Having worked as a barista for years, I have been confronted by a question that comes up frequently from customers: “Which has more caffeine—an americano or a cup of coffee?”
The answer to this question is usually coffee.
The USDA has a website that houses comparative nutritional info (including caffeine content, where applicable) of a wide variety of foods and beverages available to the American public.
Below, the first set of numbers about how much caffeine is in espresso and brewed coffee come from some research conducted by the USDA using samples of coffee from undisclosed fast-food restaurants and coffee brewed at home using tap water. The espresso was sampled from a restaurant.
For the sake of context, I also looked at the information posted on Starbucks’ website about the caffeine content of their beverages. Starbucks’ coffees seem to have a higher caffeine content than the averages coming from USDA’s website.
Based on USDA’s information:
One ounce of espresso contains around 63mg caffeine. One ounce of brewed coffee contains about 12mg caffeine.
A typical 12oz Americano served at a coffee shop has about 1.5oz espresso poured into hot water.
|12oz Americano: 1.5oz espresso||12oz Brewed coffee|
|96mg caffeine||144mg caffeine|
The brewed coffee has an average of 12mg of caffeine per ounce, which equates to around 144mg caffeine per 12oz cup.
Based on Starbucks’ website’s information:
|12oz Americano: 1.5oz espresso||12oz Brewed coffee|
|150mg caffeine||260mg caffeine|
The caffeine content listed on Starbucks’ website was honestly surprising to me that the numbers are so high—a little less than twice the amount compared to the USDA website’s information. That being said, the amounts of caffeine from Starbuck’s website are probably on par with what you might expect from most specialty shop’s drinks.
Even though, per ounce, brewed coffee usually has less caffeine than espresso, a 12oz cup of coffee still has more caffeine than a 12oz americano.
The kind of coffee you’re drinking also affects how much caffeine will be in your brew.
There are two main species of coffee grown commercially: Coffea arabica (usually just referred to as Arabica) and Coffea canephora (referred to as Robusta). Robusta naturally has about twice the caffeine Arabica coffee does, but Arabica is almost always considered “specialty” coffee while Robusta rarely is. Caffeine is a bitter-tasting compound the coffee plant makes which can serve in self-defense from small bugs or animals that might want to nibble on the plant. They ingest the caffeine, feel the effects of it, and learn to leave it alone in the future. Because of the extra caffeine present in Robusta, it tends to have a harsher taste, but allows Robusta to thrive in environments where Arabica may struggle. Many scientists and researchers around the world are working to find ways to smooth out the taste of Robusta, bringing it into a more taste-competitive standing to qualify as “specialty coffee,” alongside most Arabica coffees.
Within the realm of Arabica coffees, there are many varieties. Some are known to have very little caffeine, such as C. arabica var. laurina (also known as Bourbon pointu), which happens to be somewhat difficult to grow, and therefore is less available in the market, so you’re less likely to come across it without it being explicitly sold as such (because it’s novel and it makes it more desirable/worth more). Some varieties of Arabica coffee have been intentionally mixed with genetic stock of Robusta coffee to gain desirable traits of each species of coffee, and this sometimes has the effect of increasing the caffeine amount of the new variety to greater than an average Arabica coffee, but less than a Robusta coffee. Unfortunately, it usually comes with a harsher taste due to the increased amount of caffeine, lowering the “cup quality.” Timor hybrid is an example of a naturally occurring hybridization that took place between Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora on the island of Timor and it has more caffeine than normal Arabica coffee, yet a little less caffeine than normal Robusta. Catuai, Catimor 129, Bourbon, Typica, Centroamericano…these are a handful of different coffee varieties that would likely have varying amounts of caffeine. While information about specifically how much caffeine each variety has is not available, you can learn more about these varieties and many more at https://varieties.worldcoffeeresearch.org/varieties
Farmers usually grow more than one variety of coffee, and they almost always keep the different varieties separate in the farm. Several varieties may be mixed when the coffee is sold, but it is usually limited to 2 or 3 varieties. There is the possibility the coffee roaster might not keep the varieties distinct or separate even if they purchase them separately, instead blending them together for a desired flavor profile. Many high-end specialty roasters would be inclined to keep them separate if they can and sell them as such, to provide an opportunity for customers to taste the difference.
For now, if you are getting your coffee from a specialty coffee shop, it is a safe bet that the coffee is Arabica. If you really need the extra kick of caffeine, maybe try getting a drink called “a shot in the dark,” which is a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso in it. In a way, that drink could be seen as sort of a combination of an americano and the cup of coffee–just be careful with your caffeine intake!