Instant coffee vs. espresso, how do they differ? Is one better than the other? How do you like yours?
Regardless of your preference, one thing is certain: the world runs on coffee. 22,000 pounds (or 9.978 metric tons) of coffee were consumed worldwide in 2020 alone. Some people like it caffeinated while others prefer decaf. There are those who will laugh in your face for choosing espresso over instant coffee. Conversely, there are those who religiously believe that a perfect day starts with a shot of espresso.
When it comes down to it, a total of 1 billion people must have their cup of coffee every single day in one form or the other. The Finnish do it slightly more than the rest of the world, but we are a coffee-drinking civilization nonetheless.
And if this Euromonitor research is anything to go by, then close to 50% of the world’s coffee drinkers prefer instant coffee over espresso. The picture is a lot different in Brazil and the U.S. where fresh, whole bean coffee is the order of the day. But how do the two differ? Here’s a lowdown of everything you need to know about the differences between instant coffee and espresso.
Both instant coffee and espresso are coffees. But they’re not exactly the same thing.
What’s instant coffee? To put it simply, it’s a type of coffee that is ground into a powder-like form. That’s why it’s also called coffee powder – because it literally looks like powder made out of coffee. Instant coffee tends to quickly dissolve in hot water or milk. For that reason, it’s at times known as soluble coffee.
Espresso is an Italian word. And as you’ve probably already guessed it, it refers to a coffee brewing technique that originated from Italy. This method involves forcing hot, pressurized water through finely ground coffee beans to brew a shot (or more) of espresso coffee.
One of the biggest differences between instant coffee and espresso is that the latter requires an espresso machine to make. If you’re on the market for one of those, then you’ll probably want to know that you can’t go wrong with a Breville espresso machine. You’ll especially love the fairly-priced Breville BES870XL Barista Express.
How They Are Made
Before they part ways, instant coffee and espresso are planted, harvested and processed pretty much the same way. For starters, coffee actually comes from the seeds of the Coffea tree. Farmers usually harvest those seeds and process them; which basically involves removing coffee fruits from the seeds.
The fruits – or what we typically call beans – are then dried, roasted and prepared for brewing. This is the point where instant coffee and espresso part ways.
Once roasted, instant coffee beans are usually finely ground into a powder-like form. That’s followed by a brewing process that strips them of their water content. The extract that remains is then dried using either spray-drying or freeze-drying.
Whatever the case, this process creates crystalized or powdered coffee. It’s further treated to remove any water molecules and add the distinctive coffee aroma and flavor. After that, it’s packaged and ready to hit the shelves.
The biggest issue with the way instant coffee is manufactured is that it loses some important compounds along the way, particularly caffeine content and aroma. Manufacturers then have to readd more of those compounds to make it look and taste like coffee.
Espresso beans are not processed any further than roasting. The seeds are harvested, beans extracted and then dried and roasted. Thus, if you want to make an espresso, you’ll use your espresso machine to grind the said beans so that they are fine enough. That will increase the pressure when hot water passes through the espresso’s machine. In turn, you’ll end up with an excellent crema.
Oftentimes espresso beans are roasted a little more than instant coffee beans. For that reason, a shot of espresso tastes richer and more concentrated. Don’t know how to brew espresso? Hop down below for a tutorial.
It’s also worth noting that nowadays there’s espresso powder, which looks a lot like instant coffee. And it’s made in the same way that instant coffee is made; i.e., roasted beans are finely ground into a powder-like form and then brewed to strip them of water content. The extract that remains is dried out and then ground again into an extremely fine powder.
Although espresso powder has a stronger, darker flavor than instant coffee, it’s barely used for coffee because it lacks the rich taste of normal espresso. The primary use for espresso powder is baking.
This is one of those areas where instant coffee and espresso differ greatly. They vary in, not just the time, but also the effort required to prepare a cup.
Preparing a cup of instant coffee is a breeze. Simply put one teaspoon of coffee into a cup and add hot water. You’re good to go. If you prefer your coffee white, then you’ll use hot milk instead of hot water. You can easily adjust the strength of your coffee by adding more or less of the powder to your water/milk.
The easy preparation, coupled with the short time it takes to brew a cup, makes instant coffee perfect for when you’re in a rush or on the go.
Brewing an espresso is an art. As such, it requires some skill, time and effort – at least compared to instant coffee. So, how do you brew espresso? Here’s a step-by-step guide.
Start by turning on your espresso maker and pre-heating it. Some models take well over 20 minutes to pre-heat. Therefore, you may want to start in advance.
Put coffee beans in your machine’s grinder and grind them into the portafilter (comes with the machine). More often than not, the machine’s manufacturer will specify the amount of beans to grind (in grams).
Flatten the grounds by tamping them. Press them down until the puck is even.
Now shave away any excess coffee from the top of the portafilter.
Attach the portafilter to the espresso maker and pull the shot. It should take anywhere between 20 and 30 seconds to pull a double shot.
The best thing about espresso is that you can experiment a lot with your brewing. You can play around with the coffee: water ratio, adjust the espresso maker’s pressure, and change water temperature until you get the perfect espresso shot for your taste buds.
Needless to say, it takes more time and more steps than instant coffee. And you’ll have to dispose of the used grounds. But it’s absolutely worth it.
Taste and Flavor
As mentioned already, espresso will always have a better taste than instant coffee. It’s even better once you master the skill of brewing it. And if you have a good espresso maker like the Breville Barista Express, you’ll always look forward to coffee time. Below is how instant coffee and espresso differ in terms of taste and flavor:
Instant coffee tastes almost the same, regardless of the brand. The taste is not bad perse, but it’s bitter and harsh. If you’re used to espresso, then chances are you’ll spit out your first sip of instant coffee.
The thing is, manufacturers of instant coffee often prioritize cost over quality. For that reason, they typically use low-quality Robusta coffee that’s easy to acquire at a low cost. Because of that, the finished product is almost always less than impressive.
Additionally, some of the compounds are usually lost during the production process (like caffeine and the organic coffee aroma). This affects the overall desirability of instant coffee.
Espresso uses fresh, uncompromised coffee beans that generate a sensational aroma. Oftentimes the coffee will taste however you brew it. For example, if you brew it for too long, then it will have a bitter taste. The converse is true – the less the time, the less bitter the taste. In other words, espresso gives you complete control over your coffee’s flavor. As mentioned already, you can adjust things like the pressure of your espresso machine, water temperature and brewing time to get different flavors.
Most (if not all) of us drink coffee for its caffeine. And one big difference between instant coffee and espresso is how much of it (caffeine) you will get.
While the exact amount of caffeine varies from one brand to another, instant coffee generally has about 30 to 90 mg (average of 60 mg) of caffeine in one tablespoon. Of course, you can add more of the powder to increase caffeine content in your cup. But then, it will make your coffee more bitter-tasting. Therefore, that’s a bit of a disadvantage for anyone who can’t do without a high amount of caffeine.
On its part, a cup of espresso has roughly 70 to 140 mg (average of 105 mg) of caffeine depending on how long the shot takes. This is significantly more than what you’ll get from instant coffee, which is a good thing if you’re a high-caffeine person. And if you wish to lower the caffeine content in your espresso, you can simply shorten brewing time to 15-20 seconds. That’s the beauty of espresso, it gives you control – including in your caffeine intake.
Apart from preparing your favorite beverage, what else can you use instant coffee and espresso for? Generally speaking, coffee is an important ingredient when baking, making chocolates or preparing meals like pork ribs. However, not all types of coffee are the same.
You can use instant coffee in your dishes and desserts, particularly a dark roast instant coffee like this one from Nescafe.
Although your products will look just as good as when you use espresso powder, they’ll lack the typically rich, roasted flavor that comes with the latter.
Espresso powder is used almost exclusively for baking and cooking; very rarely for making coffee. It has a rich, intense and bold flavor that enhances the aroma and taste of chocolate, cakes and other pastries. You can add it to some foods too, like pork ribs. In this case you can look at it more like a spice than a beverage.
Health Benefits and Concerns
Coffee, whether instant or espresso, comes with tons of benefits. It’s rich in antioxidants, which are known to reduce the risk of certain diseases (like heart disease and some cancers) and repair the skin after damage.
Additionally, coffee contains vitamins like magnesium, potassium and riboflavin. They are all important in the fight against depression, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease and Parkinson’s disease just to name a few.
To top it all off, the caffeine that you get from coffee enhances brain function and improves mood. That’s why some people seem less sharp but grumpier before they get their morning dose of coffee.
Having said that, which one brings more benefits to the table between instant coffee and espresso? Do they have any negative effects on health?
Due to the way it’s processed, instant coffee tends to have more antioxidants compared to espresso. Combine that with that fact that one cup contains a mere 7 calories and you’ll see that it’s the undoubted winner in the instant coffee vs. espresso debate – at least as far as health is concerned.
The downside is that it also contains more acrylamide than espresso. Acrylamide is a potentially harmful compound that forms when coffee beans are roasted. It not only (potentially) damages the nervous system, but it may also be responsible for some types of cancers.
There’s some good news, though. Although the amount of acrylamide that’s found in instant coffee is twice as much as what’s in espresso, it is still too low to cause serious concerns. Therefore, it should not be a reason why you can’t enjoy a cup of instant coffee.
Espresso does bring all the benefits of coffee to the table (vitamins, antioxidants etc.). However, because of its high caffeine content, it may also disrupt your sleep and cause anxiety, restlessness, tremors, stomach upsets and a faster-than-normal heartbeat. Therefore, if you have low sensitivity to caffeine, you’ll probably want to pass espresso for instant coffee. You can even consider decaf, which has even less caffeine.
Final Word: Which Is Better, Instant Coffee or Espresso?
So, what does all the above mean for you? It’s simple really. If you’re after rich flavors and aromas, then you may want to consider espresso over instant coffee. It’s also a great pick for someone who enjoys a high-caffeine drink.
On the other hand, if you want a super-quick caffeine boost before the morning rush or in the middle of a busy day, then instant coffee makes more sense. Ultimately, your choice boils down to your preference and whether you have the time, energy and resources (espresso maker + beans) to make an espresso.