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Are the Italians on to something?

Jenn Rice
August 31, 2017

Truth be told, we can drink whatever we want, whenever we want. But there is a certain stigma that comes with throwing back, say, a couple glasses of wine during lunch or an espresso late into the evening. "Do you want to be up all night?" is a common nag. But elsewhere in the world it doesn't seem to be a concern. In countries like Italy, Spain and France, for example, late-night coffee culture is everywhere. But can they handle caffeine—the most consumed psychoactive drug—late at night better than anyone else? Can we, too, drink a lightly-roasted cup of coffee after dinner and sleep through the night? 

Here, we seek to better understand the after hours coffee-drinking culture—and to figure out why some people can throw back espressos before going to sleep.  

Espresso isn’t as intense everyone thinks it is.

Many folks think espresso is a super strong category of its own—a different bean, if you will—but that’s not true. “An espresso roast is really just marketing,” says illy’s master barista, Giorgio Milos. In fact, Milos says that most all coffee beans can be transformed into espresso if ground to the proper specification.

“Some roasts, blends and single origins taste better for non-espresso preparations and some taste better for espresso preparation,” he adds. “Ultimately, taste is subjective, and it comes down to personal preference. For me, balance and complexity of aroma are the key to a great espresso, which can be achieved from a medium-roast blend.”

Which is more caffeinated: espresso or coffee?

A cup of espresso is small, but packs a big punch. “Even though espresso carries less caffeine than filter or other coffee methods, the concentration is much higher, so your body absorbs less caffeine but in a much shorter time than filter coffee—which is usually sipped for minutes,” Milos says. “Therefore, espresso’s effect is stronger to our senses.”

Is there a caffeine difference between light roast and dark roast?

Contrary to belief, different coffee roasts—light, medium or dark—have no effect on caffeine levels. “Caffeine does not get burned off during roasting,” says chef Matthew Robinson, food scientist and founder of The Culinary Exchange. “In terms of flavor, it is all in what you like. A light roast can be flavorful if you like that sort of thing, as can a very dark roast.” In theory, drinking a lighter roast instead of a darker roast before bed will do you no justice.

Why do Italians drink coffee after dinner?

“The espresso after dinner is ordered only if the meal was heavy, and they also ‘correct' the espresso by adding grappa, known as ‘the corretto,’” Milos says. The habit might also have to do with the fact that Italians stay up later. “My experience has been that the Italians aren’t really drinking espresso before bed because they don’t have a bed time,” Robinson says.

There’s no guarantee that pre-bed coffee won’t keep you awake.

Sorry, there just isn’t. “Many factors would play into this, including baseline coffee consumption, brew method, size of the cup of coffee, bean choice, etc,” Robinson says. In other words, drinking a large latte at 10 p.m. with three shots of espresso might not be a winning bedtime drink. (A 2013 study found that caffeine consumed as much as six hours before bed significantly reduced sleep quality and quantity.) However, there’s no need to be terrified of a post-dinner espresso. Remember, it comes from coffee beans, so it isn’t as intense as you might think. “Espresso, that beautiful shot of intensity, will have the same effect as other coffees,” Robinson says.

Caffeine levels vary drastically.

Depending on brewing method and type of bean, caffeine levels can vary tremendously from cup to cup. “If it is weak, it might not give you much of a buzz 20 minutes before bed, but if it is strong, that buzzy feeling will kick in harder,” says Robinson. “Bean type can also be a factor—some beans have more caffeine.”