Espresso, photo from Death to the Stock Photos

The differences between American coffee, espresso, and Italian caffè

Caffè is an essential part of Italian life. A shot of this intense brew is a daily ritual: in the morning with a cappuccino at the bar (Italian word for coffee shop), amaro or macchiato mid-morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon, and after a big dinner. Additional shots in between are optional.

The differences between coffee and espresso are obvious—right? …Or are they? I kept telling people that a shot of espresso has less caffeine in it per ounce because the water is pushed through the grounds much quicker, but it turns out I was wrong.

I decided to look into the details, and discovered a couple of other fun coffee facts. For your caffè education, let’s take a look.

Coffee ≠ Espresso ≠ Caffè

1) First, “caffè” in Italy means both an espresso at the bar and one made by the stovetop moka at home, but they are different.

2) Second, caffè and espresso do have more caffeine than American coffee—but by ounce, and not by serving (unless you drink eight shots of espresso at once, or conversely, just one shot of coffee…and no one does either of those things. I hope).

3) But, third, I was right about one thing: coffee, caffè, and espresso are all good for you.

Espresso & Caffè

Let’s get a few things straight. It’s ess-press-oh, not ex-presso-oh. And “espresso” it’s not a roasting method, though you can find “espresso beans” sold everywhere. It’s a method of preparation: hot water is pushed through finely ground beans at 9 bars of atmospheric pressure (which means 9 times the amount of Earth’s regular atmospheric pressure) in a matter of seconds to produce about an ounce of strong, dark coffee with a crema.

“Another unique feature of espresso is the crema, the remarkably stable, creamy foam that develops from the brew and covers its surface. It’s the product of carbon dioxide gas still trapped in the ground coffee, and the mixture of dissolved and suspended carbohydrates, proteins, phenolic materials, and large pigment aggregates, all of which bond in one way or another to each other and hold the bubble walls together.” Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

A moka is a stovetop home “espresso” machine. It, too, pushes water through finely ground coffee beans, but it operates at 1.5 bars and a higher temperature (230° F), so technically it’s not an espresso, but caffè.

This is a moka (Jing, Creative Commons). It is also, apparently, a great pet name according to Flickr (JcMaco, Creative Commons).
This is a moka (Jing, Creative Commons). It is also, apparently, a great pet name according to Flickr (JcMaco, Creative Commons).

Coffee

American-style drip coffee is a type of brewed coffee. Hot water drips through coarser grounds to extract flavor and caffeine, making a much milder drink that takes minutes instead of seconds to create. As someone told me, it’s “caffè-flavored tea,” neither one nor the other, and so not fit to drink (obviously, an Italian told me this). I came back from Italy once and was a snob about coffee and didn’t drink it, but since then I’ve learned to appreciate its in-between status. It’s perfect if you want something stronger than tea and to wrap your hands around a big, warm mug.

If you order a “caffè americano” in an Italian bar, be warned that they make an espresso and then add hot water to it. It’s not the same thing as drip coffee.

Caffeine

Coffee, caffè, and espresso all have their merits.

You might be inclined to think that an espresso has a lot more caffeine than coffee because its bitterness and intense flavor make you wake up! Caffeine is bitter, so this makes sense. And, in fact, ounce per ounce, espresso and caffè have more caffeine than coffee.

Caffeine is extracted through high temperatures, the amount of surface area of the grounds, and for how long the grounds are exposed to hot water. Espresso wins two points: the water is hotter and the grounds are finer. Coffee wins a point for its method of preparation, because water drips through the grounds in a matter of minutes, not seconds.

But all in all, espresso has about 40 milligrams of caffeine per ounce, which is about one serving. Coffee has about 16 mg of caffeine per ounce, or, in an 8-oz cup (and let’s be honest, that is being modest because you probably get the 12-oz cup) 133 mg per serving.

Oh, and this image that I once saw in a National Geographic article has stuck with me forever. It’s extracted caffeine (warning: only look if you are trying to lessen your caffeine intake, because this is what you’re consuming), removed from the beans to make decaf. Gross.

“Caffeine” by T. R. Reid, photographs by Bob Sacha, from "National Geographic" magazine, January 2005
“Caffeine” by T. R. Reid, photographs by Bob Sacha, from “National Geographic” magazine, January 2005. Seriously, what is this stuff? Spongy, rocky? what does pure caffeine taste like?

Is it good for you?

With that appetizing picture fresh in our minds, is caffeine good for us? I turned to Harold and asked him.

“Coffee is now recognized as the major source of antioxidant compounds in the American diet (medium roasts have the highest antioxidant activity).” – Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

It’s a little more complicated than that, though, because numerous studies have findings that prove it might not be that great for you. I tend to side with the findings that say it is. And, of course, it depends on how it makes you feel. Can you drink five caffè in a day without feeling bad or going through withdrawal the next day if you don’t have any at all? If so, then caffeine is right for you! If just sniffing it gives you the jitters, then your body probably can’t handle it. In that case, if you still need a kick in the morning, you’d be better off with a single serving of espresso instead of a mug of coffee, or even tea (which is much lower in caffeine, yet still has the benefits of antioxidants).

My scientific study on the health benefits of caffeine doesn’t exactly follow the empirical method, but if Harold McGee and The Washington Post report that it’s good for you, then I’m on board. To be clear, I was never off.


Cover photo from Death to the Stock Photo

 

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26 thoughts on “The differences between American coffee, espresso, and Italian caffè

  1. Thanks for this informative post on the different methods of delivering caffeine to your body. 😉 We used to have a moka a few years back that we received from a Canadian friend of ours who owned espresso stores and roasted his own beans. We passed it along when we got an espresso machine. I kind of wish that we had hung onto it, maybe it’s time to invest in another one. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. A real espresso machine sounds like it’d meet the needs of a strong, flavorful shot, but there is definitely something aesthetically pleasing about a shiny moka on the stove.

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to run this investigation for us 🙂 I’m Italian but not an espresso lover, I do prefer an American-Italian-style coffee, that is what you explained: I make a coffee with my moka and then add hot water. I love holding the mug and savour my coffee for looong minutes of pleasure. The espresso-moment finishes too fast, not fair!

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    1. Exactly! Nothing quite like holding that warm mug at the breakfast table.

      I often make a three-cup moka for myself in the morning and it lasts longer. Who am I kidding–I always make a 3-up moka for myself!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post to enjoy my morning cup of caffè latte over! So many things I didn’t know, including these units of measurement called bars of atmospheric pressure. Glad to hear coffee (in small amounts obviously!) is good for you too. Personally, my favourite coffee comes from my treasured one-cup Bialetti moka but occasionally, I’m quite partial to a cup of plunger coffee too!

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    1. Glad you liked it 🙂 It got more technical than I wanted it to, but then I thought–why not? It took me forever to find reliable information on all this and put it together; so I figured it could be useful to someone else too. And inspire you to drink more caffé!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There are hundreds ways to make a coffee, I like all of them. My grandma used to do the coffee early in the morning for the whole family, putting several tablespoons of coffee powder in a pot and then bringing it to boil – three times. Carefully, she then poured the coffee in a bottle, leaving the residues on the bottom of the pot. So there was coffee for the whole family, for the whole day (she used to have dry bread soaked in caffellatte for dinner, sometimes). Somewhere I happened to read this is very similar to the way the cowboys used to get their coffee…

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    1. A very interesting way to make coffee, sans filter. As much as I love a good quick moka caffé, there is something so nice and calming about having a pot of coffee available all day long.

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  5. I love the ritual of cappuccino in the morning (standing up) and macchiato later on. One of the most vivid memories of my last trip to Tuscany was stopping at a newsstand store in a small village to replace the gasket of the stovetop moka machine and seeing the hundreds of gaskets in every imaginable size. The store owner had arranged them on a coat hanger and it looked like a giant rubber necklace. No problem getting exactly the right one.

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    1. You’re right, it’s easy to find exactly the one you’re looking for. I’ve mailed some to people in the US who couldn’t find the right size even online. No problem for any old store, supermarket, or hardware store over here.

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  6. I cant leave without coffee, I must have coffee beans inside of me ith all the coffee I drink 😛 😛 I am planning to get a new coffee machine and I found this one called Orca https://www.orca.coffee/ Does anyone know it? I almost decided for this one but I am lookinf for second opinions. Thanks 🙂

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    1. I haven’t made the switch over from my stovetop moka to a coffee pod machine yet. But the Orca machine is intriguing (actually looks like a really good deal)…let me know if you get it & what you think of it!

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