The Difference Between Filter Coffee and Espresso


If you’re wondering what is the difference between espresso and coffee such as drip filter and cafetiere, this short post should help.

Pulling an Espresso Shot.

I’m writing this because I’ve had a few conversations with people who thought that espresso just related to the size of the cup and / or strength of the coffee, and I do seem to recall that I used to have a similar idea myself before I started really getting into coffee.

Coffee making is about extraction; extracting all the good stuff out of the ground coffee beans, and there are various ways to do it.

In a nutshell, what makes espresso different from other coffee making techniques, is that the coffee is extracted under pressure. So the press in espresso, relates to pressure. The pressure required to make “true espresso” is 9 bars, 130.5 PSI. The combination of the correct brew temperature, the right grind size and the pressure created by the espresso machine, results in the amazing characteristic espresso. There’s no taste quite like it!

By the way, it’s Espresso, not “Expresso”. Expresso is a mispronunciation that is made so often that it’s generally accepted as an alternative spelling now, but it comes from the idea that the name Espresso comes from it being a fast process, and it doesn’t, the word espresso comes from the fact that the water is pressed through the coffee under pressure.

The water is heated to usually 90°C to 96°C (195°F to 205°F), and this water is pushed through (at the pressure just mentioned) a “puck” of ground coffee beans which have been “tamped” (pushed down) into the portafilter (the filter holder, the round thing with a handle that you see Baristas putting into the espresso and then banging to get the used grounds out).

The coffee is ground much more finely for espresso than for cafetiere and drip. The grind is crucial with espresso, if you just get it slightly too coarse the water passes through to quickly and it under extracts, if you grind too fine the water won’t pass quickly enough and it will over extract.

The result of a properly extracted espresso is a short shot of rich, concentrated coffee with “crema” which is looks a bit like the head on a pint of Guinness.

You can drink espresso neat, or you can dilute it with water or milk. To dilute it by pouring hot water into it, makes what’s known as “Americano”, to pour the espresso into a cup of hot water makes “Long Black”, which is very similar to Americano but the taste is slightly different as the espresso is added to the water rather than the other way around. You can make Latte, Cappuccino, Machiatto, Latte Machiatto and so on by adding heated and textured milk to the espresso.

If you make a coffee with a pourover drip filter such as a V60, or with a cafetiere, to most people it will taste similar to an espresso based drink that has been diluted with water such as an Americano, but it doesn’t taste the same. There are some coffee connoisseurs with very well developed coffee pallets, who will be able to taste all the subtle differences in each cup, my coffee pallet isn’t well developed, yet I can tell the difference between an espresso based coffee and a filter or cafetiere coffee. I know this as I’ve experimented by drinking both at the same time ;-).

The only way to get “true” espresso, technically, is to use an espresso machine which can create the desired pressure, however the are a couple of lower cost options which make what is usually classed as “espresso style” coffee, which is the stove top / moka pot, and the Aeropress.  These options are great if you want espresso style coffee and you don’t have an espresso machine, they’re not quite espresso but still enjoyable.

Filter coffee is made by putting ground coffee beans into a filter and then pouring hot water on the top, resulting in a clean refreshing coffee I find, in comparison to espresso and cafetiere. My favourite filter is the V60, Chemex is also very popular, as is Kalita wave.

Cafetiere / french press work by extracting in a pot using much more coarsely ground beans than with espresso and filter, and then plunging to separate the coffee grounds from the extracted coffee. I find that cafetiere coffee is denser in terms of mouth feel, and tends to have a darker taste than filter. The coffee oils that are filtered out with the paper filters used with drip filter, are present in cafetiere which is what gives it the heavier mouthfeel, which I enjoy I have to say, when I’m in the mood for it. Sometimes I just crave cafetiere coffee, especially if the weather isn’t good, I’m not sure why that is…

Aeropress is a relatively new brew process, which works similar to a cafetiere in that the grounds are mixed in a chamber of hot water and that there is plunging involved. The beans are ground much finer for Aeropress than with cafetiere, close to espresso grind, and the water temperature is cooler at around 80C. Some extraction occurs when the water is introduced to the grounds and it’s stirred, but then there is some pressured extraction also when plunged, although it’s nowhere near the pressure used with espresso. A paper filter is used with Aeropress as with drip filter (although you can also get metal reusable filters), and I personally find that Aeropress is somewhere between cafetiere and drip. I find that it’s lighter than cafetiere, but not as light as filter. The great thing about Aeropress too though is that you can make super concentrated espresso style coffee, it’s not quite espresso but it’s still great, and can be used for making coffee drinks such as cappuccino and latte for which you’d usually use espresso as the core ingredient. For more info see my Aeropress review.

So now you know the difference between espresso and other types of coffee, and the next time you hear someone pronouncing espresso as “expresso” you can correct them, and give them the technical info behind your correction :-).

Life is like a box of chocolates, so follow me on twitter, and that’s all I have to say about that.

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