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The Difference between Americano and Black Coffee

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If you go into your local coffee shop and ask for a black coffee, the drink you get depends on where in the world you are. Maybe it even depends on which coffee shop you walked into.

In fact, if you ask for a black coffee, there’s a good chance that the barista will hand you an Americano. But for coffee purists, an Americano is not necessarily the same thing as a black coffee.

An Americano is a black coffee…

An Americano is simply espresso mixed with hot water. Hot water dilutes the espresso, turning it from an intense, syrupy ‘shot’ into a long drink, more similar to a filter coffee.

Baristas may argue about what, exactly, is the best way to make an Americano, and how much water to use, but the basic principle is always the same: espresso, hot water, and nothing else.

An Americano is traditionally served ‘black’, meaning without milk. An Americano is therefore a black coffee — unless you add milk!

…but not all black coffee is an Americano

 A ‘black coffee’ just means a coffee without milk. Since there are hundreds of ways to make coffee, there are hundreds of different ways to make black coffee, as well.

If you ask for ‘a black coffee’, then the barista will usually assume you mean the most common type of coffee in that shop.

For example, if you ask for ‘un caffè’ (a coffee) in Italy, you will always be served an espresso, while if you order ‘a coffee’ in the US, you will most likely be given a filter coffee, made in a drip coffee machine.

The most common kinds of black coffee are:

  • Arabic and Turkish coffee: Two different methods, but both are made by boiling water and coffee together, and drinking them without filtering
  • Espresso: a tiny, intense, syrupy coffee, also used as the base for milk drinks such as the flat white
  • Americano: Espresso mixed with hot water
  • Caffe crema or lungo: Common in central Europe, a long coffee made in the same way as an espresso, but with much more water. The result has a similar flavor to an Americano
  • Filter coffee: A delicate coffee made by pouring water over the coffee in a filter, whether in a machine or by hand

In Australian or New Zealand-influenced coffee bars, you might also hear ‘short black’ and ‘long black’. A ‘short black’ is an espresso, while a ‘long black’ is an espresso mixed with hot water — similar to an Americano, but usually smaller and stronger.

Most of the time, however, a ‘black coffee’ means a filter coffee.

How to tell an Americano from a black coffee

While they are quite similar drinks, it’s easy to tell an Americano and a black filter coffee apart, just by looking at them.

The most important difference is the crema. Crema is the rich layer of golden-brown foam that sits on top of an espresso. When you add hot water, the crema floats on top of the drink, so an Americano is covered with a thin layer of crema.

Photo: Karolina Grabowska

An Americano should be covered with a thin layer of foam on top called crema

A black filter coffee, on the other hand, might have a few bubbles on the surface, but it doesn’t look the same as the rich foam of crema on a well-made Americano.

The other visual difference between an Americano and a black filter coffee is the color of the liquid. Black filter coffee is black or very dark brown, but the liquid is almost clear because filtering removes the oils and small particles of coffee.

Photo: Andrew Neel

Despite the dark color, filter coffee is relatively clear. 

An Americano, on the other hand, looks cloudy. Since the espresso isn’t filtered, it contains oils and small particles that make the coffee cloudy. This also makes an Americano look more brown, rather than black, compared with a filter coffee.

About crema

Crema is an essential part of the espresso — if it doesn’t have crema, then it wasn’t properly made. However, even though it looks appealing, crema actually tastes very bitter and ashy. All of the good flavors of the espresso are in the liquid underneath.

Likewise, in an Americano, the layer of crema on top is an important part of the way the drink looks — but it actually adds nothing to the flavor. This means that the layer of crema doesn’t make an Americano taste better than a black filter coffee — it only changes the way the drink looks.

Many baristas take a lot of care to keep the layer of crema on top of the drink as thick as possible because it looks better that way — but you’ll get the best flavor in your Americano if you stir the crema into the rest of the coffee before you drink it.

The difference in flavor between Americano and black coffee

The biggest difference in flavor between an Americano and a black filter coffee comes from the fact that an Americano isn’t filtered. An espresso is made in a special steel basket with tiny holes punched in the bottom. The holes are small enough to stop the coffee grounds from falling through, but big enough to let oils and tiny fragments of coffee pass through into the drink.

These oils and particles give the coffee a thick, heavy body, and also add to the bitterness of the coffee. As a result, an Americano tastes richer and thicker than a filter coffee, and may also taste more bitter.

A black filter coffee has to pass through a paper filter, which traps the oils and small particles in the coffee. This means that the black filter coffee will be lighter in the body with a smooth flavor, and may taste sweeter or less bitter. This may make it easier to taste the more delicate floral or fruity flavors in the coffee, compared with an Americano.

An Americano is also usually made with an espresso roast coffee, which is often roasted a little darker. A black filter coffee, meanwhile, is usually made with a lighter roast designed for filter coffee. The darker roast brings out the bold, rich, nutty, and chocolatey flavors in the coffee, and makes it more bitter. The lighter roast may have more delicate floral or fruity flavors and will taste more acidic.

Overall, these differences mean that an Americano and a black filter coffee taste quite different. An Americano usually has a strong, rich flavor and aroma, with more bitterness and a full body. Black coffee, meanwhile, has a more delicate flavor and aroma, with more sweetness and acidity and a lighter body.

Is an Americano stronger than a black coffee?

An Americano often has a stronger flavor than black filter coffee. An Americano usually tastes more bitter. Humans are very sensitive to bitter flavors, so a more bitter coffee will also seem stronger. This means that an Americano will taste stronger than a black filter coffee, even if they contain the same amount of coffee.

But does an Americano have more caffeine? The answer is, it depends on how you make it. Are you using a single or double shot of espresso? How much water did you add to the cup?

If you make a typical takeaway coffee (300ml) using a double espresso (20g of ground coffee) then it will contain about the same amount of coffee as the same size of black filter coffee does. In this case, even though they’re made with the same amount of coffee, the filter coffee will usually have slightly more caffeine.

In an espresso, the water passes through the coffee in about 30 seconds. In a filter coffee, it takes several minutes — so the water has more time to extract all the caffeine from the coffee.

However, a lot of cafes make their Americanos a lot stronger than this. For example, a specialty coffee shop might use a double espresso to make a standard small cup of coffee (180ml). In this case, the Americano will be nearly twice as strong — and have nearly twice as much caffeine — as a black filter coffee.

On the other hand, if you order a large Americano and get a 500ml drink, then the extra volume is usually just made up of more water. In this case, the Americano will be weaker than black coffee.

Which is healthier: Americano or black coffee?

Both Americanos and black filter coffees are healthy. This might be a surprise for some people — after all, how can something that tastes good and is addictive also be good for you? But whether it’s Americano or filter coffee, if you’re drinking coffee without milk, then there is plenty of research that says coffee is good for you.

However, black filter coffee is probably slightly healthier than an Americano. The oils in espresso contain diterpenes — natural compounds that can raise your cholesterol levels, slightly increasing your risk of heart attacks or strokes. In black coffee, the diterpenes are mostly removed by the paper filter, making it even healthier.

However, even with the diterpenes, an Americano still reduces your chances of a heart attack or stroke overall, thanks to all the antioxidants in coffee. So an Americano is still healthy — but a black filter coffee is healthier.

Whichever coffee you drink, try not to drink it too hot. Hot drinks can damage the lining of the mouth and throat and slightly increase your risk of cancer. An Americano is often served boiling hot — giving it a minute or two to cool before you drink it will make it taste better and make it healthier.

The advantages of an Americano over a black coffee

So far, we’ve seen that black filter coffee is often less bitter, sweeter, and smoother than an Americano — and healthier to boot. So if that’s the case, why are Americanos so popular?

The first thing to point out is that making an Americano is a very fast way to brew fresh coffee. An Americano is ready in less than a minute, while filter coffee can take several minutes to brew. Fresh coffee has much more aroma and flavor, so a freshly brewed Americano will always taste better than a stale old filter coffee sitting in a jug.

In many small cafes, the espresso machine may be the only coffee maker they have. In this case, the Americano may be the only way to make a ‘black coffee’. This, after all, is supposedly how the Americano originated: American GIs stationed in Italy wanted a simple black coffee in a country that only served espresso. Baristas added hot water to the espresso to make it more palatable to the Americans, and the Americano was born.

Many people also prefer the stronger flavor of an Americano over the delicate flavors of a black filter coffee. The stronger flavor also means that the Americano pairs well with a splash of milk — in which case it may be called a white Americano. A filter coffee, on the other hand, may be too weak and taste ‘washed out’ if you like to add milk to your coffee.

In conclusion, while an Americano is a kind of black coffee, black coffee and Americanos are not exactly the same thing. If you like the delicate acidity and fruity flavors of a light roast coffee, then you’ll probably prefer drinking black filter coffee to Americanos. If on the other hand, you want a bold, rich flavor, or a stronger drink, then the Americano might be the choice for you — especially if you like to add milk.

But if you order a ‘black coffee’ expecting a filter coffee and get served an Americano — or vice versa — then don’t worry. Both Americanos and black filter coffees can be delicious drinks but have slightly different flavors and textures. The subtle differences in flavor are what make coffee interesting, so it’s always worth trying something new.

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