Maybe you’re a coffee expert. Maybe you spent high school afternoons at strip mall iced coffee shop or college evenings studying in a significantly cooler artsy coffee house somewhere. You might even know your breve from your latte and your Guatemalan from your Honduran, just by taste alone. But are you sure—really, really sure—you know what espresso is? How is it different than regular coffee? Why do you need a giant, expensive, imported machine to make it? Are the beans different? Is the roast different? Is the grind different?
Here’s the rundown on espresso, and how it differs from brewed coffee.
You might see bags of coffee at the grocery store labeled espresso roast, but the truth is you can make espresso with just about any beans. The term espresso describes the extraction technique used to make the drink (which I’ll get to below), not the ingredients that go into it.
So you’ve got the beans. The difference between espresso and brewed coffee is what you do with them. For brewed coffee, you’ll use a coarser grind, while the grind for espresso is finer—but not too fine. Overly ground beans will create a super bitter espresso. No one wants that.
You’ve seen them hogging all the counter space at your local coffee shop. They’re big, they’re shiny, they make itty-bitty cups of espresso. An espresso machine is a key component in making espresso. It creates hot, pressurized water and forces it through the ground coffee beans—that’s the press in espresso. And it steams milk for your latte, to boot.
The extraction process pulls flavors out of the coffee beans that you just can’t get with brewed coffee. The result is a beverage that’s often bolder in flavor, but also more nuanced. Bonus: espresso is topped with a crema, or a layer of tiny bubbles that form at the surface of the drink. Some people consider this layer the best part of espresso.
Espresso is often accused of containing more caffeine than brewed coffee, which is technically true. A shot of espresso will contain more caffeine than a shot of coffee. But no one is out here drinking shots of coffee. A shot of espresso has less caffeine than a whole cup of coffee, so even though it’s technically a higher level of caffeine, a shot or two isn’t going to make you overly jittery. Just don’t go nuts with the stuff.