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I was reminded of this curiosity just moments ago when I got a craving for coffee and couldn't find any normal coffee beans/grounds (owing to the fact that I don't normally drink coffee at home anymore).

I unwittingly purchased this so-called espresso coffee at a supermarket in the heart of the Italian district here, and most of the writing on it is Italian; I didn't even realize my mistake until after I had used it three or four times to brew normal coffee and saw, in very tiny letters, the words "espresso coffee" written on one of the sides.

So I shelved that coffee until today; even though it seemed fine, I figured I might have been using it inappropriately. After my act of desperation today I decided to look this up. According to Wikipedia:

Espresso is not a specific bean or roast level; it is a coffee brewing method. Any bean or roasting level can be used to produce authentic espresso and different beans have unique flavor profiles lending themselves to different roasting levels and styles.

This is what I had always believed. The answer to What factors lead to rich crema on espresso? does hint at a possible difference, though: It says that darker roasts are better for producing crema. However, the coffee I have does not seem to be particularly dark a roast; it's dark, but I've had "normal" coffee that was darker.

Needless to say, I'm a little confused, and the internet is helping me a whole lot. Maybe it's because the caffeine hasn't kicked in yet.

Is there an appreciable difference between coffee beans or coffee grounds labeled as "espresso coffee" and plain, ordinary coffee? If so, what is it?

Perhaps more importantly, is espresso coffee suitable for use in a normal coffee maker or press?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

It IS the roast that is the difference. The only real difference in the beans is that some beans taste better at a higher roast than others, so they are more appropriate for espresso. Your Italian grocery coffee company may be using the espresso label for marketing purposes, but in general, espresso coffee beans can be the same beans that are used for "regular" coffee, but roasted to a French or Italian roast level, which is darker than City or Full City.

Since the advent of Starbucks, many roasts are much darker than they used to be. Dunkin' Donuts coffee, which is a Full City roast, used to be the norm, but now a French seems to be what you can buy.

I roast my own coffee and take it to just into the second crack which is, generally, a Full City roast...a point where the character of the coffee predominates rather than the flavor of the roast. There is more information about roasts at Sweet Marias where I buy my green beans, and reading through the site will give you way more of a coffee education than you probably ever wanted.

So, yes, you can use the coffee you have to make brewed coffee. It will probably be roastier than you would normally have, unless it is just a marketing ploy, in which case it will taste normal. Consider how long you have had this coffee; if it has been shelved for a while "normal" probably won't be all that great, since freshly roasted coffee is, generally, way better than old coffee. But as long as the oils aren't rancid, it is more likely just going to be bland.

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Interesting. So that would mean that most dark roasts (i.e. darker than Full City) are better for espresso, even if they aren't labeled as such? –  Aaronut Dec 25 '10 at 17:26
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I agree that espresso calls for a dark roast (and therefore a bean that does well roasted very dark) and also a very fine grind, but the word means the high pressure steam preparation method. –  dmckee Dec 25 '10 at 17:27
    
Oh, and FYI, the coffee was tightly wrapped and stored in the freezer, so it still has most of its flavour. –  Aaronut Dec 25 '10 at 17:27
    
Since most pre-ground espresso coffee is very finely ground, you may end up with over extracted coffee when using a drip-style coffee maker. –  Didgeridrew Apr 4 at 20:45
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Espresso is a preparation method in which high pressure, steam is forced through tightly packed, finely ground coffee. As Doug mentions, it works best with very darkly roasted beans, and coffee sold as "espresso" will generally be prepared that way. Likewise espresso works best with a fine grind and pre-ground coffee described as "espresso" will come that way.

You can use the same beans to prepare drip coffee, though you risk getting a somewhat bitter brew. Also the fine grind means that a paper filter will work better than a perforated metal sieve. I recommend adding the water is small increments so you don't leave water sitting on the ground for a long time.

The couple of times I've tried beans prepared for espresso in a french press I've gotten a harsh and bitter cup of joe, so I don't recommend it.

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This sounds about right to me. I never found this one particularly bitter, although I've only tried this one particular "espresso coffee" (by accident) and quite possibly my palate is adapted to the inherent bitterness of the French press after using it for years. –  Aaronut Dec 25 '10 at 17:33
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There are two aspects to making a ground roast coffee for espresso -- the grind and the roast!

As you observed, the roast is dark but not the darkest roast one can find. It's not as dark as what (in the US) is called Italian roast, and certainly less dark than what here we call French roast.

The grind is not a coarse one, but in my experience the "espresso grind" that one sees on various coffee grinders is too fine for the best cup. If there were to be a problem making a normal pot of coffee with "espresso coffee", most likely it would be that the grind is too fine (powdery) for your normal method of brewing. Paper filters would likely eliminate any actual dregs showing up in the bottom of your cup, but methods like the coffee press or brewing through one of the metallic coated reusable filters is apt to produce a certain amount of dregs. When I have my espresso coffee ground (from the roasted beans), I ask the setting be a couple of notches coarser than the "espresso" setting on the machine.

One last observation has to do with the beans. In days gone by it was thought that blending in a robusta variety of coffee produced a better "crema" than pure Arabica beans. I have my doubts about this, as robusta tends to be cheaper and there may have been an element of self-serving marketing in that trend. In any case I'm not enough of a coffee gourmet to judge the "crema" of pure Arabica as being in any way inferior.

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Y right - pure Arabica is better, but the Italians insist on cheapening the mix with robusta. I used to buy my espresso from a French artisan torrefacteur, and what he made was THE BEST, shame he retired. He used Ethiopian mocha instead of robusta types and sold it to the Italians ... –  Charlotte Farley Apr 11 '11 at 21:32
    
@Charlotte Farley: I read Antony Wild's Coffee: A Dark History (2005) a few years ago and enjoyed its sweeping narrative. Some have criticized its fact checking in places, but the discussion of the Italian invention of espresso and 20th century marketing was engaging. –  hardmath Apr 12 '11 at 19:02
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@Charlotte Farley: I roast my own beans for both drip and espresso. For some espresso blends, adding 5% to 10% of </oxymoron> good quality robusta or monsooned malabar <oxymoron/> adds complexity. I do NOT roast those beans to make drip coffee! –  Rick G Dec 18 '12 at 14:27
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Espresso coffee refers to the type of brewing method and the type of grind used. Below is an article that explains the different types of brewing methods and grinds associated for an optimized cup of coffee.

http://www.examiner.com/article/different-types-of-coffee-bean-grinds?cid=db_articles

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