If you’ve just started developing an interest in brewing your own coffee at home, you may be wondering what the difference between coffee beans and espresso beans is. In this article, we explain what separates these two similar coffee products.
What We'll Cover
I. What Is a Coffee’s Flavor Profile?
If you check out the label on your preferred brand of coffee beans, you’ll often find them emblazoned with terms more commonly used to describe food. These descriptors are only used to give recommendations, not to describe quality.
You might spot flavor notes like oranges or brown sugar. These are notes the roaster has smelled or tasted in the beans. This flavor profile might also include information about the background of these beans, from the growing region through to whether the beans are blended or of single origin.
When you brew up your coffee, see if you can detect these same notes. You may taste and smell different notes. This is the beauty of coffee: everyone’s experience is different.
Before we dive deeper, let’s discuss how espresso beans first appeared in the commercial coffee scene.
II. How Did Espresso Beans Originate?
When espresso first became popular worldwide, there was not the same level of refinement in the process used at coffee farms as you witness today. Not only did this mean the overall quality of the coffee was poorer, but the difference in quality became even more apparent when these beans were used to make espresso.
The brewing method used for espresso puts the beans under pressure. Introducing pressure intensifies the flavor profile of the beans. Roasters tried using a darker roast, like an Italian roast, so the coffee developed smoky notes of caramelized sugar. While effective, the downside of this is that the more nuanced flavors become hidden. With brewed coffee, by contrast, the flavors produced are less intense. This means that brewed coffee, whether you’re using a standard drip coffee maker or a pour-over set-up, is more forgiving. With brewed coffee, you’ll also find the extraction process is easier to control. This makes the flavor easier to control, too.
Fast forward to 2020, and specialty roasters source such high-grade beans that there’s no longer any need to play around with flavors in this way. Single-origin beans can be trickier to use when you’re making espresso. The delicate flavors means it’s much easier to under-extract or over-extract single-origin beans. Blended beans are your best friend when you’re pulling those sort shots.
III. Arabica vs. Robusta Beans
Of the 100 species of coffee beans, the main division is between Arabica and Robusta. Of coffee producers worldwide, 75% use Arabica beans. They contain less caffeine, which means they are less bitter. Arabica beans are also twice as expensive. Robusta beans work surprisingly well for espresso, though. You’ll find that using these beans enables you to get the rich crema you want.
IV. Coffee Roasts
Coffee beans are typically roasted as follows:
- Light roast: Light roast refers to beans in the initial stages of cracking. For this reason, this roast is also often called the first crack. The beans will appear dry and pale. The coffee will be light bodied with a light aroma. There’s some acidity and bitterness, and you’ll detect fruity, floral notes. Most of the coffee’s original flavors will still be intact after the first crack.
- Medium roast: Medium roast beans will still feel and look dry. Roasting them for longer will coax out more flavors, and you’ll get less acidity, too. The body will be fuller, but the flavor profile will likely be much more condensed. If you’re looking for a trace of bitterness, medium roasts deliver.
- Dark roast: A dark roast, also known as the second crack, results in shiny and oily beans. There will be little acidity.
You can also find roasts in between these such as medium-dark. If you’re looking to make authentic espresso packed with flavor, our recommendation is to use a medium-dark or dark roast.
V. What Are Espresso Beans?
If you see beans marketed as espresso beans, you’ll likely find they are a dark roast, or perhaps a medium-dark. This will still reveal hints of the bean’s flavor, but there is low acidity and a full body ideal for smooth espresso. With darker roasts like this, the coffee’s oils will still be present in abundance and evidenced by the noticeable sheen you see on them. The oils in darker roasts can sometimes clog up your grinder. This is a common issue with super-automatic espresso machines, so be on guard.
If you use beans that are too light or too charred and dark, you’ll struggle to achieve the quality of espresso you’re looking for. In this way, sticking with beans marketed for making espresso removes a lot of the guesswork if you’re not confident navigating roast profiles. Stick with beans labeled espresso and you’ll likely end up with the medium-dark or dark roast that will return the best results.
To round out, then, a look at the differences between making coffee and making espresso.
VI. The Difference Between Coffee and Espresso Beans
Here are some of the important differences you’ll encounter between coffee and espresso.
Espresso beans will be roasted for longer than beans used for drip coffee. They will also be darker.
When you’re making drip coffee, by contrast, light and medium roasts work better. A medium-dark roast can also work effectively in a drip machine.
The lengthier roasting time with espresso beans removes much of the acidity while releasing more oils. The resultant taste of heavier and fuller in the mouth.
When you see beans labelled “espresso beans”, this typically signifies that they will be the medium-dark or dark roast you need for great short shots.
When you’re grinding your beans, you’ll need a much finer grind for espresso than for other brewing methods.
When you’re making espresso, you’ll be forcing the hot water through very tightly-packed coffee grounds. You’ll need to shoot for a texture like sand as the water will come into contact with the grounds only for a brief period. Contrast this with French press coffee where the grounds are fully immersed in the hot water for 5 minutes. This means you need a coarse grind.
Making brewed coffee gives you many options. You could use a French press or the pour-over method if you want to dial in all aspects of the brewing process and you want a hands-on approach. For an easier approach, try a drip coffee machine.
Espresso requires a special machine. You can choose a semi-automatic if you want more involvement and a partially manual approach. A super-automatic espresso maker does everything for you and comes with an onboard grinder. You can also use manual espresso makers.
Assuming you want to make authentic espresso, you should invest in the best machine you can afford, and you should take the time to master this brewing method. Once you have it dialed in, all you’ll need then is to remember what we’ve outlined here today…
The key difference between coffee beans and espresso beans concerns the length of time the beans are roasted. Stick with a medium-dark or a dark roast, and you’re in safe hands when you’re making espresso.
If you dislike the idea of this approach to buying beans, you could do far worse than buying espresso beans. While these will still be the same coffee beans, they will likely be medium-dark or dark roast. If pre-ground, the coffee will be finely ground, too.
Also, remember that grind size. With the proper roast and a nice fine grind, all you need then is some fresh filtered water and your espresso machine to get perfect shot the easy way.