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Americano vs Coffee: The Essential Differences

americano vs coffee: people holding two mugs of java

If we placed a cup of coffee and an Americano in front of you, the two beverages would look nearly identical. On your first sip, they might even taste similar. If you’re an experienced coffee connoisseur, you might be able to tell the difference based on their flavor. But if you’re an average joe (who’s happy with an average cup of joe), there’s a chance the two drinks would seem the same even after a side-by-side taste comparison. So, what is the difference between an Americano vs. coffee?

An Americano is an espresso drink that’s designed to taste similar to American brewed coffee. (If that still doesn’t clear things up, don’t worry — we’ll explain it in more detail below.) Both drinks come from coffee beans, but they’re prepared differently. The beans are even roasted and ground differently. So, even though these two coffee drinks are meant to be similar, there are differences at every step — from the moment the beans are harvested until the moment your barista hands you your cup.

We’ll explain the differences between these two beverages and help you decide which one to order on your next coffee run. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the Americano vs. coffee.

Americano vs. Coffee

two cups of coffee on a table

For years, Americans drank coffee. But Europeans, especially Italians, drank espresso. Coffee is brewed by slowly pouring hot water over ground coffee beans and letting the coffee infuse into the water to create your morning drink. A cup of drip coffee is usually around six to eight ounces.

Espresso, on the other hand, isn’t brewed — it’s extracted. It’s made by forcing pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee, creating an extremely strong, concentrated shot of coffee that measures about one ounce. In Italy, espresso is often sipped straight, but it’s also sometimes diluted with steamed milk to create cappuccinos or lattes.

Legend has it that when American soldiers were stationed in Italy during World War II, they didn’t like the strong taste of espresso, so they attempted to make it taste more like American coffee by watering it down. They would mix about six ounce of hot water with one shot of espresso to make a drink that tasted similar to brewed coffee. In Italy, this drink became known as the caffè Americano.

The results are similar enough to satisfy most coffee lovers who are experimenting with espresso. But, there are differences in how you prepare these two drinks, as well as in the finished beverages’ appearance, taste, caffeine content, and cost.

Prep

americano vs coffee: two cups on espresso machine

There are several ways to prepare coffee — you can use a drip coffee machine, French press, or pour-over coffee maker. For your coffee beans, you’ll need coarse or medium ground coffee in any roast level — including light, medium, and dark roasts. Medium roasts will give you the best balance between the beans’ nuttier and fruitier flavors.

Once you choose your brewing method, you’ll place your ground coffee into your coffee filter or French press, add hot water according to your coffee brewing method, and allow the mixture to infuse. Discard the grind, pour the mixture into your mug, and you have a cup of black coffee.

To make an Americano coffee at home, you need an espresso machine, an AeroPress, or a Keurig. You’ll also need to use finely ground, dark roast coffee beans for this brewing method to extract enough of the coffee flavor from the beans. If you have an at-home coffee grinder, it will likely have an espresso setting. If you buy your beans pre-ground, you should look for a bag that specifically says it’s ground for espresso.

Extract your espresso according to the instructions on your machine. Then, place it in the bottom of your coffee cup and pour hot water over the top to make something resembling a cup of black coffee.

Both Americanos and coffee can be served hot or iced. In the case of an iced Americano, you would simply add cold water and ice over your shot of espresso instead of hot water, giving it the same prep time as a hot Americano. For coffee, you would make cold brew or iced coffee, both of which have a longer prep time than hot coffee.

If you add your water and espresso shot in the opposite order as an Americano — placing the water in your cup first, then adding the shot of espresso — you’ll make a long black instead of an Americano. While this may sound like a minor difference, adding the espresso shot at the end leaves more of the espresso crema in the drink. The crema is the main difference between the appearance of a cup of coffee, an Americano, and a long black.

Appearance

When an espresso machine extracts a shot of espresso, it emulsifies the oils in the coffee beans, creating frothy, caramel-colored bubbles called crema that float on top of the liquid. These bubbles add a richness to the texture of espresso.

You won’t see any crema in regular coffee. In an Americano, you’ll see a small amount of lingering bubbles, but many of them will get mixed into the drink when you pour the hot water over the top. A long black will have the most noticeable crema since you add the espresso shot at the end.

Taste

woman smelling a cup of coffee

An Americano tastes like strong coffee. The darker roast used in espresso beans can bring out sweeter, nuttier flavors, but it can also bring out a more bitter or burnt flavor.

Because you can use light and medium roast beans in regular coffee, these brews can have brighter, more acidic flavors with more fruity notes.

You can adulterate the flavor of an Americano by adding cream and sugar just like you would to a regular cup of coffee.

Caffeine Content

Ounce per ounce, espresso has a much higher caffeine level than brewed coffee. But because a serving of espresso is so small, a shot of espresso actually has a smaller amount of caffeine than a cup of coffee. So, an Americano with one shot of espresso will also have less caffeine than a cup of coffee.

An Americano with one shot of espresso contains 64 milligrams of caffeine, while an 8 ounce cup of coffee contains 91 milligrams of caffeine. However, some Americanos contain a double shot of espresso or even a triple shot, bringing the caffeine content up to 128 milligrams of caffeine for the double or 192 milligrams for the triple.

If you order an Americano from Starbucks, for example, the Short beverage is eight ounces and only contains one shot of espresso, but the Tall is 12 ounce and contains two shots. The Grande contains three shots, and the Venti contains a whopping four shots of espresso.

So, a Venti Starbucks Americano contains 256 mg of caffeine. It’s also a 20 ounce beverage. If you were to drink a 20 ounce cup of coffee, it would contain 227.5 mg of caffeine, which is only slightly lower.

Price

person paying barista for coffee

If you’re ordering from a coffee shop, a regular coffee usually costs less than an Americano. 

Coffee shops can make regular coffee in large quantities in their drip coffee maker. Then, it’s ready to go whenever a customer walks in. When you order an Americano, a barista has to grind your beans and make your drink on demand. Americanos are more work for the coffee shop, so they cost more.

Which One Should You Order?

Choosing between an Americano vs. coffee is largely a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer the taste of one over the other, so run an experiment — head to your favorite local coffee shop, order one of each, and try them side-by-side.

Beyond personal preference, you may need to drink Americanos when you travel, especially if you’re traveling through mainland Europe. Many European coffee shops specialize in espresso and don’t serve brewed coffee.

If you’re at a coffee shop that serves both, talk to your barista. Ask if the shop specializes in espresso or a certain type of coffee, like pour-overs or French presses. Your barista will know which kind of coffee is best at their location.

Drink and Decide

americano vs coffee: multiple types of coffee

Even though the Americano was designed to taste like American brewed coffee, there are several distinct differences between the two. The espresso in an Americano can give it a stronger flavor, plus a few distinct bubbles floating on top.

Most coffee drinkers have a preference between the Americano vs. coffee. The only way to find your personal preference is to try them side-by-side and decide. Head to your favorite local coffee shop to conduct a very tasty experiment.

Then when you’re ready to learn about the other items you see on that coffee shop menu, check out Cup and Bean — we’re a coffee lover’s guide to the best brews.