Cold brew vs. espresso: All the differences you should know

Knowing what to order at your local coffee shop can be overwhelming in a world where the coffee industry is constantly innovating. And, if you want to brew your coffee at home, there’s additional pressure to decide what kind of coffee maker to invest in when you aren’t sure what kind of coffee is right for you.


Two of the mainstays in the coffee arena are cold brew and espresso. While cold brew’s popularity exploded in the 2010s, espresso has been a hot choice for a lot longer—and isn’t going anywhere.

What are the main differences between these two popular coffee types, and which one is right for you? Read on for our ultimate guide to cold brew vs espresso, exploring coffee flavor profiles, brewing methods, and more.

What is cold brew?

Cold brew is created by steeping ground coffee in room temperature or cold water for six to 20 hours, creating a concentrate diluted with water and served over ice.

Taste-wise, the dilution process gives cold brew a sweeter, less intense flavor profile than traditional hot coffee. For some, this is a more approachable alternative to regular coffee—cold brew is often described as less acidic and more floral or smooth.

Cold brew’s history

Cold brew has a fascinating history that goes back hundreds of years. Dutch traders introduced cold coffee to Japanese sailors in the 17th century as an alternative to hot brewing methods that required fire, which was a dangerous cooking component on ships.

Today, the cold brew tradition in Japan has evolved. Japanese or Kyoto-style brewed coffee is created by dripping water one drop at a time through glass apertures suspended in a tower shape, taking up to 5 hours to produce one batch of cold coffee.

What is espresso?

Espresso can refer to two different elements in the coffee world: a brewing method, and a specific coffee beverage. The two may seem interchangeable, but there are some major differences.

Espresso as a brewing method

Espresso often refers to a brewing process that creates a very distinct, desirable form of brewed coffee that serves as a base component of many cafe offerings. The process is complex and varies depending on several factors, including:

● Region

● Equipment

● Preference

However, today’s definition of the traditional Italian espresso is as follows:

Hot water pressure is applied to a compact, tamped “cake” of ground, roasted coffee beans for 25-30 seconds by a percolation machine, yielding a small cup of concentrated, foamy coffee.

This type of brewing process is performed by an espresso machine, of which there are many variations. In fact, home espresso machines now make it possible to brew your espresso from the comfort of your kitchen, and they come in compact sizes that don’t take up an entire countertop.

Espresso as a beverage

As you likely already know, espresso doesn’t just refer to the machine and the brewing style—it’s also a beverage in and of itself.

Espresso is one of the core components of cafe drinks like lattes or mochas, but you can also drink it plain. Typically, an espresso is served in “shots” of one to two oz. servings and is thicker than drip coffee. Espresso also has a layer of “crema” on top—an aesthetically pleasing and tasty byproduct of air bubbles mixing with the coffee’s oils.

The rich history of espresso

Like cold brew, espresso has a history that goes back hundreds of years. However, instead of Japan, the beginnings of espresso coffee trace back to Italy. 

In the 19th century, innovations utilizing steam-powered technology took Europe by storm. In 1884, Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy was granted a patent for a brand new steam machine capable of “economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.”

In 1906, Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni of Milan introduced an improved espresso machine at the Milan International Exposition. This machine featured a pressure release valve and a steam wand, and they debuted their stall with a sign reading “Caffe Espresso”—effectively creating the world’s first espresso bar.

How are cold brew and espresso similar?

Cold brew and espresso are both popular forms of coffee and both have distinct, multi-step brewing styles. But what are the other common grounds cold brew and espresso share?

To start, both cold brew and espresso can be the base for more complex specialty coffee drinks. For instance:

● Nitro cold brew is a popular version of cold brew infused with nitrogen bubbles, creating a smooth, velvety texture and a foamy head similar to a beer. Discover more in our guide: What is nitro cold brew?

● Espresso shots serve as a base for popular cafe drinks such as lattes, americanos, and mochas.

Additionally, both cold brew and espresso contain caffeine. But what’s the difference in cold brew vs. espresso caffeine amounts, and in what other ways are the two forms of coffee different?

How do cold brew and espresso differ?

Aside from containing caffeine and being bases for more complex drinks, cold brew, and espresso are different in many ways, from caffeine content to flavor profile and brewing time.

● Caffeine – The most common assumption is that espresso shots pack the strongest caffeine punch of any coffee drink, but this isn’t necessarily the case. One shot of espresso has anywhere from 64 to 75 milligrams of caffeine—less than a cup of drip coffee. For comparison, a regular-sized cold brewed coffee can have anywhere from 200 to 330 milligrams of caffeine. Therefore, espresso technically doesn’t have a higher concentration of caffeine than cold brew—it’s only when you combine 3 or 4 shots to make a drink that the caffeine content becomes more concentrated.

● Taste – We’ve already discussed how cold brew generally has a mellower, sweeter taste than drip coffee. But how does espresso compare to cold brew? Espresso is usually considered a direct opposite of cold brew in terms of taste: richer, stronger, and more intense. This is why a shot of espresso isn’t downed in a single gulp like a shot of alcohol. Rather, coffee lovers know it’s meant to be enjoyed gradually, one sip at a time.

● Preparation time – Cold brew is prepared in large batches, but takes many hours to steep and settle before it can be served. Espresso is the opposite—a shot of espresso only takes 25 to 30 seconds for a barista to make. Additionally, while one batch of cold brew is good for many servings and can be kept fresher longer, espresso is usually prepared one serving at a time and is meant to be enjoyed immediately.

As you can see, both cold brew and espresso have unique strengths and shortcomings. This begs the question: how do you determine which drink is right for you? 

Take a look below as we break down some pros and cons that might help you decide which beverage to try first on the path to your new favorite coffee drink.

How to determine which is right for you?

When deciding between cold brew and espresso, ask yourself what flavors you enjoy and what level of preparation you want to put into making your coffee.

● If you want an intense coffee experience, with powerful and complex flavor profiles, an espresso could be exactly what you need to kickstart your morning or boost your afternoon. 

● If you want something a bit more mellow and refreshing while still offering a considerable amount of caffeine, consider cold brew coffee a top option.

If you fall somewhere in the middle, an espresso-based drink like a latte could be worth a try since the intense espresso flavor is sweetened by the additional steamed milk and optional flavor syrups.

Additionally, prep time is another important consideration if you make your coffee at home. Cold brew has a significant lead time before you can enjoy it, needing to sit overnight or for most of the day before serving. However, a batch of cold brew can last you many servings once prepared. 

Espresso, on the other hand, is easier to prepare on-demand but requires more steps if you’re making anything other than an espresso shot.

Discover next-generation coffee crafting at home with Breville

Whether you want to enjoy a rich espresso, a finely crafted latte, or a crisp and invigorating cold brew, you can create the coffee of your dreams with Breville’s line of high-end coffee-making solutions.

For instance, the Oracle Touch espresso machine combines the passionate experimentation and customization of espresso’s 19th-century origins with modern design and automation. Make every step as simple as possible with automatic grind, dose, and tamp functionalities while still customizing other settings to make each cup of espresso your own.

If cold brew is more your style, the Breville Precision Brewer is for you. Enjoy six unique presets (including cold brew), or customize any parameter you want with the My Brew setting. Adjustable flow rate, precise brewing temperature, and adjustable bloom time put you in control of creating amazing coffee confections of your own design.

Outfit your kitchen with Breville and start brewing with confidence.



1. The New York Times. How Cold Brew Changed the Coffee Business.

2. Medium. The history of cold-brew coffee is fascinating. (An 1840s Algerian fortress is involved.)

3. Encyclopedia of Food and Health. Espresso..

4. USA Today. What is espresso and how is it different from regular coffee.

5. Smithsonian Magazine. The Long History of the Espresso Machine.

6. Johns Hopkins Magazine. A short (or tall) history of the espresso bar.

7. Diabetologia. Coffee and tea consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes.

8. European Journal of Neurology. Does caffeine intake protect from Alzheimer’s disease?

9. CNET. Coffee vs. cold brew vs. espresso: Which has the most caffeine?

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Cold brew vs. espresso: All the differences you should know