If you’re perusing the grocery store coffee aisle and you notice they stock espresso beans next to the Folger’s, you might wonder what, exactly, the difference is between espresso beans and regular beans.
Ever since specialty coffee shops exploded in popularity in the 1990s, people have added new words like “cortado,” “ristretto,” and “mochaccino” to their vocabularies.
Now, you can get a pour-over, an AeroPress, a Chemex, a French press, or a Keurig in addition to your standard drip coffee maker. Each brewing method produces a different cup of coffee with a unique flavor profile and mouthfeel.
If you’re trying to duplicate that coffee shop experience at home, you’ll need to equip yourself with some tools and some know-how.
How are espresso beans different from other coffee beans? Can you make espresso with a regular coffee machine? Can you make regular coffee with an espresso machine? How much caffeine is in espresso versus normal drip coffee?
If those questions sound familiar, then you’ve come to the right place. This article will cover all you need to know about the difference between espresso beans and regular coffee beans.
Are Espresso Beans Different From Coffee Beans?
Most of the coffee in the world comes from the Coffea arabica plant. It’s perhaps the world’s oldest source of coffee. It’s commonly called simply Arabica and accounts for 60%-80% of the coffee in the world market.
A smaller portion of the world’s coffee comes from the Coffea canephora plant. It produces the coffee we know as Robusta and makes up the other 40%-20% of the market.
A lot of the coffee we see on our shelves is a blend of the two different types since one has more caffeine and the other has a sweeter taste. There are, however, more than 120 known species of the coffee plant. Some even produce naturally caffeine-free beans.
So, what’s the difference between the beans we use to make espresso and the ones we use to make regular coffee?
If we’re talking about the green beans fresh from the plant, the answer is: there is no difference.
The beans used to make espresso are the same beans used to make regular coffee. Both espresso and regular coffee come from Arabica beans, Robusta beans, or a blend of the two. You could take beans from the same plant and use some to make espresso and some to brew drip coffee. There’s no botanical difference between the two styles of beans. Both are coffee.
On the other hand, no, you won’t get the same product in a bag of espresso beans as you will in a bag of regular coffee beans. That’s because what makes espresso is not the bean itself, it’s the way the bean is processed.
The second difference is the size of the grind. Regular drip coffee is meant to spend a little time in hot water. This time gives the water a chance to extract the goodness (flavor, aromas, and other compounds) from the bean before it hits the cup. Because of that, the beans are ground fairly coarsely, like table sugar, so plenty of water can get between the granules, thus you need a coarse grind.
Espresso, on the other hand, is meant to spend very little time in contact with the water and the water must be very hot. Due to that fact, the beans are ground into smaller granules, like powdered sugar, which is called a fine grind.
Where the two beans diverge begins at the roasting stage. With regular coffee beans, you can get a light, medium, or dark roast. The lighter the roast, the less caffeine will be cooked out of the beans. So, a cup of light roast has more caffeine in it than a cup of dark roasted coffee. Espresso beans spend more time in the roaster than a typical dark roast.
Both the grind and the roast make espresso and drip coffee beans different from each other. Each style of bean is better suited for its own brewing method. Ideally, you’ll be able to enjoy espresso with a brewer designed to make the most of its special grind.
Your drip coffee will taste the best coming from its own coffee maker. If you’re at home and you’re using something like a pour-over or a Chemex, certain size grinds work best for those methods too.
Can You Use Regular Coffee in an Espresso Machine?
Say you have an espresso maker but your local store doesn’t carry espresso beans. Can you make do with regular drip coffee beans?
Whether you’re buying whole beans or ground beans, you’re not going to get quite the same smoothness and flavor from them as you would the espresso beans.
That being said, it can be done. Simply take the regular beans and grind them up into a fine powder. Try to tamp them down as much as possible when you put them in the portafilter. Then, brew your espresso as you normally would. The result will be close to espresso but may taste a bit sour.
Say you want just a regular cup of coffee from your espresso machine. Can you make regular coffee in an espresso machine?
Nothing bad will happen if you put your normal grounds into an espresso machine’s portafilter. Your machine won’t break or malfunction. You will, however, end up with a very disappointing cup of coffee. The water from your machine will pass hot and fast through the grounds, but won’t have time to pick up much flavor from the larger granules.
Because the water spends such little time with the coffee itself, the resulting cup will be weaker, like a watered-down cup of coffee. The best thing to do is to make an Americano. Just brew up a shot of espresso and add it to a mug of hot water.
Can You Use Espresso in a Coffee Maker?
Now, we have the opposite problem; we have the espresso beans but not an espresso maker. Unfortunately, your regular drip machine isn’t ideal for an espresso ground coffee. Since the grind of espresso is so fine, it will more than likely clog your filter and cause hot water to overflow from the top of your machine. Then you’ll have a hot, coffee-scented mess all over your kitchen counter.
You can rig up a makeshift pour-over with a tea kettle and a funnel, which can work in a pinch. Put the funnel point down into your cup and set a coffee filter inside the funnel. Add a tablespoon or two of espresso into the filter. Then, get your water as hot as you can manage and start to pour it into your cup through the filtered funnel. You may need a spoon to gently clear clogs in the filter. This method works for just one cup at a time.
If you have the espresso roasted beans that haven’t been ground yet, you can certainly grind them coarsely and put them into your machine like normal. The flavor will be different and the caffeine content won’t be as strong as your regular drip, but it works.
Are Espresso Beans Stronger Than Regular Coffee?
You may be surprised to learn that one shot of espresso has about the same amount of caffeine as an 8 oz. cup of regular coffee. So, if you put a shot of espresso into a mug and filled it the rest of the way with hot water, you’d have an Americano. That drink has the same amount of caffeine as the regular cup of coffee, but with a different flavor.
Now, if you filled up that 8 oz. mug with just espresso, you’d probably regret it. Since caffeine is a stimulant and a diuretic, you’d be making several jittery trips to the bathroom. The flavor of espresso, on the other hand, is generally much stronger than regular coffee.
The extra roasting time releases different flavors in the bean, while the heat and grind of espresso also pull different extracts and compounds from the beans.