Coffee Basics and The Truth About Espresso

I’ve had to take a hiatus from writing because I was recently hired as a manager at a local coffee shop, but things have settled down a little bit and I’ve decided to take on my favorite pastime, again. One thing that I’ve realized since I’ve been there is that whatever I thought I knew about coffee was wrong, and I actually knew nothing at all aside from the fact that I lloovvee the bold taste of my favorite piping-hot, locally roasted dark coffee. Little did I know that there’s an entire world full of coffee just waiting to be sampled over and over again by the espresso-stained hands of a greedy, coffee-loving fiend.

Needless to say, there are a lot of people that come into the shop and really don’t know what they’re asking for. I can’t blame them, either. There are so many variations of drinks, and a lot of them only differ by the order in which they are prepared. For instance, pouring hot water over espresso makes an Americano, but reversing it and pouring espresso over hot water makes a long black. The difference is that in the americano when the water falls onto the espresso it destroys the cream that would normally sit on top of the drink. Pouring the espresso into the water preserves the crema therefore slightly changing the drink. It can be a little overwhelming and down right confusing sometimes.

The barista at any good coffee shop should be a great help if you have any questions about the drinks, but being armed with the basic knowledge is enough to get you a great tasting drink that you know you’ll love. A lot of the drinks include espresso, which has a lot of misconceptions associated with it.

Espresso is commonly thought of as a type of roast or a particular flavor of coffee, but it’s more complicated than that. Espresso is actually a type of brew, forcing high-temperature water through finely ground beans. The truth is, you can make espresso out of any beans, but a lot of companies have their signature “espresso” blend that they claim to yield the best results.

With so many different types of coffee, it’s hard to keep up with which has more caffeine. Basically, the medium roasts have more caffeine than the dark roasts. One way to remove caffeine from the bean is to just roast it out. Espresso is a concentrated version of coffee, so it does have more caffeine per unit volume, but the serving size is much smaller. A typical double shot of espresso is only about 3 ounces of liquid, while a small cup of coffee is about 12 ounces of liquid. While drinking 12 ounces off espresso certainly won’t hurt you, I can’t imagine it would be a very comfortable experience unless your caffeine tolerance level is high.

So, enjoy your latte without fear of bouncing off of the walls from having had too much to drink.

Wikipedia has the best comprehensive list of coffee drinks that I can find on short notice, and The Oatmeal has a funny post about coffee.

My favorite coffee drink is a breve. I can’t get enough of the half & half! I also like to experiment with flavors. Raspberry and chocolate breves are AMAZING! Add a little whipped cream with a sprinkle of cocoa powder and a drizzle of raspberry flavor, and you’d be hard pressed to call me away from that drink before I’m done.

Tell me your favorite coffee drinks, iced or hot, in the comments below!

About Dani Johnson

I am 26 years old and I live in a college town with my boyfriend, our 2 dogs and chinchilla, 4 additional room mates and the house cat. Since I share financial responsibilities with my boyfriend I am waiting on him to finish college before I go back (he's almost done!). I will then focus my studies on Science Writing. I want to write particularly about Astrophysics, Cosmology and Planetary Science. Until then, I spend my free time listening to various podcasts about science and skepticism to inspire deeper research on potential writing topics. I also enjoy sewing, drawing, writing fiction, spending time with the boyfriend and pets, amateur astronomy and some girly things like nails, hair and makeup.
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18 Responses to Coffee Basics and The Truth About Espresso

  1. Christian says:

    “Caffè breve (/ka’fe br’eve/) is a milk-based espresso drink using steamed half-and-half (a 50:50 mixture of milk and cream) instead of milk. It is an American variant on the latte.” I did not know that. I know you have lattes as well, although, I’ve never found a good coffee in the USA, I admit that I was mostly with people who took me to Starbucks.

    You can’t buy ‘half and half’ in Australia. You can buy full cream milk, that’s about it.

  2. Siobhan says:

    Yikes, cream in coffee! That is all kinds of wrong 😉

    My fave is the plain old flat white. It’s like a latte with less foam and a bit more on the coffee side than milky. I make it with beans that are roasted by a local business – they do a range of delicious roasting levels. Luckily they do decaf too as I can’t have much caffeine due to a medical problem. I’m sure many baristas hide a shudder of disgust when I order decaf at their cafe!

  3. ask412 says:

    Hey Dani,
    appreciate you highlighting your love of coffee. I live in the Melbourne Australia and it is the unofficial the coffee capital of the ….

    For example, where I live we have seven high end coffee houses that are within 5-10 minutes walk away. Then we have the city centre and other central city suburbs brimming with quality coffee specialists.

    As a couple of coffee lovers we go through 300 grams of high quality coffee per week using either an ‘Aeropress’, ‘Bialetti Stove Top’ and ‘The Little Guy’ espresso machine, naturally grinding fresh 4-6 days old roasted beans at home using a ceramic grinder. Over any month we have coffee from four different countries and growers. Because of this the flavour, intensity and taste vary greatly and then due to seasons also change markedly. The key is using 4-6 day old roasted beans and point of origin coffee. Culminating in the ultimate coffee adventure.

    What is interesting is the caffeine content of a true ‘espresso’ shot is actually much lower than many extraction methods and relatively low by comparison. It is typical to pull 40mg out of the average shot, whereas filter drip coffee [Clover etc.etc.] will be around 92 mg and higher. Cold drip changes again. Becoming quite high depending on the point of origin and the cold drip length of 24 hours or more. Forgotten is the quantity in a standard espresso equates to half a single can of Red Bull at 80 mg per 250ml. And I know which I prefer …

    This should demonstrate there is a common misconception espresso is high in caffeine because the science tells another story.

    It is true the myth of ‘high caffeine content in one cup’ would be real if you filled a ‘standard’ cup with shots of espresso.

    But as you know, one ‘shot of straight of espresso’, can be mixed with water or milk and in some cases cream. So the shots are always diluted or served relatively small as a macchiato, long macchiato and ristretto.

    As Dr Karl Kruszelnicki says with all drugs; “.. it’s all in the dosage. So when it comes to coffee if you drink X amount of cups and it gives you palpitations have one less.”

    The logic is simple and flawless. Each of us a different tolerance for caffeine. We just need to understand our tolerance and put any ‘fear’ of caffeine in perspective…
    The little guy –
    Aeropress –
    Stove Top –
    Best reference for Machina –

  4. Gary Smith says:

    Thank you for your post, Dani. You seem well-spoken, so I hope to see you on in the future. Cheers,


  5. Pierce drinkwell says:

    So what do you call a plain old cup of coffee made with water and topped up with milk? cos I seem to have to explain this mysterious drink when I want one.

  6. Jon Richfield says:

    Gosh Dani,
    I didn’t realise we were going into RELIGION in this forum! Oh dear…
    Look, I’ll (real soon now) prepare a tract on the TRUE, RIGHT ways to prepare coffee (with due ecumenical toleration of course) for those who have seen The Light!
    The underlying principles are fascinating to me, but not so fascinating that when I embark on propounding them, the caffeine can keep my audience awake, so I usually have to talk too fast for them to realise what they are listening to. That make me spill, which does my popularity no favours.
    Cheers until,

  7. Reg says:

    Gee all that finesse. My favourite coffee fiend was the guy who used to rush into the local IGA, rip the top of a jar of Instant Nescafe and stuff as much in his mouth as he could before security intervened. At least half a big jar. I kept looking around for the cameras. All the rest are pussies beside him.

  8. ClamPeople says:

    Hooray! Dani Johnson loves coffee!

    What exactly does this have to do with skepticism?

    Just curious.

    • Christian says:

      *grin* I wondered the same. But, I figured the answer was that skeptics like to be informed and not just to accept things. The article seems to be saying that it can be hard to know what the different types of coffee are ? The other thing I noted is that it started with ‘I’ve not been writing for a while’, so I figured it was a ‘if I write SOMETHING it will prompt me to write more’. Either way, I didn’t mind, but I agree, it was a bit of a curve ball in terms of the topic of the blogs.

      • ClamPeople says:

        Tomorrow on Skeptoid:

        “Five Mind-Blowing Facts you Didn’t Know about Espresso!”

        • Christian says:

          I blog. It’s *hard* to think of something earthshattering every day. Some days are brilliant and some days are just OK ( I mean that as a reader, not about my own writing 🙂 )

    • Alison Edwards says:

      Sometimes on the Skeptoid blog we like to stretch our creative focus a bit from pure critical thinking to a more general informing about in the world around us. Dani herself has done some great information-focused posts on animals of Africa in the past — not debunking myths, but spreading knowledge.

      A one-note blog is so tiresome. Variety is the spice of life. [But not of coffee. There is only ONE TRUE WAY to prepare coffee, and it’s my way.]

  9. Reg says:

    I’d like to comment on the following from Dani; …

    “One thing that I’ve realized since I’ve been there is that whatever I thought I knew about coffee was wrong, and I actually knew nothing at all aside from the fact that I lloovvee the bold taste of my favorite piping-hot, locally roasted dark coffee. Little did I know that there’s an entire world full of coffee just waiting to be sampled over and over again by the espresso-stained hands of a greedy, coffee-loving fiend.”

    No Dani, you knew nothing at all you say. That you loloove something we can accept, but obviously you do not know it’s coffee you’re talking about.There is a whole world out there of this mysterious stuff but you have yet to find out what it is. How will you know when you’ve found it if you do not know what you’re looking for?

    I’d imagine espresso stained hands would be mere bloody stumps although I must express some doubt that such hands could delight in the taste of the what-ever it is you have yet to find.

    Just doing some skeptical press-ups.

  10. Myk Dowling says:

    Ah, espresso. The fast food of hot beverages.

  11. I disagree with a point in your article. Roasting has very little effect on the caffeine content. What happens when you roast beans is that they swell and lose water. Therefore the darker beans will have less caffeine by volume, but more caffeine by weight.

  12. Matte Lover says:

    Since we are already having coffee dogma discussions : Anybody want to go Star Wars on Starbucks?

  13. Atheous says:

    Since you asked, I love plain, black coffee, Italian or French roast. I smoke, so I doubt I can detect subtleties in bean variations. But it is a staple for me. I even took to drinking it on ice in the summer, here in the desert.

    Incidentally, I also took to drinking my beer warm or room temperature this winter. Yum.

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