Espresso Vs Cappuccino: Differences Between These Coffees

We all know espresso and cappuccino are coffee drinks, but what's the difference between them? Knowing the key differences between two espresso coffee beverages is the key to getting the right caffeine fix, but it can be confusing. 

In this guide we'll give you the full espresso vs cappuccino breakdown, so you can decide which coffee drink is best for you.

The development of espresso machines in the 20th Century changed the game for coffee. Suddenly, pretty much anyone could pull an espresso shot, and this led to a wide variety of espresso based drinks hitting coffee shop menus. 

Espresso and cappuccinos are two popular coffee drinks, but they are quite different. Here's the key factors which set them apart:

1. Ingredients  

A cappuccino has three key ingredients

  • An espresso shot
  • Steamed milk 
  • Foamed milk

An espresso drink only has one ingredient - an espresso shot.

As you can see, an espresso is a much simpler drink which is made by pouring hot water over finely ground coffee beans to create an espresso coffee. This process leaves a very thin layer of foam on top called crema. 

In contrast, a traditional cappuccino has a lot more going on. It's an espresso based drink, but the mixture of frothed milk and espresso gives it a brown foam. 

Basically, they're both espresso drinks, but a cappuccino is espresso mixed with hot milk.

2. Preparation 

Both coffee recipes have a concentrated shot of espresso as the base of the drink.

An espresso takes less than 30 seconds to prepare made using an espresso machine because it is just a shot of espresso. 

A cappuccino takes longer and is more complicated, as you have to brew the shot of espresso, steam the whole milk, and pour the milk foam slowly on top (an experienced barista may be able to give you some latte art on top).

Both drinks are reliant on espresso machines which direct boiling water through your ground coffee beans and into a cup. An espresso can be served with a small amount of milk or sugar, and a cappuccino typically has chocolate power or sugar on top.

Espresso Vs Cappuccino: Differences Between These Coffees

When it comes to preparation of espresso vs cappuccino, espresso is made much more quickly with a faster extraction process, but cappuccinos offer a different kind of relaxing beverage.  

3. Caffeine Content  

The caffeine content of any coffee drinks comes down to the coffee beans used and the brewing method. 

Espressos are simply black coffee, and you can really taste the bold espresso flavor in the concentrated flavor. In contrast, a cappuccino has less bitterness which is balanced out by the milk content.

Despite the different tastes - espressos and cappuccinos usually both have the same amount of caffeine. This is because they both have a single espresso shot, so regardless of the other ingredients they'll give you the same energy boost. 

Some larger cappuccinos can actually have more caffeine because they're made with a double shot of espresso, but generally those who just want a quick caffeine kick will opt for an espresso. 

4. Milk And Foam Content  

Espressos have no milk or foam as standard because they are literally just black coffee. The aren't typically served with milk, but you can add it if you like. 

Cappuccinos are made with an equal amount of milk foam, espresso and steamed milk (1/3 of each). This is what makes them smoother and sweeter than many other coffee drinks, but it's also why they have a less strong flavor. 

A cappuccino is such a structured drink that you really can't play around with the ratios, but the steamed and frothed milk can be replaced with non fat milk, or you can use vegan alternatives like soy, almond, or oat milk.  

5. Size Per Serving 

The size of these two drinks is the main difference between them.

An espresso is just 1-2oz of concentrated coffee, and it's designed to be enjoyed quickly.

Cappuccinos are generally 6-8oz with the hot milk filling up the cup. Some coffee shops will offer larger cappuccinos, but they won't get smaller than 6oz. Just bear in mind that larger cappuccinos may have more caffeine and calories.  

An espresso is a short coffee drink to consume quickly, vs cappuccino drinks which are make to be enjoyed for longer. 

6. Calories 

The calories in coffee can quickly add up if you aren't careful, but thankfully both espresso and cappuccino coffee drinks have fewer calories than many other drinks. 

An espresso has just 10 calories because it's literally just a concentrated shot of coffee. 

A cappuccino has 150-200 calories because of a cappuccino is made with a lot of milk. This is similar to other milky coffees, like a flat white, but it's noticeably more than the basic espresso. 

If you're a coffee aficionado on a diet then an espresso is the perfect drink for you. 

7. Taste/Variations  

Modern coffee recipes can be altered and tweaked to make the espresso based drinks suit your tastes.

Espressos typically have a bold, robust, and slightly bitter flavor from the coffee beans, though the intensity will depend on the extraction process. 

Popular espresso variations include:

  • Double espresso - this espresso is made with a double instead of a single shot
  • Macchiato - this is an espresso with a fairly dense layer of foam on top to make it easier to drink
  • Ristretto - this is a very similar drink which is typically thicker

The main difference with espresso vs cappuccino is that a cappuccino has a sweeter and smoother taste. This is because of the mixture of espresso and steamed milk.

There are only two variations on a cappuccino, they can be served wet or dry:[1]

  • Wet Cappuccino - this is made with more steamed milk, and less foam, making it more liquid
  • Dry Cappuccino - this is made with more foam and less steamed milk, giving it a velvety texture by less liquid.

Espressos are used as the base for a lot of other beverages, (like a flat white, americano, or latte) so it's definitely the more versatile of the two drinks. 


What Is An Espresso? (Overview + How They Are Made) 

Espresso is one of the purest forms of coffee. The word 'espresso' is Italian and literally means to express or press. An espresso is, therefore, a pressed coffee. 

They’re made by forcing hot water through finely packed ground coffee so that the liquid absorbs the flavor of the coffee. They’re small, usually only 2-3oz, but have an intense and rich flavor that really wakes you up in the morning.  

Espressos have three different parts to them. The bottom is the darkest portion, the middle (or heart) is slightly lighter, and the crema is the light espresso head. The crema is lighter because the oils from the coffee combine with the air. This is important because it gives the espresso a much more robust flavor.  

Typically, espressos are made using an espresso machine which will direct the hot water over the grounds. These days there are a wide variety of espresso machines you can buy which allow you to make the drink at home. They’re quick and easy to make and are often used as the base for other styles of coffee like Americanos and lattes.  

Espressos originated in Italy about 100 years ago as the signature strong Italian coffee of Europe. Many people didn’t enjoy their coffee this strong and intense, and that's one of the main reasons we have such a wide variety of different coffee styles today. Espressos are for coffee purists who enjoy the bitter flavor and need a strong caffeine kick to start the day right.  

hot espresso with beans

What Is A Cappuccino? (Overview + How They Are Made) 

Cappuccino is actually the Italian word for hood, but despite being an Italian drink, it was German speakers in Vienna who first referred to a coffee as a ‘Kapuziner’ or cappuccino.[2] Cappuccinos comprise of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam which layer on top of one another to make a luxuriously smooth beverage.  

To make a cappuccino, you first brew espresso, usually with an espresso machine, and pour it into the cup. Then you layer on the steamed milk, and finally the foamed milk goes on top. Cappuccinos can often be confused with lattes, but it's the ratio of steamed milk and frothed milk that sets them apart. Cappuccinos have an even split of steamed and foam milk, whereas a latte has much more steamed milk. This makes a cappuccino shorter and gives it a rich, velvety top layer.  

Generally, only one shot of espresso is used in a cappuccino, but most coffee shops put two in and have a specific espresso machines which brew two shots at once. Often chocolate powder is dusted on the top, too, to make it even sweeter.   

Like espressos, cappuccinos also originated in Italy in the early 1900s. Like lattes, they came about as coffee machinery developed that allowed a greater variety of coffees to be created. Cappuccinos are great for those who like luxurious drinks and appreciate the smooth velvet texture the milk foam provides. This is a much gentler way to wake up in the morning than an espresso, and it’s typically enjoyed by people in their 20s and 30s.  


Making These Coffees At Home - BaristaHQ Tips 

Both espresso and cappuccino drinks can be made at home without too much difficultly, so you don’t have to rely on professional baristas. Here’s a step-by-step guide: 

Espresso 

When it comes to making espresso vs cappuccino you'll find the espresso is much simpler. The best way to make espresso at home is with a machine. You can make similar coffees, but the only true espresso at home is with an espresso machine.  

Here's a complete guide to making a great espresso at home.

  • 1
    Grind your beans 
    You’ll want to use dark roast beans for this and grind them up finely. You’ll need about 6-8 grams of beans for a single and 15 grams of beans for a double espresso. Make sure you grind them on the finest setting possible.  
  • 2
    Tamp down 
    Distribute the grounds evenly in the filter and on a flat surface, use a tamper to tamp down, so it's one consistent disc of ground coffee.  
  • 3
    Pull the shot 
    Run the machine for a second to clean it out and then lock the filter in place with the coffee grounds. Turn the machine on and let it run hot water through your coffee grounds for 25-30 seconds. Your espresso should start to drip down into your cup.  
  • 4
    Check and drink 
    Check that your espresso is not too light or dark and that there's a fine layer of crema on the top. You can add milk or cream at this point or enjoy it straight up like Italians do. Serve while hot and enjoy!  
coffee machine making espresso

Cappuccino 

A cappuccino has a few more ingredients, so it's a bit more complicated.. You'll need an espresso, so ideally, you'd have access to an espresso machine before you start.  

  • 1
    Steam the milk 
    Take 1 cup of milk and heat it in a saucepan until it's gently bubbling but make sure you don't let it boil. Take the saucepan off the heat and leave it to the side.  
  • 2
    Whip the milk  
    Take an electric mixer and use it on the milk. The milk will gradually begin to thicken until it turns into a light milky froth for the top of your cappuccino. Remember, half the milk should be froth, and half should remain as steamed liquid.  
  • 3
    Make the coffee  
    Make an espresso following the steps detailed above.  
  • 4
    Create the cappuccino  
    Pour the espresso into a mug, slowly pour in the steamed milk, and then layer the milk foam onto the top. Add any sugar, chocolate powder, or flavored syrup that you like and drink at your leisure. Remember that cappuccinos can be made with different types of milk. Typically, cow, oat, and soy are used, but coconut milk can also work well in a cappuccino.  

A full guide to creating a cappuccino at home can be found below.


Frequently Asked Espresso & Cappuccino Questions

Is espresso stronger than cappuccino? 

An espresso will taste stronger than a cappuccino because it has no milk to soften the bitter taste. However, both espressos and cappuccinos have the same amount of caffeine. 

Is cappuccino darker than espresso? 

No, an espresso will be close to black with a lighter crema on top. A cappuccino will be brown because of the mix of espresso with the milk. 

What's a double shot of espresso called? 

A double espresso is called a doppio espresso, but you will typically be able to say double espresso in any café.  

What is espresso with heavy cream called? 

An espresso crème is an espresso with an ounce of heavy cream on top. This gives a richer and less bitter taste to the coffee. 


Conclusion

When it comes to espresso vs cappuccino, it's clear that they're made with very different coffee drinkers in mind. 

The main difference between an espresso and cappuccino is that a cappuccino has milk and foam. This makes it a long velvety smooth drink, which is to be savored and enjoyed. In contrast, an espresso is drunk quickly, and has a rich, intense flavor which wakes you up. 

Hopefully you now know the difference and you can choose the best coffee for you. 

References:

1. https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2016/wet-vs-dry-cappuccino/

2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-34100569