beans—on the contrary, you can make excellent espresso using lightly roasted beans if you want to. Espresso is the extraction method. That’s all.
The Final Verdict on Espresso vs. Coffee
Is espresso better than coffee? Not quite.
First, espresso is a type of coffee that’s brewed in a specific way. Second, the unique extraction method makes espresso tastes different, but not everyone likes espresso. Third, you can make an amazing cup of coffee using a $30 AeroPress and a terrible cup of espresso using a $3,000 espresso machine.
Drink what you like. If you prefer one, who cares what anyone says? Let me know how you feel about coffee, espresso, and whatever else that’s related!