Let’s start with coffee (just like you do every day, right?) Coffee can mean many things, but at its most basic definition, coffee is what we call the final result of the long process from harvesting the fruit of the coffee plant, processing and roasting the beans inside those fruits, and then preparing the ground beans with water to produce a drink. Along the way, you may hear the word “coffee” applied to the coffee plant itself—most commonly Coffea Arabica or Coffea Robusta—or to the coffee beans themselves, or to the powdery substance we get from grinding the beans (ground coffee), or to a cup of brown, delicious, caffeinated liquid. For the purposes of this explainer, we’re going to stick to using “coffee” to mean the cup of liquid at the end of the journey, unless we specify otherwise.
What can coffee be?
Coffee, the drink, as differentiated from espresso or espresso coffee (we’ll get to that, promise) is typically what people call coffee prepared by drip, or filter, method. This can be any version of brewing coffee on the spectrum ranging from a meticulous, timed-and-weighed pour-over made by a skilled barista using a special water kettle with exacting pouring control and arm movements, to your standard Mr. Coffee on the other end of things. Batch-brewed coffee prepared in big commercial brewers like you may see behind the counter at Go Get Em Tiger or G&B? That’s coffee. The product of those classic single-cup Melitta pour-over cones? Coffee. The stuff you get out of the donut truck? Coffee. Whatever it is the flight attendant handed your seatmate that’s smelling up the aisle with a stale aroma? Coffee (we think). The array of tiny bowls with just water and grounds set up by professionals tasters for a “cupping”? Coffee. Cold brew coffee? Coffee. Instant coffee? Hey, that’s also coffee! (And while we’re at it, so is decaf, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) We don’t know much about pod coffee, but we suspect that for the purposes of this discussion, technically, it, too, is also coffee.
How Is Coffee Made?
What we mean when we talk about coffee is the result of brewing in a somewhat simple fashion using time, water, and usually temperature (you still with us?) to extract flavor from ground coffee particles. (For cold brew, the long duration of brewing takes the place of temperature, but in other methods we usually rely on the heat of the water to extract that flavor.) In all of these methods beyond soluble, or instant coffees methods, the grounds are then typically filtered out. The end product is usually a semi-opaque brown drink that you can then consume straight, or with cow’s milk, oat milk, nut milk, sugar, stevia, agave, monk fruit sweetener, butter, CBD oil, goji berry dust, Jell-O Pudding mix, or whatever your personal thing is. We’re not here to judge you. It all started out as coffee.
In our cafes, we love the efficiency and repeatable quality of large-capacity filter brewing machines, because they let us guarantee the very best coffee extraction at high volume for our thirsty customers. But at home, you are more likely to be brewing your “regular coffee” or drip coffee in a variety of methods, many of which only produce a cup or a few cups at a time. This is fine with us – because if you were serving as many people in your home each day as we are in our cafés, we’d become a little insecure about our longevity in the market. After all, your house is really comfy and cool.
In a home coffee setup, you’re likely to see a small array of equipment: coffee grinder (we hope!), coffee brewing device, and maybe a special coffee-brewing kettle (like those with gooseneck spouts which allow precise pouring control) and maybe even a nifty scale. You already know what a coffee grinder does by now—it makes those beautiful beans you ordered from the gget Coffee Club into tiny, even particles small enough to get coffee out of. A water kettle allows you total control of the speed and pattern of your pour, while the scale makes it easier to keep track of measuring exactly the right amount of coffee and water as you brew, so you can do the best job every time.
But wait—what is it you’re brewing into? For brewing regular, non-espresso coffee at home, you need a coffee brewer that’s suited for the home. Luckily there are no shortage of fun, affordable coffee brewing devices you can get that produce great-tasting coffee, even if you’re not an expert, a big nerd, or a barista.
What Are Some Good Ways to Brew Coffee at Home?
Some of the coffee brewers we have seen in people’s houses include, but are not limited to:
- Automatic coffee makers like those by Technivorm or Bonavita
- Pour-over cone methods like the Hario V60, Kalita Wave, or Beehouse Dripper
- French press
- Hybrid steeping pour-over cone methods like the Clever Dripper
- AeroPress—this is a tricky one, because while it claims to be an espresso maker, we think it really excels at making coffee!
- At-home cold brew systems like Toddy
- Woodneck, sock, or “nel pot” brewers
- Siphon coffee brewers
- You can actually totally just brew coffee into a jar or cup with coffee grounds and water, but you might want to work really hard to scoop those grounds out after the process is over.
Using any of these methods and established brew recipes you’ve found online, or parameters you’ve arrived at yourself and feel achieve your preferred result, you can make wonderful coffee in your very own home (or workplace! or possibly at your campsite!) at a reasonable entry-level price, low ongoing costs (only coffee and filters, if your method even needs a filter) and without expert training. You can make it every day if you like. Go nuts.
II. But What Is Espresso?
But what about espresso, indeed? Isn’t it cooler, stronger, and altogether, well, better? Isn’t it something made to be sipped by sophisticated people—standing at a walk-up bar, imagining they’re in a cinematic 1960s Italy (but with the way better tasting coffee we have now), glamorous, hot, and strong? And the beans are different too, right? Yes, and also no.
We love espresso, and we won’t deny the ritualistic allure of it is part of why it’s so very romantic. Espresso coffee conjures up a setting as much as it does a sensory experience—the reason being that most espresso is consumed in cafés—how fun!—and with good reason. Espresso, for all its abbreviated intensity, is a tricky beast. It’s difficult to prepare well, and unlike regular coffee, requires both equipment and skills to bring the very best flavor and consistency out in the cup.
Ultimately, the only definition you need to remember is that espresso is a method of preparing coffee that results in a uniquely concentrated version of the beverage. Espresso is coffee, but it’s espresso coffee only when it’s been specifically brewed through a machine that pressurizes water through the coffee grounds resulting in a viscous, intensified liquid. When we make espresso—whether we’re serving it with milk, as a cortado, cappuccino, or latte, or serving it with hot water as an Americano or like a coffee shot—each drink starts with the same basic building block: the shot of espresso. And the reason this shot is a building block is that, of itself, it’s so complex – so concentrated – it works brilliantly as a canvas for the sensory-opening qualities of a little added water, or the dimension-changing, smooth soothing of a milk or milk substitute. In fact, there are plenty of people who don’t like straight, unadulterated espresso shots at all, or who claim to have only ever had two or three good ones in their entire lives.
But there are lots of people who do drink straight espresso, and for them, the difference between espresso and coffee is perhaps the most pronounced. Where a cup of coffee is suited to a break—it’s a drink you can nurse over a long chat with a friend, a more-than-a-friend, or just the barista if you’re lonely—an espresso shot is really best consumed as part of a pause. It arrives hot and complicated in your demitasse, falls apart quickly over time, and it’s truly best savored in the moment. It’s like some relationships, really.
But we digress. You’ve heard that espresso beans are roasted darker than filter coffee beans should be, and for many roasters that’s true. You’ve also heard that espresso is best when it’s made of a few different types of beans from different countries with different profiles, that create a balance when the intense extraction process of high-pressure hot water through the finely ground coffee forces out those flavor compounds. For some roasters, that’s true, too—but it doesn’t have to be. In truth, you can prepare any coffee beans using an espresso machine, whether a specific espresso roast, a blend, or a single origin. The roaster you buy your beans from will usually have a recommendation on which coffees work well in an espresso preparation—we recommend our Minor Monuments blend—but it would be incorrect to say there are hard and fast rules about what coffee beans you are required to use to get espresso. To get great espresso, though? You might want to listen to what your roaster suggests.
Many will tell you that a truly great espresso requires an attuned barista who can take coffee beans to their fullest potential, using top of the line equipment that is impractical for in-home use (and would set you back into the five figures). And for the most part, we’ve got to say, that’s true. There’s no substitute for the quality of a high-end espresso machine, for a professional-grade grinder dialed in by someone with a well-trained palate, or for the myriad sensory skills of a barista who repeats their dose, tamp, and shot extraction—knowing just how a shot should taste and smell and look—hundreds of times each day. Espresso is a small miracle we all take for granted: before we arrive at our favorite coffee bar each day, the espresso grind will have been determined by an expert barista, tasted by that same expert, prepared on machines that are warmed-up and well-maintained, and with coffee beans that the barista is familiar with inside and out.
While there’s no matching this level of skill and talent at home, it’s definitely possible to make drinks that still taste great on a home barista setup—though even then, entry cost is can be steep, ranging from the hundreds (Breville makes some good machines) into the low thousands (like the home espresso machine from La Marzocco.) For a home barista, an espresso-specific grinder is essential or shots simply won’t extract properly, and a machine that draws enough power to pressurize the machine to make espresso, but also maintain enough pressure to steam milk right after, can be tough to come by.
What’s all this mean to you? Only what it means to you. Espresso and coffee are both coffee, but the way you like to drink your coffee—and where—can help you decide when and where you’re getting today’s cup. From the people who love to brew a whole pot of coffee for their household to the person who only drinks espresso out of the house, to all the people painstakingly preparing shots one at a time on their father-in-law’s home espresso maker and serving every drink 15 minutes apart? They’re all ways of enjoying coffee, and we can’t think of a better decision to have to make each morning then which one we want to pick today.