Did you grab the wrong bag of coffee in the shop and are now wondering if you can use regular coffee in your espresso machine? Here’s what you want to know.
Using regular pre-ground filter coffee in an espresso machine is not going to result in good espresso because it’s too coarse. Getting pre-ground coffee that’s meant for espresso machines or grinding your own coffee will give better results. Espresso beans are generally roasted darker than regular.
Let’s explore the differences between the types of coffee and why regular coffee doesn’t work in an espresso machine below.
Can You Use Regular Coffee Grounds In An Espresso Machine?
In general, regular coffee grounds that are indicated to be for espresso machines can be used with decent results in consumer grade espresso machines with pressurized basket (only one hole in the bottom). However, if you have a high-end machine or one with an open basket, regular pre-ground coffee won’t give the best results.
Grounds for regular filter coffee makers should not be used in an espresso machine. They are usually too coarse and will brew weak, watery espresso. No matter what espresso machine you have, it’s best to either grind your own beans in a high quality grinder or get them freshly ground for your needs at a local cafe or roaster. Freshly ground beans will make much more fragrant coffee that has better body and depth of flavor.
What Are Regular Coffee Grounds?
Coffee comes in many different varieties. In the supermarket you might notice there are some bags that mention espresso while others don’t mention this. If a bag doesn’t mention espresso, it’s generally meant to be used for pour over, drip and French press.
Coffee has to be ground to the correct size for the brewing method. Different brewing methods require the coffee grounds to be differently sized. Espresso machines need a much finer coffee particle than drip or pour over brews. Since bags for espresso machines usually mention they are for espresso machines, other coffee is seen as ‘regular’.
Mind you, we’re talking about pre-ground coffee here. If you buy whole beans, you can grind them to different sizes. Often the regular coffee also has a different roast and can be made from different beans as espresso coffee. More on that below.
Regular pre-ground coffee is meant to be used to make drip, pour over and French press coffee. For that reason, using that kind of coffee in an espresso machine will not give good results. If you have an espresso machine, buy the bags that mention they are for espresso machines to get the best taste.
Are Espresso Beans Different?
So the grind size is important to make an espresso machine function properly. But are the beans themselves actually different?
All coffee beans start out the same. Sure there is an unbelievable variety of coffee beans: Type of beans, where they come from, at which altitude their grown, farming methods, time of harvest and washing methods all have an impact on the final taste. But none of those factors makes something an espresso bean.
After harvesting and washing coffee beans, they’re not ready to use yet. They still have to be roasted. Coffee beans start out green and the roasting process makes them brown. The longer and/or hotter the beans are roasted, the darker the beans become. Just like leaving bread in the oven longer or leaving a steak on the grill.
Espresso beans tend to be roasted darker than ‘regular’ coffee. Traditional Italian espresso uses darkly roasted Arabica beans with some Robusta blended in. This creates the typical bitter, dark, strong taste of espresso. For most people that’s the espresso taste they’re after when brewing espresso.
However, the world of coffee is always developing. Many modern coffee shops will actually use lighter roasts to make espresso. This results in a less bitter and more balanced and sweet espresso. So it’s definitely not a given that all the espresso you taste is dark roasted. However, if you buy a bag of espresso coffee in the supermarket, it very likely is dark.
Espresso beans start out the same way as any other coffee bean. The difference is in how they’re roasted and ground. Espresso beans are roasted darker and ground finer than regular coffee. However, it’s possible to use any type of coffee bean in an espresso machine as long as it’s ground fine.
Why Does An Espresso Machine Need Different Coffee?
I alluded to the fact that espresso machines don’t work all that well with drip filter coffee grounds. Why is that?
Espresso machines push hot water through the bed of coffee grounds under high pressure. A good cup of espresso is brewed in about 30 seconds and ends up with about 28 ml of liquid in the cup. Because the pressure is high, the bed of coffee needs to provide enough resistance to make sure it takes about 30 seconds to get 28 ml. Regular coffee is too coarse which means the water flows through way too quickly.
That means using regular grounds will result in very weak espresso. The lack of pressure means the grounds are extracted slower and because the water flows faster they have less contact time. Both those things mean the grounds are extracted less and therefore results in a weaker cup. It’s also likely that the coffee you get is very sour which is a sign of under extraction.
Also, finer ground coffee has more surface area per gram. That results in more contact area with the water which means the water has less chances to extract what you want from the grounds. This further compounds the problem of resistance and flow.
Some espresso machines have a so called ‘pressurized portafilter’. That basically means the filter basket the coffee grounds go into is restricted. This restriction results in more resistance which means the water hangs out with the coffee grounds longer and the water doesn’t flow too quickly. This gives the water more time to extract the coffee grounds.
However while a pressurized filter will result in better espresso with regular coffee grounds, it’s still nowhere near what you would expect from an espresso in a coffee shop. Using a normal filter basket and coffee that’s the correct size for an espresso machine will give a better taste and texture.
Espresso machines require finely ground coffee because this provides more surface area and more resistance for the water. This has as a result that the extraction is very efficient. Little water and time is needed to extract espresso grounds which gives that intense taste and thick consistency of espresso.
What If You Grind Your Own Coffee Beans?
You have whole beans that don’t say espresso on the bag. Could you use those beans for an espresso machine?
As you can read above, coffee beans are coffee beans. For espresso they’re usually roasted darker than the ones for filter coffee. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to make espresso. If it’s a lighter roast than you usually use for espresso, the taste could be a bit different but many people that don’t like the intense bitterness actually prefer that less bitter taste that’s the result of a lighter roast.
The roast and type of bean (Arabica/Robusta) is what decides the taste of the espresso. However, the grind size is what makes an espresso machine work. So if you’ve got a grinder that can turn your beans into coffee particles of the correct size for an espresso machine, you can use any bean you want.
If you have whole beans, you should have a grinder that can turn those beans into powder. For espresso, the coffee particle size should be fine. Quite a bit finer than for filter coffee. That means you need a grinder that is capable of grinding that fine.
Coffee grinders that can grind for filter coffee and ones that are good for espresso are not quite the same. There are not that many grinders that do both types well and the ones that do are pricey.
If you have a blade grinder, you’re not going to get the best results. Blade grinders have a spinning blades that don’t really grind the beans but break them up. These grinders usually don’t produce very even particles. The differences between particles are too big to make good espresso.
A better option is a burr grinder. This type of grinder produces much more consistent results which is better for all types of coffee. To grind for espresso, you need a high quality grinder. For good espresso, you want the coffee particles to be very consistent. The cheaper grinders just don’t do that. Cheaper grinders often also don’t have the fine adjustability to get the size just right.
If you have whole beans, they can be used to make espresso. The type of bean and roast will change the taste but as long as it’s ground correctly, it can be used in an espresso machine with good results. A good grinder that is capable of grinding finely and consistently is necessary to get good results.
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.