Our Guide to Espresso: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

What is espresso and how does it differ from coffee? It might be an easy debate on the surface—one's a shot, one's a cup—but it's how the beans are roasted and brewed that makes the real difference.

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At-home baristas with fancy home espresso machines and coffee lovers who’ve counted on their trusty 8-cup pot for a decade, it’s time to unite. While your brewing methods may differ and the bags of beans you use are labeled differently, at the end of the day, a coffee bean is a coffee bean. So what is espresso, exactly, and how is it distinct from drip coffee?

What Is Espresso?

Espresso is a concentrated type of coffee made with specially roasted beans and an espresso machine.

Finely ground beans are packed into a portafilter, which is then locked into the base of the espresso machine. Very high pressure (a necessity for espresso) forces water through the packed grounds to pull one- or two-ounce shots of creamy, thick espresso.

So how did this machine come about? While Angelo Moriondo is thought to have the first espresso machine patent, dating back to 1884, his machine could only brew larger quantities of coffee. Luigi Bezzera invented the single-serve espresso machine in 1903 and then sold his patent to Desiderio Pavoni. Bezzera and Pavoni worked together to create a machine much like the ones we see today, and after the 1906 Milan Fair, the espresso machine became more commercially available.

Long story short: Thank you, Italy, for being the birthplace of our favorite way to wake up, our afternoon pick-me-ups and our post-dinner delights.

Also take a quick look at this chocolate covered espresso beans ; super yummy snack to have around before we step ahead with finding out the difference.

Espresso vs. Coffee: Here’s the Difference

The main distinction between espresso and coffee is in the brewing method. Espresso is essentially super-concentrated coffee. It’s made using high pressure to force hot water through very finely ground coffee beans. If you’ve ever watched a barista pull a shot of espresso, the beans we’re talking about here are tamped down into a little puck in the handheld piece that gets locked into the espresso machine (check out these espresso accessories for your home cafe).

For a quick example, even if you brewed espresso-roasted beans in your drip coffeemaker, it wouldn’t be espresso. The coffee would taste very strong because of the extra dark roast, but because there was no high-pressure brewing, the resulting beverage would just be regular coffee.

Coffee is brewed more slowly and with less pressure. The beans used are also not as finely ground. This brewing method results in a well-balanced cup of coffee that isn’t quite as strong or bitter as espresso. Get to know the best coffee brands.

Because of the difference in pressure when brewing, in addition to the length of brew time, the consistency of espresso vs. coffee is what varies the most. Espresso is creamy and thick, while coffee is more watered down (if you’ve ever heard coffee haters calling it bean water, well, they’re not really wrong).

Noting this difference will come in handy when drinking or baking: You’re probably not going to get a rich espresso martini or a mouthwatering tiramisu if you swap espresso shots for coffee. And you can even use espresso powder in recipes that don’t call for it; espresso can uplift the flavor of chocolate.

Espresso beans vs. coffee beans

So how are the end results so different if the beans come from the same place? Well, the beans do all start out as coffee beans. It’s when they’re roasted for brewing, though, that they become labeled as espresso beans and coffee beans.

When beans are added to a roaster, they go through a heating process. This heating process removes any moisture in the bean. Once the beans reach a certain temperature, they will crack. This is similar to heating a bag of popcorn—once the kernels are hot enough, they pop. Once coffee beans are hot enough to crack, they are ready for grinding and brewing.

If you’re a regular at your local coffee shop and you’re a drip coffee kind of person, you’re probably used to the roasts: light, medium or dark. This is based on roast time and affects the overall taste of the brewed beverage. Light roast coffee, for example, might taste milder than a dark roast, which has a bitter aftertaste.

Espresso beans are roasted even longer than regular dark roast coffee beans. During the roasting process, roasters might even wait for a second crack in the beans. The second crack means the beans are releasing oils, which is what eventually creates that creamier, fuller texture when sipping espresso versus coffee.

Blonde espresso vs. regular espresso

Regular espresso comes from the darkly roasted beans we mentioned above. The resulting brew will be bitter and heavy. Blonde espresso is more of a trendy marketing term, but it’s essentially an espresso bean on the lighter end of the roasting scale. Because it goes through a shorter roasting period, blonde espresso will be less bitter and a bit lighter on the palate.

Caffeine in espresso vs. coffee

Ounce-for-ounce, espresso has more caffeine than coffee. However, a single serving of espresso (about one ounce) has about 64 milligrams of caffeine, while a single serving of coffee (eight ounces) has about 92 milligrams of caffeine. Latte drinkers who are worried about caffeine: Fear not. Unless you ask for four shots of espresso, your 12-ounce morning cup only has one or two shots of espresso in it.

Different brew methods, like a French press versus a Keurig coffee maker, result in different levels of caffeine in coffee. Because there is only one way to brew true espresso, the levels of caffeine in espresso won’t change unless you have more shots of espresso.

Can you make espresso from regular coffee?

You cannot make espresso from regular coffee. To make true espresso, you’d need to finely grind espresso-roasted beans and brew them in a classic espresso machine. This being said, the closest you can get to espresso-style coffee would be brewing your coffee beans in a Moka pot. The pressure from the steam in this stovetop pot pushes water through beans and into an upper chamber. The coffee that results is often thicker and more strong than a regular drip coffee, a la espresso.

How to Store Espresso

Just like regular coffee beans, whole espresso-roasted beans will stay fresher longer than ground beans. Air and moisture are the enemies of fresh espresso beans, so store them in the bag they came in or in an airtight jar. You’ll also want to keep the beans in cool, dark places (like cupboards or pantries) so warmth and sunlight don’t deteriorate the quality.

Refrigerating and freezing espresso beans is not recommended because moisture could seep into the bag or container they’re in and dull the flavor and quality.

Rosemary Siefert
Rosemary has been writing and editing for digital and print publications for six years. Starting out as a freelancer for Taste of Home, she joined the team full time in 2022. She writes and edits food content and helps manage Taste of Home’s freelance community. Rosie focuses her writing on cooking tips, baking and cleaning techniques (gotta have a sparkling kitchen!). Rosie’s degrees in journalism and English from the University of Missouri contribute to her skills as an editor, while her penchant for trying new recipes and kitchen hacks shines in her writing. If Rosie isn’t making a (fun) mess in the kitchen, she’s scoping out new restaurants, trying foods she’s never heard of, holed up at a coffee shop with a book or clanging away on one of the typewriters in her collection.