As a former barista, I still get asked a lot about coffee. One question I was asked when I worked in the coffee shop was “What is the difference between drip coffee and espresso?” This question doesn’t have a short answer, and back then I felt badly that I had to come up with a brief, canned response. In my defense I didn’t have much choice—that was a really busy place. It haunted me for a while, and then I forgot about it, until recently, when a friend of my daughter’s asked me about it. She is a drip coffee drinker, and she wanted to understand what’s with all the fuss around espresso. Here is my answer.
The Ingredient List Comparison
Contrary to a popular belief, the ingredient list for both brewing methods is exactly the same: roasted coffee beans and water. Sure, the roast of the beans can vary, but this is a personal choice and not a recipe constraint. There is a common misunderstanding that espresso is a roast type. People associate espresso with dark roasts, and think that the darker beans make a coffee stronger. Lighter roasts are commonly used by espresso aficionados, but they are trickier to brew. Light roasts can be used in both drip and espresso. So can dark and medium roasts.
There isn’t much to comment on for the second ingredient on the list, the water. Let’s just say you need good quality filtered or spring water for both brewing methods.
Any other ingredients are only optional, such as milk, sugar, and flavorings.
The Brewing Method – Preparation Differences
This is where the similarities end. The preparation method makes the difference between the two drinks.
There are many ways to make a cup of drip coffee. All of them have one thing in common—they use the force of gravity for the extraction. Water is poured over the grounds and it dissolves the caffeine, sugars and other soluble solids. Grinds are retained by a permanent or paper filter, while coffee is collected into coffee pot or a mug.
Espresso uses pressure for extraction, and this changes the flavor profile completely. Water is pushed through a puck of compressed (tamped) coffee grinds with a force of nine bar pressure. You need a specialized machine to get a proper espresso.
Other Brewing Factors Compared
Other brewing factors that consistently contribute to the difference between the two are:
- Grind size
Grind size for espresso is fine, while for drip it is medium. This affects the coffee clarity and the body.
- Water volume
A drip coffee cup is generally around five ounces of water, while an espresso shot is one ounce, but most frequently prepared as a double shot (2 oz).
- Ground coffee per serving
This is a little trickier to calculate, because we are using different volumes and the standard serving varies a lot. However, a double espresso, (doppio), is prepared from 14 grams of ground coffee. A cup of drip coffee, on the other hand, uses about 10-12 grams of grounds.
- Brewing time, or extraction time
This means how long the grounds are in contact with the water. For espresso that is between 20 and 30 seconds, and for drip four to six minutes, if using a medium grind.
The brewing temperature is very similar, between 195 °F and 205 °F for drip, while water for espresso is between 190 °F and 205 °F.
Organoleptic Properties – How Does It Look and Tastes?
The two coffee drinks are very different, and as a drip coffee lover you’ll have a hard time adjusting your taste to espresso. On the other hand, if your beverage of choice is a strong cup such as French Press or Turkish coffee, then your transition will probably go smoothly, and you’ll love espresso.
Espresso is a small drink, most often served as a double shot, which comes to about two ounces. Drip is a larger cup, typically a five ounce drink, though North American coffee shops sell it in an eight ounce cup and larger.
Espresso is a very concentrated drink, almost viscous. This translates into a 7.5-9.5% total dissolved solids, or TDS. Drip coffee is many times preferred as a clear cup, with no suspensions. A brewed coffee’s TDS is around 1.25% with a maximum of 1.5%. This means that espresso is five to six times stronger than drip.
The TDS dictates the color—the higher the TDS, the darker the drink. Espresso is black, while drip can be a light colored beverage.
Crema is what sets espresso apart from any other brewing method. Crema is a foamy layer on top of the espresso shot, and its presence shows us the shot was properly prepared. Crema is an emulsion created by combining oils in coffee, water, and CO2 released from the coffee beans. Crema hold some unique flavors and aromas that we cannot find in drip.
Caffeine Content – The Big Surprise
If you thought espresso has more caffeine than drip coffee, think again. An espresso doppio, (2 oz volume), contains an average of 80 mg. A double espresso uses 14 grams of grounds. An 8 oz cup of coffee contains on average 100 mg of caffeine and is brewed with around 14 grams of beans.
Where does the myth that espresso contains more caffeine come from then? Well, it’s all about concentration and how fast we drink the coffee. When you drink an espresso, you are more likely to drink it all at once. A regular coffee takes some time drink, because of its volume. Espresso, on the other hand, if you are new to it, is easy to drink it too fast. It is customary in places with old coffee drinking tradition to serve coffee with water. This helps diluting that caffeine punch, and keeps us hydrated. I have never been to Italy, but I keep reading blog posts about the typical espresso shop where you go and down an espresso in 30 seconds or less. Please don’t do that, especially as a beginner. You’ll get jittery for the next hour or two. I like to enjoy my coffee, and sip it slowly, even if it’s just a tiny two ounce serving.
If you never tried espresso and you would like to, I suggest you go to a renowned coffee shop to get it. You need to make sure you get a properly prepared shot, and not an over-extracted one. And remember, the quality of the beans matters.
Dorian is a coffee lover, former barista, turned blogger. He maintains the Coffee Brewing Methods blog, and the linked Facebook page. He drinks all kinds of coffees, but his favorite preparation method is espresso.