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.
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.
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.
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