Just because your coffee is bitter doesn’t mean it’s ‘stronger’

Coffee beans sit in a cup in this file photo.

Our choices of coffee brewing method can be cultural, social or practical. But how much do they really impact what’s in your cup?

Which is the strongest brew?

It depends. If we focus on caffeine concentration on a milligram per milliliter (mg/ml) basis, espresso methods are typically the most concentrated, able to deliver up to 4.2 mg/ml. This is about three times higher than other methods like Moka pot (a type of boiling percolator) and cold brewing at about 1.25 mg/ml. Drip and plunger methods (including French and Aero-press) are about half that again.

But while espresso gives you the most concentrated product, this is delivered in a smaller volume (just 18–30ml), compared to much larger volumes for most other methods.

Interestingly, most methods are actually pretty similar. Espresso methods vary but give an average of 10.5 milligrams per gram (mg/g), compared to 9.7–10.2mg/g for most other methods. The only outlier is the French press, with just 6.9mg/g of caffeine.

‘Strength’ is more than just caffeine

Caffeine content only explains a small part of the strength of coffee. Thousands of compounds are extracted, contributing to aroma, flavor and function. Each has their own pattern of extraction, and they can interact with each other to inhibit or enhance effects.

The oils responsible for the crema—the rich brown “foam” on top of the brew—are also extracted more easily with high temperatures, pressures, and fine grinds (another potential win for espresso and Moka). These methods also give higher levels of dissolved solids, meaning a less watery consistency—but, again, this all depends on how the final product is served and diluted.

There are also differences in how sensitive we are to the stimulant effects of caffeine. So what we are looking for in a cup, and getting from it, is dependent on our own unique biology.

The bottom line

Each brewing method has its own features and inputs. This gives each one a unique profile of flavor, texture, appearance and bioactive compounds. While the complexity is real and interesting, ultimately, how to brew is a personal choice.

Different information and situations will drive different choices in different people and on different days. After all, not every food and drink choice needs to be optimized. The Conversation


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