Sometimes, browsing in a grocery store or supermarket can be the most confusing way to shop for coffee, particularly if the outlet has a great selection of coffee beans and grounds. While I know that sounds contrary and illogical, the truth of that statement was brought home to me recently, when I was faced with a huge array of beans and ground coffee, and a shopper turned to me and asked: Can you use regular coffee for espresso?
You can use regular coffee for espresso. However, regular coffee contains far more caffeine than espresso beans. Regular beans are usually lighter roasted, providing weaker crema and a less intense body and flavor in the cup. Higher water temps through the puck may improve the result.
Regular coffee beans are often (not always) from the Robusta coffee tree and are often roasted lighter than espresso beans. They are more suited to gravity-based coffee preparation methods like pour-over, French Press, or drip coffee than espresso machines with their pressure-based extraction methods. Let’s delve further into the world of coffee…
What Defines Espresso?
It’s important to know that ‘espresso’ is not a type of coffee bean. It’s not even a drink, even though if you order an espresso in most countries, you will be given a small cup half-filled with a delicious, black, strong liquid. In the US, the word (which is Italian and means ‘quickly’) has been adopted as the new name of the drink. In Italy, you don’t order an espresso – you just say “Un caffé, por favore” – one coffee, please.
So, to help stop your head spinning after that explanation, let’s clarify simply what espresso is: It’s the process whereby hot water is forced under pressure through a puck of ground beans, resulting in a shot of coffee. From there, the barista can go on to make ristrettos, machiatos, cortados, lattes and the rest.
Since regular coffee beans can be ground and can then be placed in the portafilter of an espresso machine and have hot water forced through them at pressure, you can certainly use regular coffee for espresso – but should you?
Should You Use Regular Coffee For Espresso?
If I asked you the question: “Should you use fresh bread to make toast?” most folk would answer that you should, but a great many would argue that not only does bread toast just fine after a few days but that it is far better as it dries out a little! I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this:
There is no clear-cut right or wrong choice when buying coffee for your espresso machine. If you prefer regular coffee through your espresso machine, that’s perfectly fine, and many uninformed palates will not be able to tell the difference.
Most purists, however, would only use regular coffee through their home espresso machines as a last resort and would very probably forgo an espresso-based drink entirely in this case, plumping for a pour-over or French Press instead. Once you have your own espresso machine – and not one of those $100.00 plastic toys, but a real machine – your palate will soon blossom and begin to differentiate between regular and espresso beans.
Comparing Regular and Espresso Coffee Grinds
In the US at least, and for much of the first world, regular coffee is produced primarily for your average consumer who wants a quick cup of Joe before work and then regularly during the day. Drip coffee was the in-thing in offices worldwide, and still is in many cases, but thankfully the advent of coffee shops and mobile vendors has given us a welcome option.
Drip coffee is made by hot water dripping onto ground coffee sitting in a filter above a pot. Once the process is started, it takes around three or four minutes for the initial brew to start dripping into the pot, where it might sit for many minutes, sometimes hours, before being consumed.
The grinds have to be made up of relatively large particles to allow the water to pass through the filter paper, or they would clog and spill hot coffee and sticky grinds all over. This is not true of an espresso machine, where the grinds are generally much finer so that far more flavor can be imparted into the cup and that gorgeous crema can be produced.
The same principle applies to pour-over coffee, which also uses a paper filter, but this time in a funnel placed directly on the cup. In this case, finer grounds are created, and the water flow is controlled by the barista and not by a machine.
An important point to note concerning the size of grounds, particularly relating to espresso, is that not all ground coffee is ideal for your espresso machine, even if the packet is clearly marked ‘Espresso.’ To extract the finest shot of coffee from your unit, you would need to dial in your grinder for that particular machine and on that particular day.
Humidity, ambient temperature, and other factors will impact the final setting, and once the coffee is ground, it’s almost impossible to grind further.
Coffee coming in pre-ground from the store (whether regular or espresso) will work through the machine but stands very little realistic chance of producing a great shot since it will invariably be too rough or too fine for the portafilter. This will result in an under or over-extracted coffee to some degree at least.
In some circumstances, it is possible to get the store to grind to your specifications, but unless you carry your espresso machine with you when you go shopping, it will still be guesswork, albeit informed guesswork.
Should You Buy Ground Coffee Or Whole Beans?
Air will degrade the coffee bean from all sides, but it cannot degrade the bean from the center, and this is key. Once the bean has been ground into hundreds of tiny particles, each particle is attacked from all sides, and your coffee is now fairly galloping towards being stale.
There is much debate and even more anecdotal evidence regarding how long a bean or ground coffee takes to become stale, but there are too many variables for a conclusive result. Suffice it to say that ground beans become stale far quicker than whole beans if both are kept under the same conditions.
Grind your beans at the last possible moment, and if possible, grind only what you plan to use that day. I know scores of aficionados that will only remove the exact number of beans from an airtight container they need for a specific serving, moments before they use it. The truth is, freshness does influence taste. This applies to all forms of coffee, regular or espresso.
On The Tongue, What Is The Difference Between Regular And Espresso Coffee Beans?
When produced via the conventional gravity-fed methods, regular coffee will be flatter and thinner than espresso with no flavor curves at all. It will be thin, with a fairly strong attack but a weak post-swallow taste. This will change when used in an espresso machine, and water is forced through its puck in the portafilter.
When processed through the machine, Espresso beans will produce a creamy, slightly oily drink, rich in flavor curves and bold in both attack – when it strikes the tongue – and post-swallow. The myriad of taste sensations will last for many minutes.
When regular coffee is extracted via the group head in an espresso machine, it becomes far rounder, as the oils join the water in the cup, and the flavor curves increase enormously. Flavors linger on the tongue pre- and post-swallowing, and the entire process is improved but still cannot reach the intensity of espresso beans.
How Can I Improve My Espresso Experience With Regular Coffee?
Suppose you have a good espresso machine that allows you to adjust the water temperature passing through the coffee grounds: In that case, you can improve regular grounds, which are generally a light roast or medium at best.
Increase the temps to around 106F/97C for a lighter roast, which will help penetrate the dense cell structures and reduce that acidic flavor. The oils and sugars will have a better chance of being extracted, and the entire experience will improve.
Your chances of success with any coffee are greatly enhanced if you start with beans rather than the pre-ground powder, and this includes regular coffee. Naturally, this requires a grinder of your own which you can adjust to get the beans dialed-in to your espresso machine.
What Are The Health Aspects Of Regular Vs. Espresso Beans?
For years I drank drip/filter coffee which had been standing on the heating element for a long while, and in fact, I even made a point of leaving it there for as long as possible, sometimes many hours. The result was that the brew was akin to what I imagined licking a dirty ashtray was, but I thought it was ‘cool’ that I was drinking the real stuff – strong coffee.
As you may have deduced, the coffee was burnt and stale long before I wrapped my taste gear around it, and the ‘strength’ I thought I was enjoying was simply a caffeine shot. Interestingly, although very few casual coffee drinkers know this when I ask them, regular coffee contains far more caffeine than its espresso equivalent.
Caffeine – and its inherent dangers – is widely documented, and a quick internet search will give you everything you need to know in that regard, but the fact is we are all consuming an addictive drug each time we drink regular or espresso coffee.
Why do we do it? We love the buzz created by the coffee, and for many people, it keeps them awake and alert during troublesome tasks. Not me, however: I am blessed – or cursed! – to be able to down two cortados in bed and sleep like a baby.
The longer you roast coffee beans, the less caffeine remains, and the dark roasts of espresso contain the least caffeine of all, decaf notwithstanding. Light roasts remove very little caffeine from the bean, and regular coffee is heavy in caffeine, regardless of whether you put the beans through an espresso machine or not.
Ask the average coffee drinker what style of coffee carries the most caffeine, and chances are they’ll reply that it’s espresso coffee because of the huge, explosive taste. The fact is, they can taste that full flavor of the oils and other essences of the bean and call the result ‘strong’. Since it’s strong, it must be high in caffeine, right? Wrong.
Are Regular And Espresso Beans Grown Differently?
They can be, and there is no way to know just by looking at the info on most of the packaging out there. Many of the absolute finest coffee beans are grown at altitude and on slopes facing specific directions depending on where in the world they are. The fruit on these trees is far more difficult and costly to harvest and fetches premium prices at the market.
This premium-grade bean is reserved almost exclusively for espresso roasting with the high-end customer in mind. These are aficionados with their own coffee outlet/s or prosumer machines at the very least. Beans grown on the lower slopes are often on Robusta trees and are far easier and cheaper to harvest but cannot usually fetch the same prices.
Regular coffee is often produced from the beans grown at lower altitudes and is roasted for less time, resulting in a less full-bodied flavor and a high level of caffeine.
If you want to really delve into coffee and its sources, make contact with a micro-roaster in your area, or go big and try in another state or country. Most roasters are very happy to do business via the internet, and if a courier is involved anyway, you can buy in Norway as easily as Portland.
Roasters generally love interacting with customers and will provide a wealth of information on all aspects of the coffee industry, particularly what bean/roast to use in your specific circumstances.
Buy from them in small quantities and then compare the results to the regular store-bought coffee, and you will conclusively know the answer to the question, “Can you use regular coffee for espresso?”
Espresso beans are better than regular beans through an espresso machine, as they carry less caffeine and more flavorful oils into the cup, but regular coffee can be used too – just don’t expect the same result. If you’re looking for flavor through an espresso machine, go with espresso beans, but if it’s the caffeine kick you’re after, use regular beans every time.