Coffee and espresso are more similar than most people think. It’s the same as scrambled and poached eggs; you use the same ingredients but the difference in method gives very different results.
The coffee beans used for each can be the same and these can be roasted in the same way, although those used for espresso are generally higher quality, because the intense and undiluted nature of the drink makes any bitterness or poor quality beans harder to ignore.
The difference then is in the process, with espresso being brewed quickly under high pressure and drunk quickly, and coffee being brewed and consumed more slowly. These differences give each drink a unique character and while most people have a favorite, they can be and often are enjoyed together for the best of both worlds.
The technique of brewing regular coffee differs in itself, most machines use the drip method where hot water is dripped through the grounds and then filtered. The alternative is the French press method, percolating the coffee often by hand-pressing a filter through the mixture.
These techniques may vary slightly, but basically making regular or percolated coffee involves mixing ground coffee beans with hot water. The beans are usually ground to medium coarseness and the brewing time is short, being left to steep briefly before the grounds are filtered out and the coffee drink remains.
Espresso involves the use of compacted finely ground beans, made into a disk-shaped ‘puck’. The puck is placed into a machine which forces near boiling water through it at a pressure of up to 15 atmospheres, the process should take between 25-30 seconds and the resulting mixture is thicker, dark and strong tasting, with a frothy layer on top known as the crema.
Serving your Coffee
The serving size differs considerably, approximately one and a half ounces for espresso compared to roughly six ounces for a serving of regular coffee.
This small serving size makes espresso a versatile drink though, and it serves as the basis for other drinks such as the latte and cappuccino just to name a couple (you can find the recipes for these and others here).
It is sometimes served up to three or four servings (called ‘shots’) at a time, giving a much more intense coffee experience. Some people mix espresso with hot water to make an Americano, which is very close cousin to drip coffee, where the intensity can easily be controlled by the amount of hot water added to the espresso shot(s).
Both regular coffee and espresso are stimulating drinks but the coffee contains more caffeine, between 80-185mg compared to the espresso which has about 40-75mg. The difference in serving size means that the caffeine is more concentrated in espresso, but overall a serving of coffee contains twice as much.
Considering the intense flavor of the espresso, and the fact that people regularly report side effects to espresso, it is a surprise to some that regular coffee contains more caffeine. All this is most likely has to do with the speed of consumption though, with espresso usually consumed all at once and coffee much more slowly. The caffeine is therefore consumed all at once too, and it can have quite an impact on anyone sensitive to it.
So, there we have it, it’s the technical subtleties that give each drink its own charm and character, but there is no reason to choose between them. Rather, the difference in method provides two very different drinks which both lend themselves well to new techniques and combinations. To stick to just one version of coffee is fine, but this is a world of experimentation and it would be a shame to waste all that variety and versatility, after all nobody drinks coffee to keep still.