What are espresso grounds? Are they just the same coffee beans ground to a different size than for other types of brewing?
Coffee grounds suitable for brewing espresso are ground fine while grounds for a paper filter are a medium to medium-fine size. Espresso grounds are not made from different beans than other coffee. Traditionally beans for espresso are roasted dark but nowadays lighter roasts are also common.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the differences, why this is the case and how you can use this knowledge to make better coffee.
Is espresso just finely ground coffee?
Are the grounds you put in an espresso machine just a finer version of the coffee you put in a filter machine? Yes, that is the defining difference between espresso coffee and ‘normal’ coffee. The coffee particle used in an espresso machine is much smaller than used for a paper filter.
For espresso, coffee beans are ground fine (particle size around 0.3 mm). For a pour over or drip coffee maker coffee is ground to a medium-fine to medium size. (0.5 – 0.75 mm particle size). The only brew method that uses finer ground coffee than espresso is Turkish coffee (0.1 mm).
Different coffee brew methods require the grounds used to be ground to a different size. The grind size has to do with the ability of the water to extract everything you want from the grounds in the correct amount of time. Different brew methods brew coffee in very different ways that take a different amount of time, use different pressures and different temperatures so they require wildly different grind sizes to make good coffee with that particular method.
Espresso machines push hot water through the coffee grounds under very high pressure. Pulling a shot of espresso only takes about 30 seconds. This means the water has very little time to interact with the coffee grounds to extract all the good stuff. To give the water the best chance of extracting what you want from the coffee grounds, you make the grounds finer. 15 grams of coffee beans ground coarse has much less surface area than that same 15 grams ground fine. The extra surface area means the water has more space to extract the grounds.
Also, finer coffee grounds provide more resistance to the water. If the coffee is too coarse, the water can flow through the coffee bed without touching the grounds much and it doesn’t provide much resistance. The finer grounds provide more resistance and the resulting extra pressure in turn helps to extract the grounds even faster.
Is there a difference between espresso and normal beans?
There is a big difference in how coffee is ground for espresso and for most other brewing method. But is that the only difference?
All coffee beans start out pretty much the same. They are the seed of the coffee cherry that grows on the coffee tree. So despite everyone calling them beans, they’re actually seeds. However, we’ll call them beans because that’s the word everyone uses.
There are different types of coffee trees which produce different types of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta being by far the most common types. How and where the trees grow also have a large impact on the taste. How much shade the trees get, at which altitude they grow, the composition of the soil and farming methods all have their part to play. And even if you would get beans from the same farm, same tree even, and harvested at the same day of the year, just the next season, it would taste different.
Then there is the way the beans are processed after picking which has a significant impact on taste. And after all that, the roasting process has its own impact on the final bean you can buy.
However, none of those things make a bean an espresso bean.
Traditionally espresso is made with dark roasted Arabica beans with a bit of Robusta blended in for better crema. However, nowadays people use pretty much every type of bean and roast to make espresso. The trend has been to use lighter roasted Arabica beans for espresso. That does give a different taste and texture to the espresso.
In the end, there are no coffee laws. (Although Italians take their coffee traditions pretty seriously). It’s all about what you like. If you see coffee/espresso as a bit of a hobby, experimenting with different beans and roasts can be a wonderful journey.
However, most people just want their strong, bitter cup of espresso in the morning. In which case it’s a good idea to go for the more traditional blends and roast types. When you buy a bag of coffee that says “espresso” on it, you’re almost always getting dark roasted, finely ground Arabica. This is likely going to give you the taste you’re looking for.
As always, getting fresh beans and grinding them just before use is going to give you the best results.
How to grind coffee for espresso
Making any type of coffee is better if you use whole, fresh beans. The same goes for espresso. If you’re wondering why your homemade espresso doesn’t taste the same as from your favorite coffee shop, this is one of the reasons. The other reasons are that the coffee shop probably has a better espresso machine and the barista knows how to use that machine.
Home espresso machines often don’t have a lot of control over all the different factors that influence the taste of an espresso. However, using freshly ground beans will still make a big difference.
Grinding coffee for espresso is a bit more complicated than for ‘normal’ filter coffee. Because it has to be ground finer, you need a grinder that does that comfortably and the cheaper ones often don’t do this very well. You’ll also want the grounds to be even more consistent in size than with normal coffee. And finally, tiny adjustments in grind size can make a big impact on the taste. So you need a grinder that can make very fine adjustments.
Grinders that can do this will cost a bit more than your basic entry level grinder. However, espresso machines are not cheap, getting a good grinder to go with it is well worth it.
Recommended Espresso Equipment
Besides an espresso machine, there are a few other tools that can make your espresso better. Here are my favorites:
- Espresso Machine: The Breville Barista Express (Amazon) is the sweet spot in price and quality for most casual home baristas. It comes with a built in grinder and most tools you need to brew espresso.
- Tamper: A nice tamper helps you tamp your grounds in the filter for the best result. Any correctly sized tamper can do the job but a nice heavy one just feels so much better in your hand than a plastic model. This Luxhaus one (Amazon) has a nice trick up it’s sleeve to make tamping very consistent.
- Beans: Good espresso starts with good beans. Using fresh beans is a big improvement over pre-ground coffee.
- Scales: Getting consistently good espresso means you have to know how much grounds is going into the machine and how much is coming out and how long this takes. A coffee scale is going to make your espresso much more consistent and also makes adjustments a lot easier. The Apexstone coffee scale (Amazon) is cheap and doesn’t look too sleek but is just as accurate as more expensive scales. The TimeMore scales (Amazon) look and feel a lot nicer but cost a bit more.
- Grinder: To make the best of your fresh beans, a good grinder is necessary. Espresso requires a good grinder to get the best results. The Baratza Sette 30 (Amazon) is a good espresso grinder that can also be used for other brewing methods and while not cheap, is good value for money. If you prefer hand grinders, the 1ZPresso JX-PRO is one of the best options (Amazon)
- Distribution tool: After grinding you can get some clumps in the coffee grounds. Those clumps should be broken up so the water can extract all the coffee grounds equally. Distribution tools are very simple things but this one (Amazon) is beautifully made and will look good in your kitchen.