The difference between espresso and coffee... and how to choose an espresso machine.

Head of crema on espressoA shot of espresso with a strong head of crema.

Ask any real coffee lover, “What is espresso?”, and he or she will probably smile.

Espresso is coffee at its most romantic and symbolic.

Compared to regular, drip-brewed coffee, espresso is heavy-bodied, aromatic and slightly bittersweet.

In that sense, it traces its history back to the Middle East in the early fifteenth century. In those days, and in many parts of the world today, coffee is drunk not in large mugs, but in small and deep and dark.

So what is espresso, exactly?

Technically, espresso is coffee that is made by pushing hot water through tightly packed coffee grounds at high pressure.

With a drip brewer, coffee is brewed with water that falls through loosely piled coffee, as a result of gravity.

But with an espresso machine, the heat of the water and pressure applied have a very specific and different action on the coffee grinds. The chemical process that takes place is different from what can be achieved with gravity fed water.

In other words, to make espresso, you have to use an espresso machine. Regular coffee brewers can’t apply that kind of pressure to the water.

Different kinds of espresso machines...

Breville espresso machineA semi-automatic espresso machine from Breville, including a milk frothing wand.

The first patents for espresso machines were granted in Europe in the early eighteen hundreds. But it wasn’t until nineteen forty eight that Achille Gagglia of Italy created the first, modern espresso machine.

Until fairly recently, the pressure required to make espresso was achieved by the operator pushing down on a handle, which leveraged a piston to push the water.

You can still buy manual espresso machines, but you can also buy automatic machines.

Automatic espresso coffee machines heat the water to the exact right temperature, compress the coffee grinds under the correct pressure, and then apply the right pressure to the hot water and push it through the grinds.

Bialetti stovetop espresso makerYou can also make espresso with a Bialetti stovetop espresso maker.

What is espresso? It depends on who you ask.

Technically, it isn’t hard to describe what it takes to make espresso. But when you start asking espresso aficionados about espresso, you’ll get a lot of different responses.

Some will tell you that an automatic espresso machine can never make espresso as well as a manual machine.

Others will bemoan the fact that very few people actually drink straight shots of espresso. Most people drink lattes, cappuccinos and a host of other variations, by adding steamed milk and various flavorings to a single or double espresso shot.

No matter what, espresso is the manner of making coffee that carries with it all the mystery, romance and history of coffee through the ages. 

More information about espresso and espresso machines.

More about espresso machines.

Our video demo of the Breville Duo-Temp Pro.

Our review of the Nespresso Inissia.

Cafe Liegeois Nespresso-compatible capsules.

Rosso Caffe Nespresso-compatible capsules.

Gourmesso Nespresso-compatible capsules.

Making stovetop espresso with a Bialetti.

Making espresso-based drinks like cappuccino, latte etc.

cup of espressoA single shot of espresso

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About the author: Nick Usborne, aka Coffee Detective, is a writer and long-time coffee enthusiast. Read more…