Espresso is simply a method of brewing coffee.
Much like drip or french press or other brew methods, espresso-brewed coffee has a few unique characteristics that people love about it. But, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing fundamentally different about the beans used to make it.
This is one of those common questions that paralyzed me when I first got into coffee. The truth is that I was embarrassed to ask because it seemed like everybody else already knew except for me.
If you're finding yourself in similar shoes, this post should help provide some perspective.
Espresso is made using a special machine that forces hot water through a puck of finely ground coffee at high pressure. The process takes 25-30 seconds to produce a single 1 fluid oz "shot."
What makes this different than a drip machine, pour over, or french press? The mechanical pressure applied to the water - about 9 bars.
It simply isn't feasible to generate that much pressure without a special machine. And, practically speaking, it allows espresso coffee to be produced rapidly.
While a pour over coffee might take 3 to 4 minutes to produce, a skilled barista can pull 8 espressos during that same time period. That's why espresso got so popular - the brewing speed made it good for business.
Espresso has a strong, concentrated flavor. It also creates a signature layer of crema on top, which is a frothy layer of microbubbles.
The intense flavor and texture of espresso makes it especially good for mixing coffee-and-milk drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.
Other types of coffee tend to offer less intensity and make it easier to showcase a wider range of origin flavors depending on the brewing method.
Espresso has a higher concentration of caffeine per ounce, compared to "regular" coffee, but because the serving size is much smaller, a shot of espresso usually has slightly less total caffeine than a cup of regular coffee.
To expand on that, filter coffee is served as a 8-12 fluid oz cup. And espresso is served 1-2 oz at a time.
The short truth is that any coffee beans can be used for brewing espresso. And any "espresso beans" can be loaded into whatever brew device you prefer.
With that said, some beans simply taste better when brewed a certain way.
For example, light roast coffees with delicate flavors and aromas almost always do better when prepared as a pour over. I've found that you can lose a lot of the interesting floral notes when brewing via a different method.
What coffees are best for espresso?
The answer to that question is highly personal - I, for one, love fruity espresso! But most people seem to prefer coffees with a big body, low acidity, and chocolate-y tones.
Why go for espresso?
It's hard to match the intensity or texture of espresso, and nothing works better for milk-and-coffee drinks. Yes, you can approximate a latte with an Aeropress or Moka Pot, but it will never be on the same level the real thing.
I do A LOT of coffee pop-ups, and keeping up with a pour over is tough. While this probably doesn't apply to most folks, a commercial espresso machine can't be beat in a high volume environment.
Why stick with regular coffee?
Well, it's certainly more affordable. Easier to learn. And you can make a damn good cup of coffee using any other brew method.
In my opinion, there's a time and place for every brew method. If you're just getting started, know that you don't need an $800 home espresso maker to produce a decent cup of coffee. Save your money and start with a Hario V60 pour over, or an Aeropress.
But, like any hobby, you may eventually want to get into the weeds and spend a bit more money. The truth is that it's fun to experiment with espresso brewing, milk drinks, and latte art.
Is it essential? Probably not for most people. But it sure can be fun.