Espresso is the foundation of many of today’s coffee drinks. The cappuccino is one of the best known, though that doesn’t stop it from being conflated with several other drink types. If you’re a barista, you can likely relate to a customer asking if they can have a ‘cappuccino macchiato espresso’. In this article, we’ll take a look at the cappuccino vs espresso question we get asked all the time.
What’s the difference between a Cappuccino and an Espresso?
Let’s slice up our coffee drinks into working parts so we can better understand what makes them tick.
How Espresso Came To Be?
It’s hard to imagine a world without the coffee industry. It penetrates every layer of society, from the tired office worker to the busy college student. Even those that circumvent caffeine love the drink for its distinct flavor and soothing feel.
While coffee itself has been around since ancient times, espresso requires a technological boost. Steam and high water pressure are combined with fine coffee grounds to create the concentrated brew you know and love today.
The oldest recordings of espresso go back to the 1800s, with lattes and cappuccinos following close behind. Italy is best known for introducing many of today’s coffee recipes, though France and Spain are no slouches. The rest of the world has only continued to spin, twist, and remix espresso into a thousand varieties.
It is worth noting that the term ‘espresso’ can also refer to the roast level of the coffee bean. Many times while browsing for specialty coffee bags I’ll see some marked specifically for espresso, while others are broader.
Traditional espresso is often on the darker side, done to bring out the more roasted, sharp, and even bitter flavors of the coffee. Personally, I prefer medium and medium-dark. At the end of the day, it’s up to you what constitutes the perfect cup.
That’s not the end of it. Did you know there are different types of espresso?
The Different Types Of Espresso
The word espresso is tossed around like confetti. You’ll see it in a sport’s drink. You’ll see it in a coffee-based recipe.
As stated above, the term espresso doesn’t just refer to the coffee itself, but a particular method of creating coffee with a unique mouthfeel, flavor, and aroma.
You can tell the difference before you even drink it: drip coffee is characteristically thin and dark, while espresso is known for being silky and topped with golden or amber crema.
That said, you can still make espresso without a traditional espresso machine. The Moka pot doesn’t have quite the same layer of crema but is still highly concentrated and flavorful.
The Moka pot is a popular image with Italy for a reason: it was first crafted by Bialetti, an Italian inventor that would soon change the coffee industry permanently.
While several brands have since put their own spin on the Moka pot, the Bialetti brand still leads the charge in both sales and prestige. My own Moka pot takes a few minutes to start bubbling and is incredibly distinctive from my French Press and pourover. While I only use it once or twice a week, it’s an indispensable part of my brewing routine.
Caffeine drinkers and decaf lovers alike, you’ll want to read this next part…
Why Espresso Has Less Caffeine Than Drip?
This may come as a surprise, but the more concentrated espresso doesn’t actually have more caffeine. The more you know!
Caffeine levels are essential if you have a sensitive constitution. Heart problems and anxiety problems are just a few of the reasons why you might have to turn to alternatives to the classic coffee cup.
According to Tasting Table, a shot of espresso clocks in at 100 milligrams of caffeine or so compared to drip coffee’s nearly 130 milligrams. Turns out the more concentrated coffee translates to a heavier flavor!
This is something to consider next time you’re debating ordering a cafe au lait or a latte.
Now, the science behind this is actually related to serving size. If you drank an entire cup of espresso it would outpace drip by a mile, hence why this more concentrated coffee is served in tiny shot glasses.
Moka pot espresso is rather similar, to boot, and should be kept to smaller quantities to go easier on your heart. One time I took for granted just how strong the Moka pot could be and ended up giving myself the jitters. Don’t do what I did.
Espresso forms the base of many beloved coffee drinks, layered with milk, syrup, and foam. The cappuccino is iconic for good reason.
How The Cappuccino Is Made?
Fluffy, creamy, and endlessly artistic. The cappuccino is unmatched for many and, in some countries, outpaces the latte.
The cappuccino is a showstopper from start to finish. Unlike the latte’s blend of milk, espresso, and microfoam, this is a purely microfoam and espresso creation.
It’s fascinating to watch skilled baristas aerate steamed milk into a result much like whipped cream. The latte art — or foam sculptures — that accompany these drinks are downright gallery-worthy. You can wile away hours on Instagram looking at professional and amateur cappuccino creations.
Cappuccinos are usually served on the smaller side, though you can always request a larger one. Popular touch-ups include drizzles of chocolate, caramel, or a dash of cinnamon.
Expect to see a spoon with your order so you can scoop up what can’t be sipped from the cup. I even see people put whipped cream on their cappuccino, though, for me, that defeats the point. There’s such a unique smoothness to microfoam and whipped cream risks drowning that out.
Once you figure out the difference between cappuccino vs espresso, you’re probably wondering which drinks use which.
Coffee Drinks That Use Espresso
Espresso is everywhere…but not always! It’s time to learn some coffee terms.
Starting off: although espresso is not considered a drink in of itself, there are coffee drinks that heavily prioritize it. The cortado is a solid example of this, crafted using an espresso shot with a small splash of microfoam.
The macchiato follows close behind, using even less microfoam to the point you’re practically drinking a shot. Expect to see these two terms conflated even more than cappuccino vs espresso.
Despite their smaller size, you can still request larger versions in some cafes.
The Americano is another coffee drink term you’ll want to know. Combining espresso shots with hot water, it’s basically served as a more flavorful drip coffee. These are sometimes paired with creamer, though I more frequently see people drink it black.
The cappuccino, as you now know, is an espresso-based drink whipped up with creamy microfoam and froth. The latte and flat white both waver on a similar spectrum of espresso, milk, and microfoam.
There are times to want the flavorful espresso and there are times you may prefer the more mild drip coffee. In fact…
Coffee Drinks That Don’t Use Espresso
Now for the opposite. This list is on the smaller side, but it’s no less important.
The beloved cafe au lait is a straightforward drink of drip coffee with a little milk. It’s easy to prepare, tastes wonderful, and is the staple of countless homes.
White coffee, commonly mixed up with the flat white, is a drink that uses either coffee substitutes or milk substitutes. Some even define white coffee as only using very lightly roasted coffee grounds. This is not to say you can’t combine whatever ingredients you please…they’ll just have their own category!
A drink you might hear from time-to-time related to the cappuccino is the ‘babycino’. As per the name, this is designed for children who can’t have caffeine, eschewing espresso in favor of chocolate and milk.
It’s basically a really creamy hot chocolate and is a good choice for just about anyone, caffeine drinkers included! Consider mixing it up by using white chocolate or adding a dash of vanilla. You may just find yourself a new babycino aficionado.
Great Foods To Go With Your Espresso-Based Drink
Let’s wrap up this list with some food pairing ideas for your cappuccino. While I usually prefer the drink solo, I won’t pretend like rows of pastries don’t make my mouth water.
Nearly synonymous with coffee shops, the beignet is a tasty, crispy delight to go with your latte or cappuccino. It comes in a few different forms but is defined as being deep-fried and very tasty.
Some use dough topped off with a little powdered sugar, while others are potato-based and on the saltier side. I haven’t eaten one in a long while, but I’ll never forget the texture. They’re a burst of oily, flaky goodness.
Donuts, bagels, and cinnamon rolls are common during the morning rush. Sandwiches, characteristically, are often chosen in the afternoon.
When I didn’t have quite the sweet tooth for a pastry or the appetite for a full-blown lunch, I’d often choose a biscotti. These treats are hard and crunchy by design, crafted to be dipped in your drink and softened up. They come in plain forms as well as more classic flavors like chocolate and caramel.
The cappuccino vs espresso is a question that crops up quite a lot.
Learning new coffee terminology makes you a little more keen on what you order. Now you know to turn to your home coffeemaker instead of a latte to get your caffeine kick. You can also do the opposite and skip the drip to keep the jitters down.
If you know someone confused about the difference between cappuccino and espresso, send them a link to this article. In the meantime: what’s your favorite espresso-based drink?