A common question that we get from many kopi and coffee lovers is: “What’s the difference between kopi and espresso based coffee?“ Here, we explore the key differences:
Kopi vs Espresso Coffee
- Type of beans
- Brewing process
- Assembly of kopi vs espresso coffee drinks
In the later sections of this article, we also explore some reasons for the difference in flavor and price between kopi and espresso coffee.
What are the Key Differences between Kopi and Espresso?
1) Type of beans
Kopi is traditionally brewed using Robusta beans or a mix of Robusta and Liberica coffee beans while Espresso coffee is usually brewed using Arabica coffee beans.
Robusta coffee has a higher caffeine level, at about 1.8 x to 2 x of that in Arabica coffee.
Robusta coffee beans are usually grown at a lower altitude as compared to Arabica beans, are more resilient against diseases, pests and environmental conditions. As long as they are given enough water, they can survive and produce coffee beans even with just a sliver of sunlight.
Also, robusta coffee are known to have a stronger, harsher taste without much complexity whereas arabica beans are milder, more aromatic with a complex taste profile, depending on their strain, growth environment and how they are processed after harvesting.
Another key difference is the roasting process of kopi vs espresso coffee – kopi is usually roasted for a longer period till dark while espresso coffee beans are usually roasted for a shorter period.
Roasting releases oils that develops the flavor profile as well as its color of the coffee beans that you are used to seeing.
Kopi beans are usually roasted very dark and additives like margarine, sugar and fillers like malt or corn may be added in the process. This process creates a coffee with more chocolate, toasty, bitter notes with a stronger body (often associated with ‘thickness’). It also teases out more caffeine which will end up in your cup of kopi.
Comparatively, espresso coffee beans are roasted lighter. This helps to develop and optimise their flavor profile to deliver a wider range of flavors. Hence, the common reference to the Coffee Flavor Wheel by specialty coffee baristas. Due to the (generally) lighter roast profile of espresso coffee, you get a smoother coffee with interesting flavor notes.
3) Brewing process
Kopi is usually brewed with boiling water and sieved with a cloth coffee sock while espresso is brewed using a high pressure espresso machine.
Due to the differences in their flavor profile and roasting levels, kopi and espresso coffee require drastically different brewing processes.
At our beloved coffee shops, kopi is usually brewed in boiling water (or water off the boil) for anywhere between 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. The kopi concentrate is then strained using a coffee sock which can efficiently extract the kopi without clogging.
Espresso is usually brewed using a espresso machine for 25-30 seconds at about 93-96°C and 9 bars of pressure (although experienced baristas are known to play around with their extraction parameters to suit their espresso beans).
As such, with a kopi concentrate we usually extract everything from the beans which includes the bitter molecules (these usually get extracted last) but with espresso coffee, we tend to extract most of the flavorful molecules and aim to stop the brewing before the bitter molecules are extracted.
4) Assembly of kopi vs espresso coffee drinks
Kopi drinks are usually made by diluting the kopi concentrate with water, condensed milk or evaporated milk while espresso drinks are made by diluting the espresso with water or freshly steamed milk.
The addition of sugar, condensed milk or evaporated milk can help to mask the bitter and sour notes of the kopi concentrate while boosting the body of the final cup of kopi. This results in the satisfying cup of kopi that provides many Singaporeans with the caffeine jolt they need to start their day.
On the other hand, espresso is usually diluted with water or freshly steamed milk, with a nice latte art as the finishing touch. For the uninitiated, the naked espresso can taste sour and acidic on its own. Likewise, the addition of milk or dilution with water helps to mellow the taste and allow coffee lovers to identify a wider range of flavors in their cup.
Which is better for you, kopi or espresso?
If you are looking for a quick caffeine fix, kopi is the way to go as it has more caffeine than espresso. Espresso on the other hand has less caffeine but it will give you a much smoother flavor.
Both are equally bad for folks who suffer from acid reflux or those who experience stomach bloating after coffee. People who are sensitive to caffeine can also experience heart palpitations from both kopi and espresso coffees.
Do note that we are not medical doctors, seek professional help if you experience the above and avoid coffee or caffeinated drinks if you are sensitive to caffeine.
3 key reasons for the difference in flavor and price between kopi and espresso coffee.
1) Cost of coffee beans
Robusta coffee beans are generally cheaper than arabica coffee beans due to the supply chain.
2) Level of expertise required from kopi brewer/barista
Kopi is robust and is usually supplied pre-grounded to kopitiams or local coffee shops. The kopi brewer can produce a fairly good cup of kopi with a standardised protocol. (Although there are kopi brewers who excel at their job and brew “magic kopi cuppas” that keep customers returning. If you know of such kopi brewers, support them!)
Comparatively, espresso brewing calls for a deeper level of knowledge. The head barista will usually have to calibrate the espresso brewing parameters throughout the day. This is especially important if the cafe is using lighter roast of espresso coffees as such coffees tend to oxidise as the day goes by, changing their brewed profile subtly throughout the day.
3) Equipment required
The cost of equipment is significantly different – kopi equipment can cost less than $500 while an espresso machine price starts from $1000.
Kopi vs Espresso Coffee
We’ve discussed the key differences between kopi and espresso coffee above, I hope this helps to give you a better understanding of the differences.
Personally, I don’t think one is better than the other. They play different roles in the coffee culture of Singapore, and it would make the most sense for consumers to support both camps. Also, it would be a pity if we were to lose the knowledge of kopi roasting and brewing in Singapore due to the lack of professional interest.