Espresso coffee is very strong: True/False?

It is the coffee junkie’s brew of choice, but the popular faith in espresso’s strength may be misplaced. Don’t get me wrong: made properly it’s certainly not weak, but it isn’t a great deal more stimulating than other kinds of coffee. Sometimes it can even be less so.

With the coffee revolution well behind us it is hard to believe that just a few years ago most of us knew coffee only as the insipid instant variety. Instant coffee contains around 60-80mg of caffeine per cup. That’s also roughly the amount you’ll find in an energy drink. Percolated or drip coffee, by comparison, contains up to 120mg of caffeine per cup. A single shot of espresso contains — drum roll please — an average of 106mg of caffeine per serving.

So not as stimulating as you might expect. But there are a couple of traps for the unwary here. The number above is from an Australian study which sampled a whole swag of different coffee shops. Some brews contained half the average amount of caffeine. Some contained more than twice the average. It seems there really is a skill to being a good barista and — at least on the Gold Coast — there aren’t enough good baristas to go round.

The other gotcha is that I’m not technically comparing like with like. If you drank a full 250ml cup of espresso your head would start spinning and steam would shoot out your ears. Millilitre for millilitre espresso is extremely strong — but since espresso is only served in those teeny tiny cups, or smothered with milk, a single serving doesn’t contain much more caffeine than other coffee.

The upshot of all this is that if you head to your local coffee shop and order something based on a single shot of espresso, you’re probably not getting much more caffeine than you would from a cup of filter coffee, or even a strong cup of instant. Still, you’re probably not getting much less either. If it’s wake-up juice you’re after then a short black is still a safe bet.

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