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What Is Espresso, Really? (And Should I Be Drinking It?)

In the past year, I’ve become quite the coffee drinker. Up until recently, I never cared for the taste nor did I feel it gave me any “extra energy” or that I absolutely needed it to start my morning like any cheesy Etsy mug you’ve gifted to your mom might proclaim. I started on road trips last summer sipping regular black coffee from McDonald’s or Starbucks. Might it just have been for the aesthetic at first? Well yeah, but then I grew accustomed to the bitterness and started to enjoy the routine. When I realized that people actually put milk in their coffee, that became quite the welcome addition. If I’m being really honest though, I would obviously prefer Starbucks’ Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew. Especially during the summer, it was a form of “self-care,” if you will, for me to take a few minute break and go grab a cold brew. 

On the first day of school this year, I was feeling especially tired. It was a really hard first day of senior year with only two classes on Monday, clearly. However, I could really feel myself falling asleep running errands, not even being able to keep my eyes open, so I decided to try out a shot of espresso in my typical cold brew. I will say the flavor 100% overtakes the drink, which was a surprise, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that it perked me up immediately. 

When I told a few friends I put an extra shot of espresso in my cold brew, they were extremely surprised. I quickly learned that cold brew itself had quite a bit of caffeine in it already, but after learning that, it was clear the normal amount in cold brew wasn’t having an effect on me until I put that extra shot in. Before I get too attached, I figured it might serve me (and whatever it is in my body that reacts to caffeine) well to learn about what I’m paying an extra 90 cents for at Starbucks.


What is espresso?

So what is espresso, really? What’s caffeine? Honestly, what even is coffee? 

Think of it like this: all espresso is coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. Espresso is a concentrated form of coffee, made from regular coffee beans but brewed differently for a stronger and thicker form. Espresso “shots” are made from shooting hot, pressurized water through the bean, resulting in a smaller serving size. In comparison, coffee takes longer to brew, as the water takes longer to filter through the beans. 

Again, espresso beans are also coffee beans, but they are roasted longer. Eldorado Coffee explains it this way: “Espresso is roasted for a longer time, usually past the second crack, so it has a toasted and deeper flavor. The beans are also roasted for longer, so it removes a lot of the acidity while releasing more oiliness. This creates a heavier, fuller feeling in the mouth.” The grind is typically finer too, since hot water has to be filtered through at such a high and quick pressure.

“Espresso is a miracle of chemistry in a cup”

Andrea Illy

What are other popular drinks with espresso?

After I had an extra shot in my cold brew and it, I’ll say it, ruined the original flavor, I figured I shouldn’t waste the money or calories on a “fancier” drink and find a different drink with espresso. Here are some popular drinks with espresso in them: 

  • An Americano is diluted espresso, so it’s strong in caffeine but does not have as bold a taste.
  • A cappuccino is a shot or two of espresso with milk and then steamed milk foam. 
  • Lattes, like cappuccinos, are also made with milk. The ratio is a bit different, though, typically one-third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk.

You may have also heard of flat whites, macchiatos, cortados, mochas, and more. Check out this complete list of espresso drinks from Coffee Stylish.


How much is too much?

Okay, so back to my original concern. How many shots of espresso can I have? Should I be having any at all? After doing some research, it’s clear that since espresso is traditionally served in one ounce shots, there is actually less caffeine in an espresso shot than most regular coffee serving sizes.

According to The Spruce Eats, “espresso contains 29 to 100 milligrams of caffeine in a single shot, often hovering around 75 milligrams… For comparison, a cup of drip coffee can contain 80 to 200 mg of caffeine depending on the variety and brew.”

So let’s do some math together, shall we?

That means that one grande black coffee with a shot of espresso from ‘Bucks has almost 400 milligrams of caffeine. Alright, not bad. 


Before you think you can get away with a 400 milligram intake, or even be on the higher end of the average, be aware that the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders publication put out by the American Psychiatric Association) has actually “recognized four caffeine-related diagnoses: Caffeine Intoxication, Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder, Caffeine-Induced Sleep Disorder, and Caffeine-Related Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS).” 

More recognizable symptoms of too much caffeine include anxiety, insomnia, digestive issues, and several more (thank you, Heathline).

My Thoughts?

That was a lot. Honestly, I got way more into this while writing than I anticipated. Turns out there is way more to espresso than meets the…sip? Will I stop ordering espresso now that I’ve become *slightly* addicted to the extra energy? Probably not, but I think I’ll stick to the tall size at Starbucks, and maybe venture more into lattes and cappuccinos to dilute the taste just a little bit. 

If you see me at Starbucks on 30th and Arapahoe (or Broadway and Baseline… or The Hill…) testing out every drink, no you didn’t.

Maeve is in her last year as a Leeds School of Business student and as a Her Campus writer (sad). When she's not singing Disney show tunes while her roommates aren't home, she can be found thinking about the cold brew she had with breakfast, humming the Hamilton soundtrack, and thinking about Captain America.
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