Coffee’s not just coffee any more. Specialty shops have completely changed the way we view and taste our cup of Joe. We’ve discovered a myriad of methods for preparing it, and people are waking up to the tiny intricacies that affect the overall flavor of our drink.
But what really is the difference between the two coffee giants of espresso and filter? From taste to preparation and chemistry, get ready to find out.
Baristas, the bartenders of specialty coffee, brew filter coffee.
Espresso is the Italian answer to your immediate caffeine needs. The word conveys one of the most important things you need to know about this drink – it’s express. That’s right, it’s quick to make and quick to consume, just like the caffeine buzz it gives you.
So what else sets it apart? Well, brewed with high-temperature (almost boiling!), pressurized water running through finely ground coffee beans, it’s denser and more concentrated than filter coffee.
Does this sound too intense? Fret not, an espresso isn’t just meant to be consumed from a little demitasse cup. It’s also your base for all those different drinks like Americanos, cappuccinos, flat whites, lattes…
And if you’re asking what the difference is between all these, it’s simply the amount of steamed milk or hot water you want for your perfectly balanced cuppa.
A latte, complete with latte art.
The espresso not only comes out thicker and more concentrated than filter. It also has layers:
This is the golden-brown top layer of a shot, made up of proteins, oils, and melanoidins (which is created by the combination of sugar and amino acids). Not all coffee can produce crema, and it’s also a divisive topic: some people find it too bitter, while others consider it the sign of a good shot.
This is the main portion of the espresso shot, and brings acidity and sweetness. It can be also be considered as two different parts: the body and the heart. The body is the middle portion of the espresso, and is normally caramel-brown in color. As for the heart, the base of the espresso, it’s typically a richer, darker shade of brown.
Shot of espresso. Credit: Mike Flores
Espresso and filter are, in theory, the same concept. The basics are the same: pour hot water over coffee grounds, the water passes through the grounds and a filter of some form, and falls into a vessel.
But the key difference between filter and espresso is that, instead of being pushed through with pressure, the water runs through the coffee grounds solely because of gravity. For this reason, the brewing process takes slightly longer for a different, but still heavenly, result.
Oh, and because of all this, it also need more coffee grounds and more water. There are no 30 ml filter coffees – or at least, not ones you’d enjoy drinking.
A barista monitors a pour over stand. Credit: “Takeaway” via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0
Filter coffee – which you’ll also hear called pour over and drip – tends to draw less acidity, and accentuates more intricate flavors of the coffee. This makes it a popular brewing choice for single origin coffees, since it allows the drinker to appreciate all the flavors and aromas.
And unlike espresso, with its density and layers, good filter coffee is clean, clear, and consistent. This is because more water is allowed to absorb coffee oils and fragrances in its own consistent time and pressure, instead of by force. In addition to lower acidity, this also gives it a milder mouthfeel, at least when compared to espresso.
Chemex filter coffee. Credit: Ana Valencia
The brewing and steeping time of a filter coffee is what brings out its complexities – it is a cup to wait for. The process begins by wetting the grounds and waiting for the coffee to “bloom” for at least 30 seconds. This allows the release of carbon dioxide and facilitates better water flow during the process itself. The remainder of the process (post-bloom) is approximately 1½ to 2 minutes.
V60 coffee being brewed.
As for espresso, the Italians stand firm to a shot time of 25 to 30 seconds – no more, no less. If you’re having a milk-based coffee, steaming and pouring that milk takes mere seconds. This places our preparation time (excluding grinding) at approximately a minute (depending on your confidence with multi-tasking). It’s a quicker way to get your hands on that coffee.
Freshly ground coffee in a portafilter, ready to be turned into espresso.
When it comes to tools of the trade, most basic filter coffee equipment is cheaper than investing in a full-blown espresso machine. This makes it a more cost-effective choice if you’re just dabbling in coffee making, or starting out for the first time.
For filter, all you really require is a dripper, filter paper, and a cup (although items like a scale and thermometer will help you to be more accurate). There are a variety of drippers you can choose from – Chemex, Clever Dripper, Kalita Wave, V60… Each one is available in a range of materials, and each one has minor differences, such as the size of the drip holes, the structure of the dripper, etc.
An espresso machine, on the other hand, can set you back anywhere from the hundreds to the thousands, depending on what you require. A home-user machine would cost you less, but it may not be built to function with enough pressure to churn out an espresso at the same quality as a prosumer or commercial machine.
Of course, an espresso machine also takes up more counter space and electricity. Then there are the various tools and variables to consider (naked or spouted portafilters, shower screens, portafilter baskets…). These are endless, and can also cost a hefty sum.
La Marzocco espresso machine.
There’s no simple answer to this question.
Filter coffee is a more precise way to taste the different nuances of a coffee, especially ones that may not shine through as well in an espresso. The process itself is also peaceful and calming.
However, it definitely isn’t comparable to espresso when placed in the hands of time. An espresso is crafted differently, through a completely different method, and a wonderfully quick way to score your necessary caffeine intake.
Another consideration is how you typically like to take your coffee. Due to the thick, syrupy nature of an espresso, it tends to swirl into milk in a smooth, consistent manner. The creaminess of the steamed milk usually brings out more of the sweetness of espresso, and this can be enjoyed in the form of cappuccinos, flat whites, and lattes.
Filter coffee, by comparison, has a cleaner, smoother, and less acidic taste – meaning it’s commonly drunk black. This allows you to appreciate its subtleties and clarity.
At the end of the day, the best choice boils down to your lifestyle and taste preferences. Remember, though, that each method could produce completely different results with different beans, depending on their origin, roast, and more.
That’s the fabulous thing about coffee, isn’t it? It always has so much to offer.