Black coffee drinkers are fairly limited in their selection of coffee house beverages available. Usually, it boils down to 2 options: Americano vs Espresso. They have the same humble beginnings but the outcome is very different. Lifelong drip coffee drinkers may automatically opt for an Americano as it looks the same as what you’re used to. But espresso has its own charm and could be an exciting change to your routine.
The difference between espresso and americano comes down to how intense you like your coffee. Espresso is powerful and rich with big flavors in a little package. Americano is an espresso diluted with water which softens the bitter, acidic edges whilst maintaining the aromatic, full-bodied flavors.
As a barista, I’ve guided many coffee drinkers through this life-changing conundrum. So to help you choose your favorite, I’ll be breaking down all the differences between the two. Let’s get to it:
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It was originally made by machines with big levers so the barista had to literally “press out” the coffee.
Nowadays, there are many different definitions and sizes for espresso around the world. But, it will generally be 25-35ml / around 0.85-1 fl oz – most baristas work in milliliters for accuracy. The most important part that never changes is that it must be made under sufficient pressure.
When it’s made well, an espresso will have 3 parts: the heart, the body, and the crema.
- Body: This is at the bottom of the shot, is deep brown in color, and contains the espresso’s bitter notes.
- Heart: This is the largest part and can be found in the middle of the shot. It is slightly lighter in color and contains some sweeter, fruitier flavors.
- Crema: The crema is a thin, lightish brown layer found at the top of the espresso. This tends to contain the aromatic compounds and oils from the beans.
We’re literally diluting the espresso with water to create a less intense, more mellow tasting coffee. But one that still contains the amazing flavor from the original espresso shot.
The story goes that this practice started during WW2 when American soldiers didn’t like the “espresso” made by the Italian Moka pots. So they added hot water to get it closer to what they were used to back home.
Is it true?
No one knows for sure. But it’s a nice and plausible story which isn’t always the case in coffee lore.
If you’re making an Americano at home, it’s best to stick to the ratio of 1:2 espresso to hot water. But the ratio will vary massively between coffee shops. If you order a 12oz americano, then you’d need 4oz of espresso and 8oz of water which is a fairly insane amount of caffeine. So most coffee shops won’t serve a quadruple shot and will give you an even more water-down coffee instead.
This can still be a very enjoyable drink, just significantly less intense than the classic americano recipe.
Despite being arguably the simplest espresso variation, it’s also possible to make a few tweaks to the americano recipe and have a whole new set of drinks:
Iced Americano: Americano doesn’t need to be hot. By adding iced water (or cold water + ice) to the hot espresso, you can create a delicious cold coffee for the summer. For something even simpler, you can simply add ice to hot espresso. Then, as the ice melts, you’ll have a nicely chilled americano.
Long Black Coffee: This popular coffee variation is commonly found in Australia and New Zealand. In this case, espresso is added to hot water, rather than the other way around. It might not seem like a big difference but it can better preserve the crema and prevent water that’s too hot from burning the coffee.
Red Eye: Whether this is a true variation of an americano is up for debate. But a Red Eye coffee involved adding filter coffee to a shot of espresso, rather than water. So it’s not one for the faint-hearted (literally!) as it gives you quite the caffeine jolt.
An espresso should be rich, full-bodied, and intense. The balance of acidic, sweet, bitter, and aromatic flavors gives a complex and layered taste profile that lingers on the palate.
By watering down the espresso, we still have all these flavor notes in americano. The water simply lowers the intensity. A little bit of water can really help to bring out the aromatics and make it easier to distinguish the individual flavors.
It’s a bit like adding a few drops of water to Scotch whisky.
However, if you add a lot of water, like the large americanos from chain coffee stores, then you’re going to struggle to taste the delicate and more nuanced coffee flavor that was prevalent in the original espresso.
Psst… Want to see how espresso stacks up against another popular black coffee option – French press? Check out this guide below:
Caffeine quantity varies from bean to bean and is also dependent on the roast. But, assuming both drinks have been made with the same coffee beans, then americano will likely have more caffeine than espresso.
But they both have espresso as their base coffee element. So shouldn’t they have the same amount of caffeine?
Most americano recipes call for a double shot (doppio) of espresso. So it will have double the caffeine. This will vary depending on the size of the drink though – some might even have 3 shots of espresso as standard.
If you’re concerned about your caffeine intake then it’s always best to ask the barista how many shots they’ll use before you order. If you make it at home, you’re in the driver’s seat. Or there’s always the option of decaf too.
James Hoffmann (arguably the most famous barista in the world) advises always removing any crema from your Americano.
The crema contains tiny particles of coffee that can continue to be extracted whilst in the cup, adding unpleasant bitter flavors. So a quick skim with a spoon can easily remove the crema and give a more balanced flavor to your Americano.
I’m personally not brave enough to spoon any crema from my americano while at a coffee shop. I also never notice a big difference when I do at home though it’s maybe more obvious if you use particularly low-quality coffee beans. Or maybe I’m just a heathen. So it’s worth giving it a try for yourself.
If you’re looking to experience coffee’s great depth of flavor or some single-origin beans then espresso is ideal.
Or maybe you just like more intense, robust coffee flavors. If so, espresso is absolutely for you.
If you’re a drip coffee drinker or you like a more subtle taste then americano is the better option.
Your americano vs espresso preference might be as simple as wanting to prolong your enjoyment. An espresso being over in 2 sips is quite upsetting and we can’t all cope with the caffeine of having multiple coffee drinks per sitting.
Just try not to order too large an americano. It’ll be too watered down and you’ll lose all the subtle flavors from the beans.
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