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Espresso Coffee vs Filter Coffee - So Whats the Difference?

A coffee percolator or drip coffee machineI remember a time when good coffee was made on Saturday and Sunday mornings by scooping ground coffee into a filter paper and loading up a Sunbeam filter coffee machine with 6 cups of water and turning it on. The trickle of water through the filter basket and the smell of fresh coffee was the start of long, lazy weekend days. Of course, during the week, we were back to Nescafe because filter coffee took too long to make!

Then I can’t remember when things changed, but gradually the concept of espresso and cappuccino started to catch on and a trip to a restaurant brought with it an end of meal coffee that wasn’t poured out into your cup at the table. Espresso based coffee had arrived in South Africa… well it had been here for a good long while … but not in the mainstream.

These two types of coffee making processes both produce coffee, but they taste very different and so what exactly causes the difference?

It’s not complex at all. Filter coffee is generally a courser grind and as hot water is poured over it, gravity pulls it through the ground coffee to extract the flavours we so appreciate. The water may be of varying temperature but is usually not near boiling and so the process takes a while and the coffee itself is usually less hot by the time it arrives in the cup than with the espresso method. Typically, a percolator is used to make this type of coffee.

The espresso method (which is referred to as producing “espresso-based coffee”) relies on finer ground coffee because it adds an element of pressure to push water through the denser ground coffee, and the water temperature is usually higher than you’d find in a filter coffee machine. So with pressure and heat, you get faster extraction and the extracted liquid itself is denser. Just 30-40ml is enough to flavour a whole cup of coffee.

So what is the difference in taste, and which is better? The last part of the question is purely about your palate and what you like – filter coffee tends to be more rounded with less acidity than an espresso made from the same blend. That said, this is where the art of the roaster gets tested because there are ways to balance blends to avoid excess acidity (although you’ll want some!). So drinking a cup of filter coffee without milk is quite common in northern Europe, whereas most South Africans prefer milk in their espresso-based drinks. In southern Europe, you’ll find espresso being the drink of choice and nothing gives me greater pleasure than ordering “un espresso per favore!” and drinking it at the counter with a light pastry to follow.

Chemex coffee maker glass 8 cupI’ve alluded to how you can make filter coffee in a small electrical filter coffee machine, but you can also find other more manual methods. I like the Chemex brewer which allows you, as the coffee maker, to regulate the temperature, flow rate and volume of the water passing through your ground coffee. So much more satisfying that abdicating the responsibility to a dumb machine that just spits it out according to a set programme! You can also use a French Press or Bodum – fast and simple and what I like is that about that, is that you can make only as much as you need.

As for espresso-based coffee, you can make it on the stove using a Moka Pot which heats up water and uses steam pressure to force water through the grounds. I know someone who will never drink coffee made any other way! Then of course you have the traditional manual espresso coffee machines of the type commonly seem in restaurants and cafes, but which requires a set of skills that can take time to acquire. Here you typically get machines that have 1 to 3 heads, or coffee making points where you can attach a portafilter containing tamped coffee (that is ground coffee that has been compressed to form some resistance to the water and allowing extraction).

Mythos Exel 2.0 coffee machineMy favourite though has to be the automatic coffee machine. Just press a button and the machine grinds the beans, places the ground coffee in a brew unit and compresses it like a tamper would before pushing pressurised hot water through it. Best of all, these bean-to-cup coffee machines also provide milk foaming capabilities and are sometimes called “one-touch cappuccino” machines for that reason.

The purists might laugh at the idea that a machine can rival the skills of a human barista and I’m not disagreeing, but for a coffee made well and in 45 seconds, it gets my vote as I mindlessly hit the button after staggering to the kitchen at 5am trying to find some meaningful reason to head off to work on a cold winter’s morning!

Then there is that little issue of price! A French Press or Bodum, is a few hundred Rand, an electrical filter coffee machine a little more and a good Moka pot could set you back R1000 or more. That’s cheap considering that next up would be a capsule coffee machine at around R2000 and then depending on what you buy, an automatic coffee machine could range from about R5000 to R20000 for home use and an office coffee machine could go to R150 000.

The purists might have opted for a single group manual espresso machine at around R30 000 or gone full tilt at R150 000 for a good 3-group manual espresso machine. Add another R20 000 for a good grinder and you are ready to live your passion! So whether you choose the filter or espresso method of coffee making, there are options for each that will not break the bank, and so make coffee to enjoy the process and the flavour your choice gives you.

La Marzocco - Linea Mini Pro Touch Steam Wand - Black Coffee Machine

At Bean Online, we offer you a range of both coffee beans and pre-ground filter coffee blends, so just order to your preference. Enjoy Mugg & Bean coffee blends in both coffee bean and ground / filter coffee formats. Or what about Loba coffee which was inspired by the land and her people. Finally, why not support worthy charities by buying Barney’s Army Blend coffee and the John Smit Foundation will put the proceeds to good use in helping the less fortunate. Why not just try them all over time!


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