Coffee and espresso are not the same thing at all. Sure, they’re both brewed from coffee beans. Yes, they both require hot water. But that’s about where the similarities end. If you don’t know what makes a espresso drinks different (or if you’ve ever called it ‘expresso’), get ready for a bit more details about the coffee drink we all seem to take for granted!
Coffee Beans Matter, But the Grind is All
The differences between espresso and other brewed coffee starts at the very beginning - the beans. Any type of coffee bean can be used for espresso, no matter what the coffee shop tries to sell you. That said, although some cafes have started offering single origin espresso shots, bu and large espressos are made with blends designed to produce the riches crema. What matters most, from the point of view of the barista, is how the beans are ground. While drip coffee is best when the beans are a medium grind (about the size of sea salt crystals), for espresso, the beans need to be finely ground and the consistency of the grind is essential.
Drip coffee, which is poured through and/or steeped in water, means that the grounds spend more time in contact with the water. Espresso, however, is brewed under pressure. The water and the coffee grounds will come together for only a short time. Because of the pressurized brewing, you need specialized equipment, which produces the pressure, to make a good cup of espresso.
When we chat with folks about the myriad of home espresso machines that are available, we always recommend they spend more attention to (and money on) their grinder, since a great espresso machine is guaranteed to produce a mediocre shot unless the grind is super consistent.
The Final Cup
What you get at the end of the brewing process depends on what the barista is preparing. With espresso, at least before any milk is added to the drink, you’ll notice a distinctive layer called crema - a lighter, caramel-flavored, almost sweet foam - that sits on top of the shot. Also, you'll likely notice that espresso shots have a much more concentrated flavor.
Another key difference is the amount you get at the end of the brewing process. For most coffee drinkers, you’ll get a full cup (or larger) of coffee. Add a bit of cream and sugar (or not) and have a good day. With espresso, it’s made in roughly 30 ml servings - a single shot. What you do with that shot - with or without steamed milk - makes a big difference in the drink you’ll have.
Types of Espresso Drinks
If you’ve stared slack-jawed at the coffee shop menu wondering what the difference was between all the espresso drinks, you're in good company! So:
Single Shot: 30 ml of espresso. Simple and delicious.
Double Shot: 60 ml of espresso, also known as a doppio. The more the merrier, right?
Americano: 30 ml of espresso mixed with 60 ml of water. Think of it as a more intense cup of drip coffee.
Macchiato: 30 ml of espresso with a dot of foamed milk on top. Surprised that it’s not a caramel infused sugar bomb in a huge cup? It’s cool if you like that, too, but it’s not a traditional macchiato.
Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk.
Flat White: Espresso with microfoam poured over it. Microfoam is steamed milk filled with small, fine bubbles that give it an ultra smooth consistency. Yes, it’s different from a latte.
Mocha: 60 ml of espresso, 60 ml of chocolate, and 30 ml of steamed milk. Delicious, and not overly sweet.
Latte: 60 ml of espresso with lots of steamed milk, around 300 ml, and very little foam.
Ristretto: A concentrated 22 ml shot of espresso, for when you don’t want to blink for a few hours or commit to anything longer than a sip. After all, you’ve got places to be and things to do.
Seattle has largely set the standards for espresso shots in the US for the past few decades, but here are a few espresso trends that are pretty firmly entrenched here, and worth trying:
The doppio as standard. Local cafes in Seattle generally don't distinguish between single and double shots. The general thinking is that you get the richest extraction from a double (or even a tripe) basket (where the coffee grounds sit in the portafilter).
Milk-less shots. Purists are increasingly ordering pure shots of espresso, and savoring the crema in lieu of added milk foam. If you haven't yet tried a pure shot, do so ASAP. It's a great experience for folks used to milk beverages.
Single origin shots. Most of us here in the Beanery shy away from single origin espresso shots, as they tend to have peak-y flavor profiles that often don't work well with milk. That said, it's always fun to try, and to try to pinpoint the different flavor profiles in a concentrated shot.
So which is our favorite? I (Matthew) prefer a Macchiato, while Ryan is more of an Americano type of guy. But honestly? We’ve never met an espresso drink we didn’t like. We really encourage you to get out there and find out which one of the many espresso drinks is your favorite, as we know it's so easy to fall into a habit! And if you haven't yet tried a pure shot, sans milk, it's high time to give espresso in its purest form a try. See our best coffees for espresso here!