Drip coffee vs espresso: which coffee brewing method is best?

Fans of coffee will tell you that it's much more than just a drink; it's a daily ritual. Even if you don't know your Ethiopian blend from your Columbian bean, chances are you'll know what you like – and what you don't – when it comes to making your perfect cup of joe. 

It's why the coffee machine market is so huge and why choosing one of the best coffee makers can be so hard. To help simplify things, this feature compares two of the most popular methods – drip coffee machines, like the Moccamaster KBGV Select, and espresso machines, like the Seattle Coffee Dilleta Bello+.

While both types of coffee makers serve the same fundamental purpose – brewing coffee from grounds – they do so in ways that result in distinct flavors, aromas, and experiences. 

Drip coffee machines are renowned for their simplicity and consistency, offering a straightforward way to make a large jug of coffee like those seen in offices and diners. Espresso machines are better known for their quick, one-time, concentrated espressos, which can be used to make a wide range of coffee-based drinks, from lattes to cappuccinos. The best espresso machines are usually found in coffeehouses like Starbucks.  

But how do the two coffee makers differ in design, features, performance, and taste? Which one is better suited to you and your coffee needs? Keep reading our drip coffee vs espresso guide to find out.

Drip coffee vs espresso: Design

With drip coffee machines, hot water is automatically – usually at the press of a button or a flick of a switch – poured over coffee grounds inside a filter. This causes drops of filtered coffee to drip through to a jug positioned on a heated plate below.

Not to be confused with pour-over coffee brewers, in which the hot water is manually poured over the grounds, drip coffee machines typically feature a water tank connected to a "showerhead," which sprays water into the filter positioned above the jug. They're often seen as the epitome of functional design because they have few bells and whistles. 

They are straightforward, easy to use, and are built to deliver a consistent cup of coffee every time. The Moccamaster, for example, is built with a combination of metal and plastic, offering durability while keeping the machine lightweight. The design elements are minimalistic, with a water reservoir, a heating element, and a drip area that allows water to flow over the coffee grounds. Drip coffee machines are often compact, too, designed to fit comfortably on a kitchen counter without taking up too much space.

Espresso machines, such as the Seattle Coffee machine, are a different beast altogether. They are typically much larger, often made of stainless steel, and come with a variety of more complex parts like a steam wand, portafilter, and high-pressure pump. They're designed to stand out and come with dials and gauges, or even touch displays, that not only add to the aesthetic but give real-time feedback during the brewing process.

If you buy a bean-to-cup model, there will also be a built-in grinder and a tamping area. Every component on an espresso machine has been precisely engineered to work together and offer as much control as possible. This makes it much harder to use than a drip coffee machine; it is more expensive but much more versatile.

Verdict: If you're looking for a machine that offers simplicity and ease of use, a drip coffee machine like the Moccamaster is your best bet. It's straightforward, functional, and does its job well. However, if you're someone who sees coffee-making as more of an art form and is willing to invest time and effort into crafting the perfect cup, an espresso machine would be more suited to you. It offers a level of control and customization that drip machines simply can't match.

Drip coffee vs espresso: Features

When it comes to features, drip coffee machines offer a more streamlined experience, they usually come with a timer, allowing you to set your coffee to brew at a specific time, and some models offer brew-strength settings that alter the amount of water that is administered. 

Their sole focus is on delivering a consistent cup of coffee with minimal fuss. They don't offer a plethora of features, and the main areas to assess when buying a drip coffee machine (other than its size and colors) are the heating elements used to brew the water and its showerhead, which determines how evenly the water is distributed over the grounds. 

Again, espresso machines are a different story. They are full of features offering a level of customization that can be both exciting as well as overwhelming. The Seattle Coffee Machine, for instance, allows you to control everything from the grind size of your coffee to the brewing temperature and pressure. Tweaking each of these settings has a direct impact on the taste, strength, and consistency of your espresso. If you then change beans, you may find you have to be constantly experimenting and altering these settings to your liking. 

Some models offer pre-set programs for different types of drinks, from a simple espresso to a more complex macchiato. Espresso machines also often include hot water and steam wands, allowing you to froth milk for lattes and cappuccinos.

Verdict: If you're someone who wants a simple, no-fuss coffee-making experience, and you like coffee pretty much as it comes, a drip coffee machine is ideal. It offers fewer features but excels in the ones it does offer. On the other hand, if you're a coffee enthusiast looking for a machine that allows you to experiment and fine-tune your brew, and you have very particular coffee tastes, then an espresso machine is the way to go.

Close up of person with tattooed finger pouring milk from metal jug into glass of cafe latte

(Image credit: Getty; Mint Images)

Drip coffee vs espresso: Performance & Taste

Drip coffee machines are often praised for their consistency. They are designed to make a good cup of coffee every time, with little room for error. The Moccamaster, for example, has a metal coffee filter and a precise heating element that makes sure your coffee is brewed at the optimal temperature each time. The result is usually a smooth, mild, well-balanced cup of coffee that many find perfect for daily drinking.

The brewing process allows for a balanced and slower extraction of oils and aromatics from the coffee grounds, and this results in a cup that is less intense than espresso but still rich in flavor. The taste can vary depending on the coffee-to-water ratio and the grind size, but generally, drip coffee is less acidic and milder compared to espresso.

Espresso machines are, instead, about versatility and quality. They are designed to quickly extract every ounce of flavor from your coffee grounds, resulting in a rich, full-bodied cup of coffee. The use of high-pressure forces hot water through the coffee grounds, extracting a "shot" of coffee. This extraction process brings out the complexities of the coffee, including its acidity, sweetness, and nuanced aromatics. Espresso machines then let you set the temperature and texture of the milk you choose, allowing you to make a variety of coffee drinks from a single machine.

However, this performance comes at a cost. Espresso machines have a steeper learning curve and require a more hands-on approach. You'll need to learn how to grind your coffee, how to tamp it correctly, and how to brew it at the right temperature and pressure. It's a more involved process but one that many coffee enthusiasts find rewarding.

Verdict: When it comes to performance, both drip coffee machines and espresso machines have their unique strengths and weaknesses, especially in terms of taste. If you prefer a consistent, balanced cup of coffee, a drip coffee machine may be the better option for you. If you instead enjoy the intricacies of flavor and don't mind putting in the effort for a perfect cup, an espresso machine is likely the better choice.

Drip coffee vs espresso: Care & Maintenance

Drip coffee machines are generally easier to clean. The carafe and filter basket are usually dishwasher-safe, and the machine itself can be cleaned by running a mixture of water and vinegar through it to descale mineral deposits. This should be done once every couple of weeks, although you may have to clean it more often if you have hard water.

Due to the fact drip machines are simpler in construction and have fewer moving parts, there's less that can go wrong. Common issues like a clogged valve or heating element failure are usually easy to diagnose and inexpensive to fix. Over time, you may need to replace the carafe or the filter basket. Depending on your machine, these parts are usually readily available and relatively affordable. Some models come with a built-in water filter that will also need replacing periodically. As a result, with proper care and maintenance, a good-quality drip coffee machine can last several years. 

Espresso machines and their many moving parts require more meticulous care. The coffee grounds need to be emptied after each use, and the machine should be backflushed regularly to remove coffee oils and residue. The steam wand for frothing milk should be cleared immediately after each use to stop milk residues from hardening and clogging the steam holes.

Due to this added complexity, espresso machines are more prone to issues, and some may require professional repair. Problems with the pump, pressure gauge, or heating element can be complicated and costly to fix. Espresso machines have more components that may need replacing, too, such as gaskets, filters, and even the grinder blades, if your machine has a built-in grinder. These parts can be more expensive and tricky to install.

While a well-maintained espresso machine can last a long time, the complexity of its components and the high pressure at which it operates can lead to more frequent repairs, especially if the machine is not regularly maintained.

Verdict: If ease of maintenance is a priority, a drip coffee machine is the better choice. Its simpler mechanics make it easier to clean and less prone to breaking down. However, if you're willing to invest the time and effort into learning how to properly maintain an espresso machine, you'll be rewarded with a machine that can deliver a wider range of coffee experiences.

Drip coffee vs espresso: Price

The simplicity offered by drip coffee machines makes them, generally speaking, more affordable than espresso machines. 

You can spend as little as $19.99 for a single and compact machine, such as the Elite Gourmet Coffeemaker, or buy more advanced machines, such as the $75 Mr Coffee Espresso Machine up to the $350 Moccamaster or Breville Precision Brewer.

Drip coffee machines on the higher end of the price spectrum tend to be better built and more robust than cheaper models and either offer a slightly higher level of control or feature parts that have been precisely engineered. They're an investment but should last you much longer than budget versions and provide a more consistent cup of coffee. 

Espresso machines are often seen as a luxury item, and their premium price reflects this. Despite the fact the Seattle Coffee machine we've highlighted costs almost five times as much as the Moccamaster, it's far from the most expensive espresso machine. The LaCimbali S60, for example, costs $24,000. 

Larger machines with touch controls tend to cost in the region of $3,000-$4,000, but you can buy smaller machines with physical controls and built-in grinders for around $700-$800. This includes the Breville Barista Express. Alternatively, you can buy more simple espresso machines for as low as $150-$200, in the case of the Geek Chef Espresso Machine or the De'Longhi ECP3120 Espresso Machine.

When considering the price, it's important to factor in additional costs. Espresso machines often require additional accessories like a grinder, a milk frother, or even a coffee scale. These can add to the overall cost of the machine but are often necessary to make the most of its features. You'll also need to factor in the price of coffee beans or grounds for both machine types and filters in the case of some drip coffee machines. 

Price: As with most appliances, you can spend a little or a lot to get the best versions of both drip coffee and espresso machines. Spending more upfront can be more economical in the long run because your machine and its high performance should last longer. If you're on a budget and are looking for a machine that offers good performance without breaking the bank, a drip coffee machine will suffice. However, if you're willing to invest in your coffee experience and are looking for a machine that offers more features and better performance, you may have to speculate to accumulate. 

Drip coffee vs espresso: Which is best?

Choosing between a drip coffee machine and an espresso machine ultimately comes down to personal preference, lifestyle, and how you like your coffee. If you're looking for ease of use, consistency, and a machine that's easy to clean and maintain, a drip coffee machine is an excellent choice. You sacrifice coffee flavor intensity and versatility, but it's perfect for people who enjoy a lighter, smoother cup of coffee without the fuss. 

By comparison, only true coffee enthusiasts will get the full value of an espresso machine. You need to be willing to invest both time and money into your coffee experience, and it helps if you appreciate the rich, full-bodied taste of espresso and the art of coffee-making.

In summary, drip coffee machines are best for casual coffee drinkers and those who prefer convenience. Espresso machines are suited for coffee aficionados who are passionate about the intricacies of brewing the perfect cup. 

Check out our buying guide if you're considering investing in an espresso machine.

Victoria Woollaston
TTR Contributing Editor

Victoria Woollaston is a freelance lifestyle and technology journalist with almost two decades of experience reviewing gadgets, beauty tech and household appliances for the likes of WIRED, TechRadar, Expert Reviews, Alphr and more.