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Espresso Beans VS Coffee Beans: What’s The Difference?

As you search for a great cup of coffee that’s full of flavor, you might find that drip coffee or pour-over coffee just doesn’t seem strong enough.

That’s why espresso is your preference. Now you want to brew espresso at home, and you’re asking yourself if you can buy normal coffee beans or if you have to buy espresso beans.

Before you buy, let’s discuss the differences between espresso beans vs coffee beans and which type you need.

beans for coffee

Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans: Top Line Summary

Coffee beans 

Is there a difference between coffee and espresso beans?

Essentially, espresso and coffee beans are the same thing. They’re the roasted seeds of the coffee fruit.

Ok. So there’s no difference between espresso beans and coffee beans? 

Not quite. 

The difference is in how dark the beans are roasted. What we sometimes call coffee beans are roasted lighter than beans labeled for espresso.

Two major factors in coffee beans are the species and how they were roasted. I’ll break that down into the details of why they matter.

  • Arabica beans or Robusta – many beans labeled for espresso are a blend of Arabica and Robusta beans, which are two different species. Each species adds distinctive aspects to the blend, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
  • Light Roast – light roasted beans are higher in acidity and lower in body, which makes pulling a balanced espresso shot a bit harder. That’s why light roasts are rarely used for espresso.
  • Medium Roast – a medium roast is balanced in acidity, has a medium body, and is sweeter than light roast beans. Medium roasts often are used for espresso.
  • Dark Roast – dark roast beans are lower in acidity and higher in body, which makes them the easiest to use for espresso.

Espresso Beans

As I mentioned, espresso roasts are often dark roasts. What makes a darker roast? A longer roasting process or higher temperatures (or both).

A dark roast coffee bean has an increased sweetness and reduced acidity, which makes it easier to consistently brew a balanced, sweeter espresso. At times, the dark flavor is what people consider to be the taste of espresso. 

That’s why darker roasts are often called an espresso roast, and why some baristas prefer dark roasts for espresso.

Often, beans used for espresso are a blend of Robusta and Arabica. Arabica often has a more complex flavor and more pleasant aroma, while Robusta beans are less acidic and contribute more body. The two combined create a blend that makes the brewing process easier.

Another difference between espresso beans and typical beans is the grind size. If you decide to buy pre-ground coffee, you need an espresso grind. This kind of grind is finer than for a drip coffee maker.

Why do you need that?

An espresso machine forces pressurized water through the espresso grounds at high pressure. That high pressure means the coffee is extracted in under 30 seconds. It’s also why espresso coffee has so much flavor.

But for the water to pass through the coffee grounds and extract flavor in such a short amount of time, the grind has to be fine. 

If the coffee grounds are too coarse, less extraction takes place in those short seconds and you’ll get a weak, sour brew.  

dark roast espresso

Making Espresso Is An Art

Why is making espresso so difficult? Because it’s a complex art, one that requires a good understanding of the espresso machine and the espresso brewing process, as well as keen attention to the details.

What are some of the key factors to keep an eye on when brewing espresso?

  • Finely ground coffee beans
  • Hot water
  • Adequate pressure
  • Tamping
  • The extraction process

If you under extract your shot, you’ll get a sour espresso. If you over-extract it, you’ll be hit by bitterness. The difference between an espresso shot that’s good and a shot that’s not worth drinking can be a matter of seconds. And both extremes will affect the crema.

Talking about crema, it’s one of the aspects of espresso that people rave about. That bubbly layer on the top of espresso may be prized, but good crema is also a challenge to create.

Espresso Crema: My Strategy 

How do I get espresso crema right? The key is pressure.

When coffee beans are roasted, carbon dioxide gets trapped in them. When you brew those coffee grinds the carbon dioxide gets released.

When you brew coffee under high pressure, as is the case with espresso, the pressure plus the carbon dioxide creates tiny bubbles that look like foam. That’s the crema that many of us love about espresso.

There are a lot of variables that go into creating the perfect crema. To begin with, you need to understand the beans you’re working with. I make sure I know what the variety is and how it was processed.

I grind my beans very fine and I keep an eye on water temperature to make sure it’s correct. The machine’s pressure needs to be high, at 9 bars. And I tamp the grinds well so that the basket has tightly packed grounds, but they’re not so packed the water can’t work its way through them.

When I’m pulling a shot, I keep the pressure as close to those 9 bars as possible. I keep a keen eye on timing, aiming for about 25-30 seconds.

If any of these variables are out of place for the beans you’re using, you could get an under-extracted or over-extracted shot.

  • If you under extract the espresso, you’ll get a weak crema that’s not satisfying
  • An over-extracted espresso that will give you less crema and a bubbly-looking foam

The good part is that you can experiment with all these variables. You can make your grind slightly finer, tamp lighter, adapt the ratio, and adjust the extraction time. Take notes as you experiment, change one variable at a time, and keep practicing.

Remember that with good espresso, more important than looks is taste. Your taste buds are king. 

Even if the crema doesn’t look that fantastic, but my shot tastes out of this world, I’m a satisfied espresso drinker.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use regular coffee for espresso?

If you’re talking about any beans on the shelves of the supermarket coffee aisle, the answer is no. What you have to keep an eye on to buy the right beans is the roast and how the beans are ground.

If the bean is roasted too light, it will be difficult to create a flavorful but not too acidic espresso shot. 

When buying coffee beans for espresso brewing, look for finely ground coffee and medium roast or dark roasted beans. 

With espresso beans, the proper extraction process is easier to calculate and you can expect consistently decent results.

Can you use regular coffee in an espresso machine?

Most supermarket coffee is ground coarser, which is great for filter coffee or drip coffee makers. The difference between espresso and regular coffee beans is that you need a fine grind to make espresso.

What happens if you use regular coffee beans in an espresso machine? The coarser grind will give you a brew that’s weak – which is certainly not what any espresso lover wants. If you buy whole bean coffee, you can use the roast you want and grind it fine.

Is espresso stronger than coffee?

There are two ways to look at that question. Does espresso taste stronger than coffee, or does it have more caffeine?

The answer to both is yes.

Espresso coffee beans create stronger tastes than a pour-over brew or even a French Press. You also get more flavor in espresso than in a regular cup of drip coffee.

Regarding the difference between espresso and coffee in caffeine content is that espresso has more caffeine than drip coffee by volume. 

Just one ounce of espresso coffee has 60 mg of caffeine, whereas brewed coffee might have 15 mg of caffeine in that same one ounce. 

The difference between espresso and drip coffee is that you don’t drink just one ounce of drip coffee, but usually 8 or more ounces. That raises the total caffeine content and gives you more of a punch than a shot of espresso.