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Espresso vs Cappuccino:
Short and Intense or Pillowy and Mellow?

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By Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

As two of the most traditionally popular coffee drinks in Italy, you might be left wondering what separates espresso vs cappuccino. For starters, espresso is simply coffee brewed under pressure. But, add pillowy foamed milk to this and you have a cappuccino. Which one is right for you comes down to how you enjoy your coffee:

Those looking for an intense punch of flavor will enjoy drinking espresso. Adding milk to make a cappuccino takes the edge off the acidity and bitterness. It adds a creamy mouthfeel and sweetness that makes for a mellower coffee.

Many Italians will enjoy a cappuccino in the morning and then sip espresso for the rest of the day. But coffee shops around the globe have thrown out the “rule book”. In one of those shops, back in 2006, I first learned to pull espresso, quickly followed by how to foam cappuccino milk. So, read on and I’ll be your guide through the world of espresso and cappuccino:

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Infographic: Cappuccino vs espresso
icon of two espresso shots being made

What *Exactly* is an Espresso?

Espresso literally means “pressed out” in Italian.

This name comes from the method used to make espresso – hot water has to be pressed through finely- ground coffee under a pressure of around 9 bars. It was originally done using lever espresso machines too. So someone physically “pressed out” the coffee with a big lever.

Things have changed a lot since then, including the invention of different styles of espresso machines.

The definition of espresso also changes depending on who you talk to. And forget about getting a “best recipe” or similar as everyone will give you a slightly different answer, tweaked to their favorite beans, machine, or flavor preference.

But it’s usually between 7-14g of finely ground coffee made with water at around 200°F (96°C) at 7-9 bar pressure for between 20-30 seconds. This should produce twice as much coffee by weight as went in. So 7g of ground coffee would produce a 14g espresso shot.

Cup of espresso on a red table
icon of a magic wand above a cup of coffee

What Makes an Espresso into a Cappuccino?

To turn your espresso into a cappuccino, you add foamed milk.

You need to add double the amount of milk as there is espresso. And it should be half textured milk and half dense foam. So, the finished cappuccino should be equal parts espresso, textured milk, and dense microfoam.

In other words, a 1:1:1 ratio of espresso, milk, and foam.

When it comes to cappuccino, there’s no industry standard size. However, it’s usually made with a double espresso, making it a 6oz drink in total. Depending on your coffee shop’s preference, you might also see it dusted with a little chocolate or cinnamon.

If it is made correctly, the foam shouldn’t melt away quickly – jiggling the cup around should reveal a fairly solid layer of foam on top and no coffee spills.

Cappuccino in orange cup/saucer, on a wooden table
icon of a magic wand above a cup of coffee

How Different do they Taste?

Espresso and cappuccino are like night and day when it comes to flavor. One is intense and to the point whilst the other is a more mellow drinking experience.

Espresso Flavor Profile

Espresso is the most intense form of coffee.

It should be a balance of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness.

However, the exact flavors will change depending on where the beans are from, how they’ve been processed, and what roast level they are. As will the ratio of acidity to sweetness to bitterness. But you’ll usually get a punch of dark chocolate, darker fruits, nuts, brown sugar, and a hint of smoke.

Cappuccino Flavor Profile

The addition of milk to the espresso mellows out the more intense flavors. So, the dark chocolate and brown sugar flavors become milk chocolate and caramel. The fruit and nut notes can taste sweeter too.

For those who find espresso just a little too intense, the addition of some milk can sweeten it just enough to make the flavors more approachable.

The dense foam on top also adds a creamy mouthfeel to the coffee which is very enjoyable and helps to mellow out the espresso even more. This is why it’s enjoyed in the morning in Italy. You’re still getting the punch of caffeine but in a more subtle way.

Psst… Want to understand how cappuccino compares to other popular coffees? Check out these guides below:

Flat White vs Cappuccino | Espresso Drinks 101 | Cappuccino vs Cortado

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Espresso vs Cappuccino: The Caffeine Round

The exact amount of caffeine in any given drink is tricky to confirm as a lot of factors will affect how much caffeine ends up in your cup. Factors like the beans being used, the brewing method, and the size.

However, if you’re buying an espresso and a cappuccino from the same coffee shop or making them both yourself with the same machine, then the espresso will never have more caffeine than the cappuccino.

This is because the cappuccino is made up of espresso, usually at least a double. So a single espresso will have less caffeine than a cappuccino.

If in doubt, ask the barista how many shots of espresso are in each size of cappuccino so you know exactly how much coffee you’re getting. If they’re making a monster-sized drink, it may have a monster-sized dose of caffeine in there!

For reference, an average espresso contains between 60-70mg of caffeine.

icon of a man drinking coffee

Should you Order Espresso or Cappuccino?

If you want a short but intense hit of coffee that is more bitter and acidic with only hints of sweetness, then espresso is the one for you.

By drinking coffee in one of it’s purest forms, you can really get to know the nuanced differences between the different growing regions, and processing methods around the world. So it’s a great way to experiment with different beans.

If you’re looking for something more mellow and a little sweeter (but not actually sweet), and with a nice creamy mouthfeel then cappuccino is for you. The milk will soften the intensity of the espresso while style bringing you all the amazing flavors from the beans.

We like to take the Italian approach to the espresso vs cappuccino debate:

Start with a creamy cappuccino and then move on to espresso for the rest of the day.


Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Matt's coffee obsession started in 2006 when working as a Barista. A tendency to turn up to work hungover kickstarted his coffee journey which quickly turned into a love affair. As he moved on to work as a Restaurant Manager and Sommelier, the obsession continued to grow. Now, his passion is helping others to enjoy better coffee at home.

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