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Americano vs Black Coffee: Which is Better?

americano vs black coffee

At first glance, caffé Americano – or Americano for short – and black coffee look basically the same. Neither contains milk or sugar, and they look nearly identical in your cup. Don’t let the similar appearance fool you. Despite their apparent similarities, black coffee and caffé Americano taste different and have distinct mouthfeels, and some people strongly prefer one to the other.

The differences are driven by Americano’s espresso use compared with the ordinary filter coffee used to make black coffee. Which is better is largely a matter of personal preference, and in this article, we put them head to head to help you decide which is right for you. There are no wrong answers here, and you may find that you like both. Let’s find out!

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Overview of Americano:

As you can probably guess, caffé Americano is Italian for American coffee. The term’s origin is unknown, but it is commonly believed to come from the American habit of diluting Italian espresso during the second world war. Italian-style espresso was stronger than the ordinary filter coffee the Americans were used to, so they diluted it to suit their palates better.

Americano coffee

How It’s Made

Caffé Americano is a simple drink made by diluting a shot of espresso with water. Typically, enough water is used to reduce the espresso’s strength until it has a comparable strength to an ordinary cup of coffee. There are some variations on the Americano, but in general, they all are centered around the concept of diluting espresso. The most common ratio of espresso to water is 1:1, but other ratios are common depending on individual taste.

If we want to get extremely specific, the term Americano refers exclusively to a combination of espresso and hot water in a 1:1 ratio where the shot is pulled into an empty mug, and the water is added afterward. If the espresso is pulled into a cup containing water, then the drink is called a long black.

That might not seem like a useful distinction to make, but the mouthfeel and texture of an Americano are slightly different than a long black. A long black preserves the espresso’s crema since the espresso is pulled into a calm cup of water.  In an Americano, no crema remains since the water disrupts it when it is added to the cup.

Flavor Profile

Americanos are smooth and bold, and it is easier to adjust their strength by varying the amount of water than it is to change the strength of black coffee. You can make a strong cup without worrying about it being bitter. The upper limit of the strength is the strength of a shot of espresso, so the flexibility of Americano is perfect for people who love bold coffee.

Making Your Own Americano

The primary drawback of caffé Americano is the barrier to entry that comes from expensive specialized equipment. At the very least, you need a dedicated espresso machine. Such a machine doesn’t make anything besides espresso, so people who aren’t espresso aficionados often don’t have one. In addition, if you want the freshest experience possible, you need a grinder. Coffee grinders aren’t cheap in general, but one that can handle the fine grind size required for espresso will be even more expensive.

Pros
  • Smooth texture
  • Strong without being bitter
  • You can easily adjust the strength
Cons
  • Requires specialized equipment

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Overview of Black Coffee:

Black coffee is coffee in a mug with nothing else. This is the kind of no-frills coffee your grandfather probably drank his entire life. There are a million different ways to make black coffee, but they all have two things in common: no milk and no sugar.

Black Coffee
Image Credit: schuetz-mediendesign, Pixabay

How It’s Made

Variety is the spice of life, and with ordinary black coffee, there is no end to the options you can choose. There is French press, pour-over, Moka pot, automatic drip, cold brew, and we could go on much longer. Each of these brewing methods falls under the umbrella of black coffee as long as the coffee they make is consumed without milk and sugar. This is in sharp contrast to the one size fits all approach you get from caffé Americano.

Black coffee is also simpler to make than Americano, and it doesn’t require much fancy gear. The simplest way to make black coffee is with a pod-style machine like a Keurig. These are relatively inexpensive machines that are extremely easy to use. Most brew methods require only a small amount of cheap equipment, so it is not uncommon for people to have several different brewers and rotate between them.

Flavor Profile

Unlike Americano, black coffee can be more finicky to get dialed in to your taste. You can control the strength of your cup by balancing the amount of coffee and water you use, but you can’t change them arbitrarily. The grind size, brew method, and even the roast level will determine what range of strength you can get. If you love strong coffee, you might be disappointed to find that your cup gets unpleasantly bitter well before you reach your desired strength.

Pros
  • Multiple brewing methods
  • Simple to make
  • Doesn’t require expensive equipment
Cons
  • Not as easy to adjust the strength

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What About Caffeine?

A single shot of espresso and one eight-ounce cup of coffee have similar caffeine levels, though coffee contains slightly more. A shot of espresso has about 65 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of coffee has about 95. Therefore, Americano and black coffee have similar caffeine content if you drink the traditional version of each. However, there are a few other factors to consider.

coffee beans
Image Credit: pixel2013, Pixabay

People who like to squeeze every drop of caffeine out of their coffee beans usually do so by making very strong cups. The longer the water is in contact with the ground coffee, the more flavor and caffeine gets extracted. There is a downside to extracting coffee for longer, and that is an increase in harshness and bitter flavors. If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee that tastes dry or astringent, you’ve had over-extracted coffee. Overextraction puts a limit on how strong you can make a cup of black coffee and is the primary reason Americano is preferred if your main goal is to get as much caffeine as possible and still have a drinkable cup of coffee.

With Americano, on the other hand, it is easy to increase the strength without extracting more since you can add less water or even use a double shot in place of a single shot. If you’re cramming for a test or working the graveyard shift, Americano is the better way to get your caffeine boost.

Which is Right for You?

Like most things in the culinary world, this comes down to personal preference. If you’re considering buying the equipment necessary to make Americano or black coffee at home, we recommend you try one of each from the same coffee shop. You might find that you prefer one over the other and the decision will be easier. Americano and black coffee don’t taste the same, so you may like one and not the other.

If both taste good to you, then you have a more difficult decision to make. Americano requires an espresso machine, and even the cheapest espresso machines are still quite expensive. If you want an average quality machine that is reliable, it will cost you several hundred dollars. If money is an important factor for you, black coffee is the better option. The necessary gear to make black coffee is cheap and readily available.

Still undecided? The last consideration that might help you break the tie is caffeine. We wouldn’t recommend making this decision solely based on caffeine content, but we know some people drink coffee specifically for the energizing boost it gives them. If that is you, and you don’t mind splurging for an espresso machine, Americano is the clear winner. You can make stronger coffee in the Americano style than with regular black coffee, without getting any nasty bitterness.

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Conclusion

So, there you have it. Caffé Americano and black coffee are two sides of the same coin in many ways. They both pare coffee down to the bare essentials, and both will let you appreciate a high-quality bean. If you’re looking for the easier of the two, go with black coffee. It is a classic for a reason and couldn’t be easier to make at home. There are tons of brewing methods available, which keep things interesting, and the cost to get started is low.

Americano has a higher barrier to entry because you need an espresso machine to make it. The higher cost isn’t without benefit since an Americano can be a bolder and smoother experience when made correctly. If you’re still having trouble choosing, head over to your local coffee shop and order one of each! You might fall in love with the elegant simplicity of black coffee or become enamored with the smooth richness of Americano. Or, if you’re like us, you’ll discover that you love both.

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Featured Images: Unsplash

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Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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