One of the first questions we had, when we got into coffee, was what the heck is the difference between espresso and coffee beans?! A coffee bean is a coffee bean and the final brew is a cup of coffee, right?
Why make it so difficult!
The thing is, we know we are not the only people who have this question.
You see this question always trying to tempt your curiosity each time you enter a grocery store or local coffee shop.
When you walk into the coffee section, you see coffee beans in all different flavors with different labels for coffee and espresso beans.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll ask yourself – what exactly is the difference between espresso and coffee beans?
To be honest with you, for a while we just let it go.
Just went about our business and let this question linger in our heads until one final day we couldn’t take it anymore and had to get an answer.
This is what went down on that fateful day.
The day started like any ordinary weekend day. The sun was shining, but it was a chilly winter day in Minneapolis. If you’ve never been to Minnesota, let us tell you something; there is something mystical about a sunny, yet chilly winter day. Anyways, the main priority of the day was to create a new recipe for the 2017 pop-up season. And if at all possible for it to be a pour over recipe.
And then it happened. A Penguin fight erupted. Beaks flying, feathers fluffed, squawking left and right. All because we only had espresso beans left in the test kitchen. Penguin #1 thought it was fine to test with espresso beans because they were coffee beans. However, penguin #2 thought the test batch would not be accurate since espresso beans were different from coffee beans. “It’ll throw the final tasting profile off,” professed penguin #2. Needless to say, the squabbling went on for the rest of the day and a new recipe was never created.
What’d you think happened next?
Come on, you should know by now!
The penguin team put their heads together and got to the bottom of the dumb question which ruined their winter day.
The Difference Between Espresso and Coffee Beans
In truth, and put simply – there is none.
There is absolutely no difference between coffee beans and espresso “beans”.
After all, coffee is just coffee.
All coffee beans come from a single plant (arabica or robusta).
Whether it is black coffee, Turkish, pour over, french press, latte, espresso, or moka pot the beans used to make them all are the same. (Penguin #1 gloated while penguin#2 moped in the corner when they found out)
Not only that but the roasting process of the coffee beans is the same for all types of coffee.
The roasting process only helps enhance different flavors, pointing them out, making them more prominent, and masking the flavors you don’t like.
Sometimes, espresso may be a mix of different beans, but this too is arbitrary, as manufacturers mix the beans to nunique blends.
Besides, not all the beans taste the same all the time, even if they are from the same crop.
“So IS there a difference between espresso and coffee beans?”, you may be wondering.
The main difference is in the preparation process and the history of the why roasters created the espresso roast in the first place.
Let’s talk about the history of the espresso beans first.
History of Espresso Coffee
Ok, here’s an easy question for you.
Think back a couple hundred years ago. Do you think the technology back then was as advanced as it is now?
Of course, it’s not!
And that’s why there is a difference between espresso and coffee beans in the first place.
Since the technology was not as advanced, this also meant that the technology for cultivating coffee was not as advanced too.
Because of this, when a bean with poorer quality was used to make espresso it tasted horrible, and it was noticeably horrible as well.
Humans being humans, they innovated to solve this problem.
Obviously, not everyone could afford the highest quality beans all the time. So in order to make the lesser quality beans taste better in an espresso with a more consistent taste profile, roasters began to use a dark roast for beans destined for an espresso machine.
The darker roast created a smokier and caramelized flavor, which also helped hide the flaws of the bean.
And this my friends is where the term espresso beans come from.
Now, let’s take a look at the processes involved in the creation of each type of coffee.
One striking difference between espresso and coffee beans is the grind.
Espresso calls for a very fine grind, while the grind for coffee normally skews to the medium and coarse end, depending on which coffee preparation method you choose of course.
After you’ve ground the coffee, you will place it in a paper filter or if not a paper filter, some sort of filter.
The water used in the preparation of coffee should be about 200 degrees F, and you pour it over the beans and let gravity do its job.
Unless or course you are making a french press or cold brew, which rely on both gravity and time for extraction.
The most important thing here is the speed at which the water passes through the coffee and the filter.
The filter slows the water down and allows the flavor to be thoroughly assimilated.
For this reason, coffee can be consumed more slowly, and you can sip it akin to tea because it has a more subtle flavor.
Coffee has an approximate life span of several hours after you brew it, but to be honest, we’ve consumed day old coffee with no problem.
And here’s a little secret too. Day old coffee is actually surprisingly good.
Obviously, we’ll take a freshly brewed cup over day old coffee anytime, but just saying!
Conversely, espresso is a brew meant to be consumed quickly.
It is also meant to be made from a much fine grind.
Not exactly Turkish grind fine, but certainly in that area.
Of course, you don’t want to grind the coffee into dust, as it will over-extract the flavors, and the coffee will taste bitter from all the secondary flavors.
The way you prepare espresso is that you put it in a basket, much like traditional coffee, but you also have to tamp it down.
Ideally, you should tamp the grind down using about 30 pounds of pressure and no knocking after the first tamp.
If you don’t know what we mean by that, no worries, here’s a brief explanation.
When you are getting your portafilter ready for an espresso, the tamp process typically looks like this:
- Leveled with finger
- Tamp #1
- Polished and finished off
Well according to Mark Prince over at coffeegeek.com. You should not knock the portafilter after tamp #1 to settle the grounds on the bottom of the portafilter and make more room. This makes wonderful sense if you think about the science behind the tamp.
Just think about it. When you tamp the portafilter, much of what you are tamping are the top layer grounds in the portafilter. No matter the pressure you tamp with, you are unlikely going to tamp and compact all the grounds in the bottom half of the portafilter.
Since water always finds the path of least resistance, when you knock the portafilter after tamp #1, you will most likely introduce new cracks and new paths for the water to travel.
Which results in a less even extraction.
The reason for this is that the water needs to pass through the espresso quickly, in about 15 to 20 seconds.
The tamp allows the grind to maintain a more cohesive structure, for, if it doesn’t, the water will create a hole and not enough flavor will be retained and transferred to the water.
Like we said, espresso needs to be consumed quickly.
Espresso has a very distinct texture, and, once the texture starts to blend together, the taste begins to deteriorate.
Espresso is also meant to be served in smaller doses, again facilitating quick consumption.
After all, the thing is not called espresso for no reason!
One final difference between espresso and coffee beans is in the taste.
Or rather, we should say brew, not beans, since the beans are the same.
The flavor traditional coffee gives seems weaker than what espresso gives off.
Espresso, due to its concentration, has a much starker flavor to it.
In espresso, all the flavors coffee has, bitter, nutty, sweet and fruity are more pronounced.
What this means is that espresso is meant to give you a kick.
Just like an alcohol shot is meant to have some zing and zest to it, versus beer, which is meant to relax you, and which you sip slowly.
And the prosecution rests their case, humiliating penguin #2 in the process!
Now you know the difference between espresso and coffee beans.
We say “types of coffee”, because, as we have explained above, there is no obvious difference between the espresso and coffee BEANS, per se.
They both come from the same plant, and, therefore, must be the same.
All in all, the main differences are in the preparation, taste and the history of the espresso roast in general.
Different preparation methods yield difference in taste, and taste, after all, is a personal preference.
Are you more of a coffee drinker or espresso drinker?