September 21, 2020

Filter vs Espresso In The US And Europe

It’s no secret that the US and European coffee markets are vastly different. Both import and consume a huge amount of coffee. ICO consumption levels for 2019/20 show that Europeans consumed some 2.7 billion kg, while the US consumed around 1.7 billion kg. Between them, the US and Europe account for almost 40% of all coffee consumption on the planet.

However, despite these huge numbers, coffee culture is fundamentally different in the two regions. Among a number of other things, one of the main distinctions is that the US has a historic relationship with filter coffee, while espresso is a more ingrained part of European coffee culture.

To understand why these two markets have developed differently, I spoke to three different experts: Agnieszka Rojewska, a 2018 World Barista Champion, Sara Reyes Ziman, the owner of MillCross Coffee Roasters, and Umeko Motoyoshim, a Q grader and the co-founder of umeshiso.com.

Lee este artículo en español Café de Filtro VS Espresso en Estados Unidos y Europa

History Of Coffee Consumption In The US And Europe

Coffee reached Europe in the early 17th century. It only took a few decades for consumption to rise and follow colonial ships to the US later in the 1600s. However, coffee wasn’t truly popularised in the US until after the Boston Tea Party, a protest against the British government imposing a tea tax on its American colonies.

During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the coffee house spread rapidly across Europe, and became established as a place where intellectuals would meet. The earliest known precursor to the espresso machine was patented in Turin by Angelo Moriondo in 1884, but it wasn’t until 1901 that the first “true” espresso machine was created by Luigi Bezzera.

It debuted at the 1906 Milan Fair, and quickly became incredibly popular. The word “espresso” became a part of the Italian lexicon in the 1920s, and it spread across Europe throughout the first half of the 20th century.

In the US, however, coffee developed differently. The first coffee percolator was invented by James H. Nason in the US in 1865, pointing to an early relationship with a completely different brewing method.

Throughout the early 1900s, coffee became commercialised and popularised by brands like Folgers and Maxwell House. US inventor George Washington (not the president) created a way to process and mass-produce instant coffee in 1909. Coffee only became more popular in the 1920s in the wake of Prohibition.

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Filter or drip coffee is largely believed to have been invented by Melitta Bentz in Germany in 1908. However, by the time of the Second World War, the two main brewing methods in the United States were filter/drip coffee and the stovetop percolator.

It’s even said that American GIs in Italy invented the americano during the war. Supposedly, Italian espresso was too strong and bitter for them, and diluting it with water made it taste like filter coffee – which they were more familiar with.

Umeko says: “People really began taking an interest in coffee after the Second World War, when tools such as the brewing control chart came out in the 1960s.” It was also around this time that Folgers and other major US coffee brands started advertising more heavily.

In 1972, the first automatic drip machine for the home, Mr. Coffee, was released. The emergence of electric filter coffee machines revolutionised the way Americans consumed filter coffee, and played well into a consumer culture that was growing to demand convenience both in and out of home.

Cultural Differences

There are, of course, huge cultural differences between the US and Europe which tie into these differing relationships.

One of the major differences is a big focus on convenience and accessibility in American culture. Life in the US, especially in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and New York City, can be very fast-paced, with a focus on “on-the-go” food and drink. It’s therefore no real coincidence that the first drive-thru coffee shop, Motor Moka, was founded in the US in 1990. 

And while European city culture does sometimes share this desire for convenience, there is a difference. In countries like France and Italy, cafés and restaurants often focus on providing an experience, encouraging customers to sit down and leisurely enjoy doing so.

In cities in the US, filter coffee provides a way for coffee shops to give customers the quality flavour and tasting notes they enjoy, while still offering convenience and speed. MillCross is based in Los Angeles, and Sara says she’s very familiar with this “on-the-go” culture. She tells me that the accessibility of filter coffee has made it the most convenient way for many customers to drink coffee. 

“US coffee culture is about convenience; instant coffee has been a way of life for decades,” Sara says. Despite the fact that “specialty coffee is changing those old habits”, she says that “filter coffee is more accessible for a fast-paced lifestyle” in comparison to espresso.

“We typically see more espressos being consumed in coffee shops when people have time to sit in,” Sara tells me. As well as the convenience that filter coffee offers for both coffee shops and customers, however, she adds that it is “also a household ritual for many people across the US”.

In Europe, coffee culture is different. Agnieszka explains that this difference is “very much cultural, [and linked to] the way people eat and the climate”. While espresso is more popular across Europe and is generally seen as a drink enjoyed in coffee shops or espresso bars with friends, this isn’t always the case.

It’s not uncommon to have an espresso at the local cafe on a short break from work or before an appointment or meeting. It doesn’t always have to be a special occasion – it is a part of wider life.

Umeko says: “There’s usually an emphasis on coffee at home and in the office in the US. In Europe, however, we see a culture of heavily enjoying coffee at cafes.”

filter and espresso

Sub-Regions And Their Preferences

However, talking about European coffee culture as a whole is difficult; there are a lot of unique countries within Europe who consume coffee in different ways. Agnieszka tells me that, for example, “[in southern Europe] people often eat big dinners so don’t then drink a lot of coffee after dinner”. 

Agnieszka says that it is generally more common for people to enjoy shorter drinks, like an espresso, macchiato, cortado, or ristretto. She adds: “Southern Europeans typically prefer intense flavours.”

In central European countries and the UK, Agnieszka says that people generally consume more milk-based beverages (cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites, for example).

She adds that Eastern European countries often have their own versions “of milk-based beverages that contain cream or condensed milk”. In Scandinavia, however, espresso is less popular, and coffee culture is more similar to the US; Agnieszka says filter coffee is more common than espresso.

There are also differences between regions in the US. In cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago, light roasted coffees brewed with pour over methods have become increasingly popular.

These are generally drunk by young to middle-aged Americans who have more experience with third-wave coffee culture, and look for more nuanced flavour notes. In rural America, however, filter coffee is generally made with a darker roast and a more traditional flavour, popularised by things like classic diner coffee.

filter and espresso

On the whole, we know that people enjoy coffee differently across the world, but these differences remain incredibly interesting. And while culture and history can point us towards some possible reasons, they are by no means definitive. 

Personal experience with coffee will naturally dictate what you prefer; there are of course people in Europe who prefer filter coffee, and there will naturally be espresso fanatics in the US.

In each country across the world, coffee has a unique and interesting history of its own. And while this alone does not guarantee that people will enjoy coffee brewed in a certain way, it certainly shapes consumption trends and patterns.

Enjoyed this? Then read Tackling Unintentional Coffee Overscoring In Producing Countries

Photo credits: MillCross Roasters, Cris Flores

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