The only material difference between espresso and drip coffee is the brew method. There are however some important things to understand about these differences and how they can influence how a roaster roasts the coffee.
What is an espresso roast?
An espresso roast has no universal definition. The simple answer is that it is any coffee that the roaster thinks will perform well when prepared as an espresso.
An espresso from a newer, third wave style roasting company will typically be a light or medium roast (indicated by little or no oils on the surface and a light brown color) whereas some companies still think that an espresso roast should be covered in oils and roasted very darkly.
The reason why there is such a difference between these two approaches is that each roaster has a different opinion about what coffee will taste best as an espresso. For the end consumer, the “espresso” label doesn’t tell you much about what you are buying--in fact it will be less informative than understanding how dark the roast profile is.
It’s also mostly true that roasters will tend to roast the same coffee a bit darker if its going to be used for espresso. They may use techniques in the roasting process to reduce the acidity of the coffee or to make espresso shot flavors more balanced and palatable.
We are going to explore if this is necessary or even desirable below, but first, the basics.
Ok, so what defines an espresso?
Espresso has some technical and practical definitions:
This is the Specialty Coffee Association of America Definition:
“Espresso is a 25–35ml (.85–1.2 ounce [×2 for double]) beverage prepared from 7–9 grams (14–18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195°–205°F (90.5°–96.1°C) has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds. While brewing, the flow of espresso will appear to have the viscosity of warm honey and the resulting beverage will exhibit a thick, dark golden crema. Espresso should be prepared specifically for and immediately served to its intended consumer.”
That bit of jargon needs an explainer all on its own, however, we can simplify it to mean:
A really small, strong and syrupy coffee drink that is brewed with pressure over a small period of time.
Or even simpler:
A small, strong cup of coffee prepared with an espresso machine.
Alright then, what’s drip coffee?
Drip coffee refers to a coffee preparation method where hot water is added to the coffee grounds and allowed to drip through, resulting in a cup of coffee and water mixed together.
This is a pretty open ended definition, so the SCA, in the 1950’s, attempted to standardize the process by developing a “Gold Cup Standard”, it's also super jargony and awesome:
"Coffee shall exhibit a brew strength, measured in Total Dissolved Solids, of 11.5 to 13.5 grams per liter, corresponding to 1.15 to 1.35 "percent" on the SCA Brewing Control Chart, resulting from a solubles extraction yield of 18 to 22 percent*."
Many more explainers are needed for this one, but in the spirit of brevity we can simplify this to say: proper drip coffee should be brewed with a recipe.
If you want to get a little more technical, you could say good drip coffee should be pretty strong and extract most of the tasty stuff from the coffee grounds through proper brewing technique.
Ok, so do I really need an espresso roast?
No, you don’t. You just need to have the barista skill to balance your flavor elements.
Really? Like most things it really depends. Darker roasted coffees (up to a point) are going to make it easier to produce an espresso that is balanced in flavor profile between sweetness, bitterness and acidity.
Lighter roasts are going to be harder to grind, meaning you need sharper, more expensive grinders to produce consistent results. Espresso roasts are usually medium in order to translate the challenges of the espresso brew technique into consistent shots.
In contrast, many roasters roast drip coffees to feature acidity. They know that you are going to dilute the coffee with a nice dose of water, so it won’t be unpleasant, bracing, or puckering.
Espresso is so expensive and complicated. Why bother?
Many people don’t. You can save money and get more jacked by sticking with drip. We are super into questions here so lets answer with questions:
Which method is always going to be fresh and ready in less than a minute? Espresso.
Which method is going to mix with steamed milk and foam and still taste creamy? Espresso.
Which method is going to be really, really difficult to replicate at home? Espresso.
Which method did a big giant green mermaid company from Seattle launch an empire with?
Do coffee flavors translate differently in drip vs espresso?
Yes they do, in fact, sometimes significantly. The answer to this question lies in concentration.
Espresso is 6 to 8 times as strong as drip coffee depending on recipes and preparation method. The fact that you are drinking a significantly concentrated brew of the same coffee is going to make certain aspects of its flavor profile much more pronounced. The big components of flavor for most coffee professionals are sweetness, acidity and bitterness.
Acids are the first to extract in both brew methods but espresso extractions are going to have a higher percentage of acids than drip coffee. Additionally, because lighter roasted coffees have a higher level of acidity, espresso extractions of lighter roasts will concentrate that acid. Basically, acidic coffees, which tend to be lighter roasts, are going to make very acidic espresso shots.
The other macro flavor of coffee is bitterness, in fact, many people who don’t like the flavor of coffee cite bitterness as the reason. In espresso, these bitter compounds are going to be in much higher concentration than in drip coffee. To put it simply: bitter coffees are going to make very, very bitter shots of espresso (you better bring the cream).
The best shot of espresso or cup of drip coffee is going to be balanced across these three elements. The espresso is always going to have a much higher concentration of bitterness and acids than a cup of drip coffee, so it will be more difficult to balance. Drip coffee, because of the lower concentrations, will be easier to balance and make more delicious.
Did we use an espresso roast to win America’s Best Espresso?
No, in fact, we used one of our lightest roasted Natural Ethiopian coffees. In our opinion, the most vibrant coffees, regardless of brew method, are going to be lighter roasts. If you are going to brew a great espresso shot out of a light roasted coffee you need three things:
- Your coffee should be really, really sweet.
- You need to pull a longer shot because you need more water to dilute the acid in the flavor profile.
- You are going to need a grinder with sharp burrs that is capable of producing very fine grinds as well as some patience to get everything calibrated.
If you get it all right, the results can be overwhelmingly delicious.
Ok, which one has more caffeine?
A typical cup of brewed coffee is brewed with 20-25 grams of coffee. A typical espresso is brewed with 13-20 grams of coffee. In almost all cases, the brewed coffee is going to have more caffeine.
Is that always true?
No, of course it's not that simple. Weak coffee brewed with only 5-10 grams per cup is going to have half the caffeine of espresso. Brewed coffee is only more caffeinated when the coffee is properly brewed and you are comparing a full cup of coffee to a tiny cup of espresso. If you want to drink a whole 12 ounce cup of espresso shots, you will definitely be getting more caffeine. The basic answer is that more caffeine will come from coffee brewed with more coffee to start with, and there will be variations from bean to bean that no roaster can test so we don’t know.
Are there any health differences between the two methods?
Yes, the paper filter actually filters out a turpene, Cafestol, that contributes to higher cholesterol levels. Drip coffee, therefore, will be better for those that want to lower their cholesterol.
The only real difference between drip and espresso is brew method. The brew method has a big influence on the final flavor profile of the beverage. Espresso is much more concentrated, therefore, acids and bitterness will be in higher concentrations. In response to this, roasters tend to roast their espresso a bit darker than drip roasts. This adjustment isn’t totally necessary as a skilled barista should be able to balance these elements with proper technique.
Also, caffeine content has much more to do with recipe than brew method although, as a general rule, drip coffee will have a higher content per standard serving.
Finally, both are awesome, especially if you are brewing awesome coffee to begin with.