Espresso Vs. Coffee: What is Espresso?

by | May 24, 2018 | Blogs, Coffee Education

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Have you ever been at a coffee shop, went up to the counter, and instead of ordering something different — you opted for the same drink because you didn’t know what to get? Maybe if you knew how all those drinks were made you’d have a better idea about to get the next time.

Let’s start with this: While all those drinks are unique, they all start out as one thing: espresso.

But don’t confuse espresso with coffee. They are not the same. Espresso isn’t just a simple cup of black coffee. Espresso takes a lot of work to make. Read on to find out more about what espresso is, the difference between espresso and coffee, and what the difference between coffee and espresso is — that way — you’ll be more confident about what to order the next time you visit your local coffee shop.

A Brief History of Coffee

No one knows for sure where coffee originated from.

According to popular legends, it was from a goat herder named Kaldi in Ethiopia. After one of Kaldi’s goats consumed coffee berries (yes, coffee comes from a berry) by accident, he noticed his goat was extra hyper.

Kaldi then alerted the local abbot, who decided to brew the berries for himself. After drinking it, he noticed he also gained extra energy and the rest was history.

Of course, this is all a legend. Linguistic anthropologists have a different take on this. They traced the word “coffee” back to Yemen where it was once called “qahwa” meaning wine. The Dutch then translated it to “koffie” and it became “coffee” in English.

Regardless of which of these stories you believe, however, what they all demonstrate is the same thing: Coffee was a powerful. It is so powerful that it was banned five times in history because people thought it must be satanic.

Luckily for us today, those bans didn’t last and people have a much more positive view of coffee.

The Different Ways to Brew Coffee

Coffee can be brewed in a variety of ways. At home, you might have a machine that slowly drips coffee out in the morning and fills your entire home with the wonderful aroma of coffee. This is called batch brewing.

Or you might have a French press or a coffee kettle which steeps the coffee.

At a cafe, you might’ve seen the barista use a fancy contraption called the V60 or Beehouse to do a pour over. This is when they slowly pour hot water over the grounds.

Or you might’ve seen a beaker-like contraption set up at the cafe that looks more like a mad scientist’s laboratory set. These are called vacuum and siphon brewers.

In the summer, you might’ve seen the words “cold brew” which means steeping coffee beans in cold water overnight.

These are all manual brewing methods and the espresso is not one of them.

What Is Espresso?

If you want to get precise, this is the Specialty Coffee Association’s definition of espresso:

Espresso is a 25-35ml (.85-1.2 ounce [x2 for double]) beverage prepared from 7-9 grams (14-18 grams for a double) of coffee through which clean water of 195 °-205 °F (92 °-95°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.”

When you manually brew coffee, it takes time to boil the water and steep the coffee beans for flavor. But with the espresso machine, it can boil water quickly and steam the beans under very high pressure. This process cuts the brewing time to seconds and condenses all the flavors into a tiny cup for you.

To put it simply, what makes the espresso machine unique is its ability to brew coffee in extreme pressure. The brewing method, and the coffee grinding done beforehand is what sets coffee and espresso completely apart.

The Invention of the Espresso Machine

Before espresso machines, people mostly brewed coffee with hot water, which was fine, except it can be slow. But as the popularity of coffee grew, brewing methods needed to adapt and inventors took notice of this opportunity.

One of the ways which people came up with was to brew coffee with steam. In 1884, a man named Angelo Moriondo from Turin, Italy patented the first pressurized espresso machine that used both water and steam to brew coffee. Although the machine worked, it was still far from perfect.

From there on, dozens of inventors raced to make better and faster espresso machines. Finally, a barista from Milan named Achille Gaggia, invented an espresso machine that resembles the ones we have today. This was in the late 1940s and it completely revolutionized the coffee business.

How Espresso Machines Works

To fully understand and appreciate what Gaggia did for coffee, you must first understand how an espresso machine works.

Earth’s atmosphere naturally exerts a certain amount of pressure. Earlier versions of the espresso machine were able to exert 1.5-2 times of earth’s pressure. The version that Gaggia invented was able to exert 8-10 times of earth’s pressure, which was a huge jump from previous versions. Today, most espresso machines can exert 9-10 times of earth’s pressure.

There’s a reason for why when you drink a cup of espresso, it tastes very different from the one you have at home. Espresso, when done right, should be rich, dark, and silky smooth.

How to Make An Espresso

Having a good espresso machine is important but it’s not the only thing that you need to make a good espresso. In order to make high-quality espresso, you need the following:

  • Freshly ground roasted coffee beans
  • Filtered water
  • Clean equipment
  • Correct coffee to water ratio
  • A skilled barista

Pulling A Shot

The first step in making a delicious cup of espresso is to pull a shot. This means to brew the espresso. The barista starts this process by carefully grinding coffee beans and carefully packing them into the portafilter (this is the part of the espresso machine that is detachable with a handle.)

Next, the barista will attach the portafilter into the group head (where steam will come out) and brew the coffee. It is crucial for the barista to know exactly how long and what temperature to brew the coffee. If they brew it for too short or the temperatures are too low, the coffee will end up sour and acidic. If they brew it for too long or the temperatures are too high, the coffee will become bitter.

Within 30-40 seconds, the coffee will drip out smoothly and that’s how you pull a shot of espresso.

Barista Certifications

All baristas have to go through training before they can use an espresso machine and some are even formally certified. A good barista doesn’t just know how to use an espresso machine but also the ins-and-outs of coffee. They have to know how to brew different types of coffee, how to steam different types of milk, and how to create beautiful latte art (click here for our latte art training course).

A skilled barista is also an experienced one. With a lot of practice, they can pull shots for multiple customers at once. Aside from that, they also have to remember different orders and how to make each one just right. In between, they also have to clean the equipment. Making good coffee takes a lot of concentration and focus.

For coffee enthusiasts, there is even a World Barista Championship. Once a year, ambitious baristas from all over the world come to compete to make the best coffee. To win, the baristas must prepare a certain number of coffee drinks in a short amount of time. Needless to say, these competitions are not beginners.

Different Ways to Drink Espresso

All the different names of coffee drinks you see on the cafe menu are different ways to drink espresso. The most common way is to add milk and depending on the amount of milk and foam you put in, there is a different name for it.

These are the nine most common ways to drink espresso and what they all mean:

  • Espresso
  • Ristretto
  • Macchiato
  • Americano
  • Cortado
  • Cappucino (traditional)
  • Cappucino (wet)
  • Latte
  • Mocha


Strong, black coffee with nothing else in it. (1.5oz-2oz)


A more condensed version of an espresso brewed with less water.


A single or double shot of espresso with a couple oz of steamed milk. (3oz-3.5oz)


A double shot of espresso with hot water. (8oz-12oz)


A double shot of espresso with steamed milk and a thin layer of foam that is ½ espresso and ⅓ steamed milk. (4oz-4.5oz)

Cappucino (Traditional)

A single or double shot of espresso that is ⅓ espresso, ⅓ milk, and ⅓ foam. (5oz-6oz)

Cappucino (Standard AKA wet)

A double shot of espresso with steamed milk and foam. (12oz)


A single or double shot of espresso with steamed milk and a thin layer of foam. Similar to a cappuccino. (12oz)


A single or double shot of espresso with steamed milk, a thick layer of foam and chocolate syrup. (12oz)

The Role of Milk In Espresso

Milk is a very important ingredient to make different coffee drinks and steamed milk in particular compliments espressos very well.

A skilled barista knows exactly how much milk to put in a coffee drink and how much it has to be steamed in order to make a rich, foamy, hot coffee.

Since this is the case, baristas not only need knowledge of coffee but milk because there are many different types of milk and they all steam and foam differently.

Latte Art

Learning to make latte art takes time and practice. In order to create special designs on top of your coffee, the barista must know what consistency to steam the milk and how to pour it into the coffee. If the milk has too much foam or if it’s poured too fast or too slow, the milk will sink in or become a blob.

Most espresso machines come with steam wands on the side for this purpose. The wand is attached to a separate boiler from the one that is for steaming coffee. Earlier versions of the espresso machine did not have this and baristas soon discovered they were not so great for steaming milk.

After the milk turns into microfoam, the barista then can pour it on top of the coffee to make latte art. Your barista might make this part look fun and easy but in reality, it takes a lot of practice.

The Perfect Way to Start the Day

Now that you know more about espresso and all the different types of drinks that can be made with it, we hope you’ll appreciate it more.

The next time you order an espresso, don’t just chug it down. Take note of the art on top that someone took the time to make. Smell it and sip it slowly. Savor the softness of the foam and the smoothness of the coffee because someone took the time to brew it just right for you.

Coffee has come a long way since Kaldi and his goat discovered it and the espresso machine played a huge part in this. It introduced a new way of brewing different types of coffee and it shortened the amount of time it takes to make coffee. It completely revolutionized the way people make and enjoy coffee all over the world.

The only question remaining is, have you had your cup today yet?

Christa Thomas


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