Coffee Break


Sitting in a coffee shop, it's pretty much impossible not to eavesdrop. 

But really, if you weren't supposed to listen to the other tables why are they put so close together? Honestly I don't pay much attention to the other tables' arbitrary spew of facts ("Did you know sea turtles live to be a hundred and fifty years old?") and questions ("Why are we even dating?"), but my ears perked up when I heard the start of a familiar story: "Never drink straight espresso," this guy said to his friend. "Espresso has like 10 times the caffeine of regular coffee. One time during finals I drank two straight shots of espresso, it was like drinking 20 cups of regular coffee." He went on to describe the hellish all-nighter in detail. No sleep, the jitters, inability to sit still, accelerated heart beat, all culminating in a dramatic vomiting episode at 4am. 

the espresso lie

espresso shot-2.jpg

Chances are you have heard stories like this, even if they are not quite that intense. Maybe you have yourself ordered an extra shot to "get a boost". I'm not sure how to break this to you, but per serving espresso actually has less caffeine than drip coffee. About two to three times less. I know. Hard to believe. Let's look at it.

What espresso is and is not

First let's talk about what espresso is and is not. First of all it is not spelled or pronounced expresso. I won't judge you for a lot of things, but this is not one of them. Merriam-Webster shamefully lists expresso as a "variant" spelling but (and this will sound really arrogant) the dictionary is wrong. Double s, no x. Got it? 

Now espresso is determined by the brewing method not the coffee beans themselves. It is a way of preparing coffee, not a type of coffee. So when you see a package that reads "espresso beans" it really means to say "dark roasted coffee beans". Whenever I see recipes for espresso cookies or dark chocolate espresso cake (I'm talking to you, Pinterest) I can't help but roll my eyes. Unless you are brewing the coffee by forcing hot water through a finely ground bed of coffee with nine atmospheres of pressure and then putting it into your baked goods you are in fact making coffee cookies or dark chocolate coffee cake. Nothing wrong with it, it's delicious, just call it what it is. In the same way, "espresso powder" and "instant espresso" are nonsensical terms. This is simply instant coffee with a higher price tag. 

Espresso is made by forcing hot water through a tightly packed bed of ground coffee in a relatively short period of time (about 25-35 seconds). We'll look at espresso more closely in another post, for now let's get back on track.

where caffeine comes from

Caffeine content is determined by a number of factors. The type of coffee being used, the region where the coffee came from, the roasting and brewing method, all these affect how much caffeine will get into the final cup. On average, a normal 8oz cup of drip coffee has around 150mg of caffeine, one shot of espresso will have around 30mg. To put this into perspective, a 12oz (small) latte will probably have two shots of espresso, so around 60mg of caffeine, still half of what an 8oz drip brew will have. Now I'm simplifying the numbers, they vary a lot depending on the type of coffee used, what region it comes from, roasting type, grind type, and so on and so forth, but the principal is the same. You would have to drink 4 shots of espresso (a huge latte) to get close to the caffeine contained in a mere 8oz black coffee.

Now you might be saying hold on, this is not a fair comparison. Drip coffee comes in a big American sized cup and espresso comes in a tiny European sized cup. You're comparing an 8oz cup of coffee to a 1 or 1.5oz cup of espresso, that's not fair at all. You are correct. So wait, espresso per volume can in fact have more caffeine than drip coffee? Yes. But you just told me that drip coffee has more caffeine then espresso! I did. Listen, no one drinks 1.5ozs of drip coffee, and no one drinks 8oz of espresso. If you do, stop it. All espresso based drinks ( latte, macchiato, cortado, americano, etc.) will have much less caffeine than a drip brew coffee of the same size. Confused yet? Let me say it another way. Unless you grossly change the normal serving size, all espresso based drinks have far less caffeine than all drip coffee based drinks, and adding an extra shot to your drink is really just like drinking a few extra sips of drip coffee.

So what about the buzz?

So how do we explain all the people who feel a rush of caffeine after drinking a shot of espresso? I don't know, maybe the same way we can explain why my mother thinks she can get drunk by eating bread pudding or putting red wine in spaghetti sauce. Or (more reasonably) because caffeine starts to take effect in the body pretty quickly drinking a straight shot does give you a boost because you are getting the entire caffeine punch at once and not spaced out over time. Real life example: I once chugged 6 shots of espresso in 10 seconds (I don't recommend this, by the way) and definitely felt my heart racing afterwards. Why? Because around 180mg of caffeine went into my system all at once. The exact same thing will happen if you chug an 8oz of drip coffee in the same time period.

So what's the bottom line here? Chemically, espresso can have more caffeine per volume than drip coffee, however, given normal serving sizes, espresso based drinks will have less caffeine than a drip coffee of equal size. And remember, the most important thing here is that you enjoy your coffee, whatever type it may be, and that you know what's in it. So go ahead and get a straight shot, have no fear! But if you are up until 4am and vomiting after merely two shots of espresso, the coffee is not at fault and please do see a doctor.

Pair with Natalia Lafourcade, Mi Lugar Favorito

¡Buen provecho!