What Is Espresso?

Written by: John Beans | Last Updated on April 17, 2021

If you are wondering "what is espresso?" then you are in the right place.

Espresso is a complex and interesting drink. It is considered one of the most fastidious to make because it requires specific brewing conditions and barista skills. The consistency of espresso resembles a syrup—it's a concentrated drink with a very intense taste.

To prepare a delicious shot of espresso, you need to carefully select the beans and monitor the cleanliness of the equipment, the pressure and temperature of the water, the dosage of coffee, the temperature, and the brewing time. On top of this, you need experience, which gradually grows as a person makes espresso, tastes it, draws conclusions, and re-works their skills.

The simplest espresso equipment is the semi-automatic espresso machine. This type of machine requires quite a bit of involvement on the part of the barista. The Italians, who know a lot about coffee, argue that only with such equipment can you brew a real shot of espresso, the quality of which is determined by the "M's":

  • Miscela (proper blend and roast),
  • Macinacaffe (proper grinding),
  • Macchina (the right espresso machine and extraction), and
  • Mano (the hand of an experienced barista).

Semi-automatic espresso machines require certain skills and are mainly in demand by professional baristas in coffee shops, bars, and restaurants.

Differences Between Espresso and Filter Coffee

Let's take a look at how a shot of espresso differs from coffee from a drip coffee maker. We take the comparison with drip coffee, as it is the most popular coffee brewing method in the US.

Espresso vs Coffee 

Comparison Categories

Regular Coffee

Espresso

Bean roasting time

13 minutes

20 minutes

Bean appearance

Bright, matte

Dark, shiny

Acidity

Low

Minimum

Grind

From fine to coarse

Fine

Brewing time

Up to 6 minutes

20-30 seconds

Pressure

Not applicable

Minimum of 9 bar

Water temperature

194-205°F(90-96°C)

190-202°F(88-94°C)

Amount of caffeine

154 mg(0.0054 oz)

75 mg(0.0026 oz)

Differences in Roasting

Espresso and coffee are drinks from the beans of the same plant: coffee. Whether coffee beans turn into aromatic filter coffee or rich espresso depends on the processing method.

The difference between espresso and coffee from a drip machine is the duration of the roasting of the beans. Typically, roasting for regular coffee takes about 13 minutes, while roasting for espresso takes about 20 minutes.

Of course, the time may vary depending on the type of coffee and the model of roaster.

In appearance, regular coffee beans and espresso beans are also different. Due to prolonged roasting, espresso grains have a darker color and shiny surface.

This shine is explained by the fact that the oils contained in green coffee beans come to the surface during the roasting process. Due to their relatively short roasting time, regular coffee beans have a lighter color and a matte surface.

In addition, espresso beans have a weaker acidity. The acids contained in coffee beans break down during roasting, so because of their longer roasting time, espresso beans have hardly any acids. Many people whose stomachs are hypersensitive to acidity prefer espresso.

Differences in Grinding

For espresso, the grind should be much finer than for regular coffee. This is due to the much faster preparation of the drink—only 25-30 seconds.

The contact between ground coffee beans and hot water is very brief when making espresso. The passage of hot water under high pressure through very finely ground coffee means the coffee will extract more efficiently in that short time.

When making shot of espresso, about 24% of all substances are extracted, while when making regular coffee, only 17% of all substances are extracted. It can also take up to 6 minutes to make regular coffee.

Differences in Temperature and Pressure

Regular coffee and espresso are also brewed differently. The espresso method was invented to speed up the process of making coffee in coffee shops.

To do this, pressure is used in the preparation of the drink.

For espresso, water passes through finely ground coffee beans under a pressure of at least 9 bar. The water temperature is usually 190-202°F (88-94°C).

To prepare regular coffee, water with a higher temperature—194-205°F (90-96°C)—is usually used, and the drink is prepared without high pressure.

By the way, high pressure is the reason that paper filters are not used in the preparation of espresso. Paper simply does not withstand pressure.

Which Contains More Caffeine?

There is a common misconception that a shot of espresso contains more caffeine.

In fact, the opposite is true. The fact is that because of longer roasting, the caffeine content in espresso beans is lower. But the volume of an ordinary espresso cup is only 30 ml (1 fl oz). Therefore, despite the smaller amount of caffeine in one cup of espresso, its concentration is higher. The reason for this is the ratio of water to ground coffee.

When making espresso, 1 milligram of ground coffee uses less water. Of course, if you drank enough espresso to equal the volume of a cup of regular coffee, you'd get a lot more caffeine.

However, if you compare standard cup sizes—25-30 ml (1 fl oz) for espresso and 150 ml (5 fl oz)—for coffee, then the cup of coffee contains more caffeine.

Summary of the Difference Between Espresso and Coffee

Filter coffee or American coffee (not to be confused with an espresso-based Americano) is the easiest to prepare and the most popular type of coffee.

It's obtained by a simple drip (without pressure) of hot water through ground coffee.

If you compare filter coffee and espresso, you will immediately notice differences in taste and appearance. Espresso has a more intense flavor and aroma. In addition, a good shot of espresso has a persistent golden foam on top, which in Italian is called crema. The crema is formed due to high water pressure and therefore is absent in filter coffee.

Types of Espresso

The density of espresso (TDS, Total Dissolved Solids) ranges from 6% to 15%. Espresso and its variations differ in the ratio of coffee to water:

  • Ristretto - ratio up to 1:1.5 (TDS around 12%);
  • Espresso - ratio from 1:1.6 to 1:2.5 (TDS from 8% to 12%);
  • Lungo - ratio 1:2.6 and higher (TDS less than 8%).

Ristretto is a “short” version of espresso. It's made with less water (but the same amount of coffee grounds) as a regular espresso coffee.

The main difference between ristretto and espresso is the lower ratio of coffee to water: up to 1:1.5.

Ristretto is more concentrated than regular espresso. All its other taste characteristics depend on the selected espresso beans. For example, if you use dark roasted coffee, it will be extracted faster. Accordingly, this coffee will turn out to be bitter in taste. To fix this, prepare a ristretto. That is, the ristretto is best suited for dark roasts.

Lungo is a “long” espresso and the opposite of a ristretto.

The main difference between a Lungo and a regular espresso is the greater ratio of coffee to water: 1:2.6 and higher.

Lungo is less concentrated and lighter in body. Due to the longer extraction time, a Lungo can acquire a bitter taste. But this can be avoided by using a light roast.

The Team That Worked On This Blog Post

Patty-Cramer-Editor-Coffee-Consultant-at-MyFriendsCoffee

Editor & Coffee Consultant

Patty Cramer

I'm the coffee consultant at MyFriendsCoffee. I've been in the coffee business for over 21 years and still have a passion for coffee. My most important skill is that I know how to organize work processes.

John Beans Editor & Founder

Resident Editor-in-Chief

John Beans

I’m the resident Editor-in-Chief of MyFriendsCoffee. For more than 5 years I tried a large variety of coffees from different brands and master 7 ways to brew coffee and am not going to stop there. I switched my first coffee maker with a professional espresso machine and now my kitchen is filled with various coffee equipment.

Tessa Dixon – Beginner Barista & Content Creator

BArista

Tessa Dixon

I was born in Seattle, and this city has a strong connection to coffee culture, so it's no wonder I decided to become a barista! I’ve learned many ways of making coffee and now I know how to make any coffee delicious.