What is Espresso? – Differences between Espresso and Coffee

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Espresso is a concentrated form of coffee served in 1 ounce shots. Many people think that espresso and coffee are two different drinks or that you need a special kind of coffee beans to make espresso. The truth is that espresso is just a type of coffee that differs from regular brewed coffee because of its particular extraction process.

This article will answer a lot of the questions you may have about this bold and rich form of coffee. We will cover details such as origin, caffeine content, brewing method, roast, grind, taste and how to drink it. 


Let’s start with a brief piece of history. Espresso originated sometime in the late 1800s to the early 1900s in Italy. In the early days, espresso was all about speed. The problem with coffee was that it took too long to brew, so the espresso machine was an innovation that looked to speed up the brewing process. Espresso quickly became popular as it only took 30 seconds to brew compared to about 4 minutes for brewed coffee.

Coffee vs. espresso

What is the difference between espresso and brewed coffee? Probably all of us have had this question at some point in our coffee journey. The short answer is that espresso is coffee! The main difference between espresso and your regular cup of coffee is the brewing method. Espresso is made by forcing pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee beans. The result is a concentrated form of coffee topped with a velvety light colored layer called “crema”. There are a few differences that we need to talk about when comparing espresso to brewed coffee. We will get into more detail later but if you are looking for the TLDR version just check this comparison chart.

Caffeine Content

A lot of people believe that caffeine content is higher in espresso due to the bolder taste and consistency. But, it is the opposite! Espresso has a higher caffeine content per unit of volume but its serving size is smaller resulting in a lower caffeine content per serving. One shot of espresso contains on average 64g of caffeine while a cup of brewed coffee has 96g. 

Brewing method

Like we mentioned before, the brewing method is the main difference between espresso and brewed coffee. Espresso is made by applying 9 bars of pressure during extraction to force hot water through fine coffee grounds. The extraction time will depend on the combination of grind size, pressure and water temperature. Usually, it should take between 25-30 seconds to brew a shot of espresso. All these brewing conditions are almost impossible to replicate manually. This is why it is important to have a good espresso machine if you are trying to brew your own espresso at home.


Traditional Italian espresso is made using dark roast beans which results in a less acidic drink. Dark roast means that the beans have cracked twice during the roasting process which removes most of the acidity in the bean. Yet, we can make espresso with any kind of bean. The flavor profile will be different and it comes down to personal preference. If you prefer a more bitter and less acidic drink, stick to the traditional dark roast beans for espresso. If you are looking for a less bitter coffee, you can try lighter roast beans but know that the resulting drink will also be more acidic.


While we can experiment with the roast, this is not the case for the grind size. An espresso machine will need very fine coffee grounds to create the ideal cup of espresso. This provides the right resistance to the water being forced through them. If the water does not meet enough resistance, the extraction time will be lower. During the extraction process, the organic acids are the first compound to be extracted. It takes more time for volatile oils that provide flavor and aroma to be extracted. Thus, if the extraction time is too short, we will end up with a more acidic and less rich cup of espresso.


Good espresso should be balanced, not too acidic and not too bitter. Espresso is definitely intense but you should be able to catch the aroma, sweetness, and unique notes. However, some people say it is more of an acquired taste. If you find the taste of espresso too overwhelming, you can start with an americano. It should give you a more toned down version of the delicious aroma of espresso. And if you were wondering, an americano is just an espresso shot diluted with hot water.


The beautiful crema is the lighter colored layer on the surface of your espresso. Crema is the result of hot water releasing the CO2 contained in the beans. The fresher the beans, the more CO2 will be released during extraction, resulting in more crema. Some studies show that there is not a difference in the taste of espresso based on how much crema they have. Yet, we cannot deny that crema looks beautiful which in a way enhances the espresso experience and makes for a great Instagram moment.

How to drink

There are 4 variations of espresso that you can order or try to brew yourself at home.

  • Solo (single): A single one ounce espresso shot.
  • Doppio (double): A double shot with two ounces of espresso. Espresso machines usually have the option to make double shots as well as singles.
  • Ristretto (restricted): A ristretto uses less water for the same amount of ground coffee. This means a ristretto shot will have less extraction time which results in a sweeter cup of espresso.
  • Lungo (long): Lungo is the opposite of ristretto. It uses more water for the same amount of ground coffee. Following the same pattern, the lungo has a longer extraction time resulting in a more bitter taste.

Espresso based drinks

Espresso is used as a base for many widely popular drinks. These are some of the most popular espresso drinks to try. If you want to learn more about the different coffee drinks go and check out our article on 30 Different Types of Coffee Drinks.

  • Americano: two ounces of espresso and six ounces of hot water
  • Latte: a double shot of espresso with eight to twelve ounces of steamed milk, and topped with a thin layer of milk foam.
  • Cappuccino: one shot of espresso topped with equal parts steamed milk and milk foam
  • Macchiato: one shot of espresso and one ounce of milk with a dash of milk foam.

Now that you know the basics about espresso, go and order one from your favorite specialty coffee shop or even better try to brew one yourself!

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