If you’re not 100% sure how espresso is different than drip coffee, there’s no need to be ashamed. I used to manage a specialty coffee shop and people asked about this all the time. Few coffee lovers are familiar enough with espresso to know how it’s really different.
Granted, it can be confusing. I get it.
By learning the main differences between espresso and drip coffee, you’ll know exactly what you’re drinking when you visit coffee shops. You’ll also have empowering knowledge for when you’re looking at new pieces of coffee equipment.
Let’s jump in by starting with the most confusing part: espresso.
Espresso: The Basics
Many would come into the coffee shop and ask what a latte or cappuccino is. When I answered, “espresso and steamed milk with a heavy amount of foam”, they often had a look of concern and say, “Oooh I don’t need espresso! Just coffee for me.”
It’s clear we need to demystify espresso.
Espresso isn’t some mysterious, mystical liquid that’ll make you bounce off the walls with a single sip. Espresso isn’t just hyper-concentrated coffee. Espresso isn’t only for hardcore coffee fanatics.
First and foremost, espresso is a brewing process.
It’s the process of forcing hot water through extremely fine coffee grounds under immense pressure. Modern espresso machines use 8-10 bars of pressure to pull shots, using super-fine grounds and 25-35 seconds. You can only make true espresso with a high-powered espresso machine.
What you get is a highly concentrated, yet still balanced (if you’re a good barista) shot of coffee. On the surface of the shot is a layer of crema, a fine foam created by coffee oils and air.
Yes, it has a very intense flavor, but anyone can learn to enjoy drinking it on its own. It’s not just for people with hardened palettes.
You can have rich flavors just like any other kind of brewed coffee. Crisp acids, sweet sugary notes, bright aromas, and low tones - they’re all there! The heavy concentration also creates a heavy, creamy body.
Most of the time, espresso shots are mixed with hot steamed milk to make more approachable, less intense drinks.
- Latte - a shot of espresso mixed with 9-15 ounces of steamed milk
- Cappuccino - a shot of espresso mixed with 4-5 ounces of steamed milk
- Americano - a shot of espresso mixed with hot water
- Espresso Tonic - a shot of espresso topped with tonic water
Espresso is rich, intense, not so easy to make, but very versatile.
Espresso VS Drip Coffee
Now that you’re familiar with the basics of how espresso is made and tastes, let’s compare the differences between espresso and drip coffee.
Flavor And Intensity
Drip coffee usually has a clean body with a rounded, simple flavor profile. Compared to a shot of espresso, it’s far less intense because it’s far less concentrated.
For example, if you’re using the golden ratios, it takes roughly 16g of coffee beans to brew a regular-sized mug of drip coffee. A standard double shot of espresso is usually pulled with 16-22g of coffee, but the end result is only ⅛ the volume (1-ounce shot vs 8-ounce mug).
Imagine the flavor of your favorite drip coffee - multiplied by eight times! But wait, this doesn’t mean you should fear espresso.
Many regular coffee lovers enjoy a rich and balanced espresso from time to time. Drinking espresso is a fascinating way to experience the full range of a coffee’s flavors in a few breathtaking sips.
However, it is true that most people aren’t too fond of their very first espresso shot. Our taste buds aren’t used to tasting things so intense, so they often reject espresso at first. After a couple sips, your taste buds calm down and allow you to really enjoy the flavors.
Sadly, many people don’t get beyond that first shocking sip.
How They’re Brewed
Drip coffee, as you surely know, is made when hot water is poured over coffee grounds. A paper filter typically separates the grounds from the brewed liquid.
Drip coffee pots are widely available, but they’re not built with the same craftsmanship. Pots at big box stores are notorious for breaking, bad programming, and bad brewing. The ones that work, however, are consistent, simple, and make delicious coffee.
Espresso, like I said earlier, is the result of an intense process that requires lots of pressure. Modern espresso machines are feats of engineering and can’t be had for less than $200. The better home machines though will run you, at the very least, $500.
Cheaper machines use steam and weak pump technology from the 19th century. They don’t brew true modern espresso, they’re not built durably, and the coffee they brew is downright disappointing.
I don’t suggest one of these budget “espresso machines”.
Which Brewer Type Is More User-Friendly?
Since espresso is so intense and concentrated, little mistakes cost dearly in flavor. A slight technique error spread over 8 ounces of drip coffee can be hard to notice. In a 1-ounce shot of espresso, those mistakes are very obvious.
And trust me, there are many mistakes to be made.
You must be very precise with how much coffee and water you use. A 28g yield tastes very different than a 30g yield.
You have to tamp the grounds perfectly evenly for a balanced shot. Any variation in coffee depth or density will lead to channeling, which is when water drains through some areas of the coffee more than others. This leads to imbalanced flavor.
Even when you do everything right, the shots pull differently day-to-day because of of the changing level of freshness in the beans.
As you can imagine, this makes espresso brewing quite frustrating at times. Yet, the emotional reward of pulling a great shot (seemly against all odds) is incredible.
Drip coffee is certainly easier to make, but that doesn’t mean it’s better.
How The Final Brew Is Used
Drip coffee, for the most part, is just a simple mug of coffee. You don’t do much with it other than add cream or sugar if you’d like. It is what it is.
Espresso, on the other hand, is wildly versatile. Since it’s 8 ounces of flavor packed into a 1-ounce shot, you can cut it with other liquids without losing the flavor.
We already talked about lattes, cappuccinos, americanos, and the espresso tonic, but there are hundreds of creative drinks that use espresso as the primary flavor ingredient - and more new drinks are released in coffee shops around the world every week.
See? Espresso isn’t so bad after all.
Sure, it’s intensely flavorful and can be frustrating to brew, but it’s worth trying a few times. Tasting espresso is an experience that cannot be matched by any other coffee type.
For many home brewers, however, espresso presents a challenge that may not be worth the effort. To brew balanced espresso, you really have to embrace the journey and be willing to pull some bad shots.
It’s much easier to perfect your drip coffee game at home, explore the worlds of french press and pour over coffee, and instead leave the espresso tasting for when you’re at skilled coffee shops.
If you’re up for the challenge or want to learn more about espresso brewing, here’s the ultimate guide.
Whether you’re a lover of drip coffee or rich espresso, it all begins with great beans. Make sure you’re never low on freshly roasted, high-quality beans with the JavaPresse Coffee Subscription.
We source beans from the world’s best coffee farms - and you can taste the quality.See for yourself!