When we talk about our award winning coffees, we focus on the careful sourcing, meticulous roasting, and brewing to maximize the flavors that delight us. We often ignore the thing that keeps us coming back to coffee, at least from a biological perspective, caffeine.
Yes, caffeine, the world’s most consumed psychoactive drug is a chief reason why we drink coffee so regularly. Configuring its dosage and understanding its effects on our body are key in an enjoyable relationship with coffee.
We get a lot of caffeinated questions about caffeine in the line of duty… below are some of the most common.
How can I get the most caffeine?
Espresso vs drip coffee?
The short answer to this: drip coffee.
Assuming we are comparing a double shot of espresso to a 12 oz serving of drip coffee (or pour over). The reason why? Dosage, or how much coffee you use to brew.
Double shots of espresso vary depending on how much different coffee shops use. At Black Oak and other modern coffee shops, doubles tend to be stronger, using 17 grams of coffee or more per double shot. In an effort to cut cost and conform to limitations of automatic machines, doubles can be as low as 12-14 grams at other coffee shops.
For drip coffee, a 12 oz serving can be prepared with as much as 30 grams of coffee. So, assuming a similar extraction level (for simplicity... we will complicate it later), a strong 12 oz drip coffee can have 100% more caffeine than a double shot of espresso.
Is this always true?
No, absolutely not.
A cup of watery coffee may only be brewed with 10-12 grams of coffee, meaning that a double shot of espresso may be 50% stronger or more. The truth is that it really depends on how the coffee and espresso are being brewed, because not all coffee is created equal when it comes to caffeine.
As a side note, if getting lifted is your main priority, you may not be better off with a huge cup of cheap coffee. If the operator is trying to cut corners (by using less coffee per batch) you may be getting significantly less caffeine in a 20 or 24oz coffee than a properly brewed 12oz cup.
Dark roast vs light roast?
This is one of the most common areas of mis-information. The answer, according to recent research published, is definitively dark roast.
Why? Well, caffeine is super stable during the roasting process. As coffee is roasted darker, it is losing organic matter but keeping the same amount of caffeine (roughly). Put another way, each darkly roasted bean weighs less than a lightly roasted bean, but both contain the same amount of caffeine.
This means that a 25 gram coffee (1 ounce) made with dark roast is going to have more beans than a light roasted coffee using 25 grams of coffee. And because each coffee bean has about the same amount of caffeine, this means the 25 grams of dark roast will contain slightly more caffeine.
If you are a scooper, meaning, you measure by volume rather than by weight, you will see a more minor difference. The density of the dark roast is lower, causing you to use more beans if you are scooping light roast.
What about the coffee variety?
The problem with dark vs light roast studies, from a consumer perspective, is that the study compared the same green coffee roasted at 5 different levels. When you are buying coffee at a store or coffee shop you won’t be able to buy the same green coffee and then choose how you roast it. Your roaster will select different green coffees to roast depending on flavor profile, price and how well those coffees taste at different roast levels.
The variation in caffeine content between varieties of coffee is more variable than the variation between light roast and dark roast. For example, the two major species of coffee are arabica and robusta. Robusta has, on average, double the caffeine content of arabica. It is also significantly cheaper than arabica coffee because it has higher yields and can be grown at lower altitudes, making it cheaper to produce.
To further complicate things for the consumer who is seeking a lift from their coffee, there is a huge variation of caffeine content between arabica coffees. For example, some varieties have half the caffeine content than others, according to a study by Illy:
Why don’t we all drink robusta?
The answer is super simple, it doesn’t taste good. It's astoundingly bitter (owing in no small part to its caffeine content), and lacks many of the flavor qualities that we associate with great coffee. It has been a major component of very low quality blends, high caffeine blends, and some Italian espresso blends (it makes better crema than arabica coffee.)
So what should I do if I want to drink great coffee and get properly caffeinated?
This all gets to a basic problem for the caffeine seeking consumer, we just don’t test and report information on caffeine as roasting companies. Yes, roast level plays a role, but other factors such a variety and brew method play an even bigger role. You simply don’t have the information needed to make an informed choice about exactly how much caffeine you are consuming when you drink or buy coffee. To solve this issue we argue for a different approach.
The reason to drink coffee is that the ritual of getting caffeinated is delicious, relaxing, comforting and social. It’s a break from our work, our chance to socialize, and an opportunity for us to enjoy a beverage that is amazingly diverse in flavor and complexity.
The compromise, in our humble opinion, for those seeking a bigger lift, is to start with a coffee that you really want to drink and simply brew it stronger than most recipes suggest. We have a suggestion below for a highly caffeinated, yet still delicious brew recipe.
How to create a highly caffeinated drip coffee that actually tastes good.