When comparing regular coffee beans with the ones labeled as "espresso," I've never really understood why a bag of "espresso" beans is often more expensive than a bag of regular coffee beans. I love a nice, strong cup of joe, but I also love the kick a shot of espresso adds to any of my Starbucks orders. After sifting through various forums, blog posts, and even websites dedicated to a genuine love of coffee, I've done the hard work for you and have found the true difference between espresso vs coffee beans.

Types of Coffee Roasts

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Amy Cho

First, let's get to the roasts. The basics? Coffee beans are generally broken up into four categories based upon how long the beans are roasted: light, medium, medium-dark, and dark. When coffee beans are roasted for longer periods of time, they become darker in color. The darker the roast, the stronger the flavor. The lighter the roast, the more caffeine per scoop of coffee.

Roasting coffee beans makes them lose some of their weight. When coffee beans are roasted they can lose upwards of 90% of their water content in the form of evaporation. As the water evaporates, the coffee beans' fibers expand, causing the beans to grow in size. Coffee beans that are roasted for longer periods of time are less dense, but are still larger than coffee beans that haven't been roast as long.

Labelling coffee beans as "espresso" generally hints at a darker roast, and thus, a bolder flavor than light and medium roast beans. 

Caffeine Content 

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Abby Reisinger

Coffee beans don't actually lose much caffeine when roasted for longer periods of time. Technically, individual light roast and dark roast beans have the same caffeine content. Personally, I was surprised to learn about this information. I had always associated a “stronger” brew with higher caffeine content. 

Although each individual coffee bean has approximately the same amount of caffeine, when you measure the coffee out in different ways, the amounts of caffeine in different roasts begin to vary because of the coffee beans’ different densities. 

If you measure out one cup of darker roast (e.g. medium, dark,or espresso) coffee beans and one cup of lighter roast (either light or medium roast) coffee beans, the cup of lighter roast coffee beans will have more caffeine than the cup of darker roast. If you recall, lighter roast = smaller beans = more beans that fit into one cup than darker roast.

However, if you take two one-pound scoops (one of a lighter roast and one of a darker roast), the scoop of darker roast coffee beans will have more caffeine, because its beans are less dense and thus more beans are in one pound.

Because of the stark similarity between espresso vs coffee beans of a dark roast, the coveted– and frankly, expensive– title of "espresso" bean thus doesn't equate to a higher level of caffeine

Differences in Preparation

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Jocelyn Hsu

The coffee grinds that you use to make espresso are usually a lot finer than the ones used to make regular drip coffee. This is because of the different brewing techniques used to make espresso vs drip coffee. Drip coffee is made by passing hot water over coffee grinds in a coffee filter. Espresso, however, is made using extremely hot, pressurized water that passes through finely-ground coffee in order to extract the coffee’s caffeine and flavor. 

Because it's made with coffee that's more finely ground than regular drip coffee, more of the coffee’s caffeine is able to be extracted in a shorter amount of time than drip coffee. A standard cup of regular joe (8 oz of drip coffee) contains about 65-120 mg of caffeine, compared to a 1 oz shot of espresso’s 30-50 mg of caffeine. 

Espresso’s comparatively higher amount of caffeine-per-ounce has everything to do with its brewing technique and not much to do with the actual coffee beans used. Technically, you could use a finely ground, dark roast coffee as a fill-in for “espresso” beans and you wouldn’t see much of a difference.

So what's the difference?

Coffee beans labeled as "espresso" beans do not fundamentally contrast from regular coffee beans. Nonetheless, the effects of using espresso vs coffee beans can vary from those of a light or medium roast coffee bean.

In all honesty, the caffeine levels of a darker roast "espresso" bean vs a lighter roast coffee bean are negligible when brewed the same way, so keep doing you!

Feeling inspired? Check out this cool article to learn how to use the espresso machine in your home/dorm/mom's basement. If you're feeling fancy, put your love of coffee to use and bake these chocolate chip espresso cookies. Spread the good news of your newfound knowledge about espresso vs coffee beans by telling a friend. Happy brewing!