Ingredient Intelligence

What Exactly Is Espresso? And How Is It Different from Coffee?

published Apr 19, 2022
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Espresso dripping from stainless steel portafilter into coffee cup
Credit: Getty Images/ Norman Posselt

I love coffee in just about any form — from a simple cup of brewed coffee to elaborate coffee concoctions. If you’re like me, you’ve probably enjoyed espresso many ways, including straight-up and in lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and cortados, as well as espresso martinis. But what exactly is espresso, and how does it differ from regular brewed coffee? Read on for all the details.  

What Is Espresso?

Espresso is a highly concentrated coffee drink made with a 1:2 ratio of finely ground coffee beans and water. It’s made with an espresso machine, which forces water through the grounds under intense pressure. “A well-made espresso should have an intense coffee flavor, but it should not be burnt-tasting or overly bitter,” says Kitchn Senior Food Editor (and espresso-lover), Megan O. Steintrager.

A perfect espresso shot will also have a foamy layer on top called the crema. “During espresso brewing, carbon dioxide — a byproduct of the brewing process — is integrated into the brewed beverage, forming tiny bubbles that rise to the top,” explains Dillon Edwards, coffee expert and founder of Parlor Coffee in Brooklyn, New York. Those tiny bubbles are the crema. Espresso is served straight-up as single or double (doppio) shots, and with water or milk in drinks like lattes, Americanos, cappuccinos, cortados, and macchiatos, to name a few. 

How Is Espresso Different Than Coffee?

Espresso and coffee are not technically two different things — espresso is a type of coffee. But when most people say “coffee” in the U.S., they are referring to drip or filter coffee, which is much less concentrated than espresso. Drip coffee typically has a 1:16 ratio of ground coffee to water, and is not brewed under pressure. While espresso beans are typically ground more finely than the beans for drip coffee, Edwards says it’s a misconception that you have to use specific “espresso” beans to brew espresso, when really any type of roast can be used.

Is Espresso Stronger than Coffee?

Yes! Because espresso is much more concentrated than drip coffee, it tends to have a stronger flavor. “The strength of a cup of coffee is determined by the concentration of coffee solids dissolved in water,” says Edwards, “Generally speaking, espresso is five to seven times more concentrated than a cup of drip coffee of the same volume.” Of course, if you mix an espresso with milk (as in a cappuccino, latte, and other drinks) and/or with water (as in an Americano), it will taste less strong than a straight shot.

Can You Make Espresso with Regular Ground Coffee?

If you have an espresso maker at home, you can technically make a shot of espresso with pre-ground coffee intended for drip brewing, but we wouldn’t recommend it — the grind meant for drip coffee is much coarser than an espresso grind, and the end result will likely be a weaker, less flavorful brew lacking that lovely crema. However, you can absolutely buy whole-bean coffee and grind it fresh for a great at-home espresso. (See our recommendations for the best coffee grinders.) 

You can, however, use any kind of coffee roast to brew a tasty espresso, not just dark roast beans, as Edwards explains above, so feel free to experiment with a range of coffee varietals and roasts till you find your perfect espresso match.