In all my years working as a Barista, the question I was asked most frequently was “What is Crema on Espresso?”. I heard my fair share of myths, untruths, and questions about color, texture, thickness, aroma, and how vital (or not) it is to a quality espresso shot. You wouldn’t catch a bunch of people discussing the head on their beers like this, so why the obsession with coffee?
Basically, crema refers to the thin layer of foam that forms on top of espresso. The crema is a layer of CO2 bubbles that were extracted from the coffee grounds while making espresso. It also contains oils and tiny coffee particles.
With so much said about this thin layer of bubbles, let’s get into the deets about the most talked-about foam in the world. We’ll break down exactly what it is, how it forms, how it tastes, and the role marketing has played in the belief that crema is a marker of coffee quality. Let’s get to it:
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When coffee beans are roasted, CO2 (carbon dioxide) naturally gets trapped and builds up inside the beans. Then, when you brew those fresh coffee beans, this CO2 is released from the grounds. (Over time, the CO2 dissipates so as your beans get older, the gases and likelihood of crema also disappear.)
If you brew using an immersion or drip style process like a French press or pour over, the release of CO2 is known in the coffee biz as the “bloom”. When the hot water hits the grounds a brown foam appears.
By leaving this for 30 seconds or so, this layer dissipates and the flavors of the coffee are released into the liquid. The result is a better cup of coffee.
When fresh coffee is brewed under pressure – the cornerstone of espresso – far more of the carbon dioxide gets dissolved. As the liquid moves from a pressurized environment and hits the cup, it can’t hold onto the gas any longer. So the CO2 bubbles to the surface, creating a layer of foam (lots of tiny little bubbles) on top of the espresso shot AKA the crema.
This is where things start to get a little complicated. For some people, espresso crema is a fundamental, non-negotiable part of their shot. Whilst others argue it is nothing more than a byproduct of the extraction process.
The bottom line, however, is that crema alone is not an indicator of quality.
There’s no doubt that crema looks beautiful and, as the saying goes, ‘we eat first with our eyes’. But good-looking does not (necessarily) equal good-tasting. It’s entirely possible to get a stunning crema on a terrible shot or to have next to no crema at all on a delicious one.
The amount, color, and texture of the crema on an espresso is determined by multiple different factors. So having more or less of it doesn’t mean an espresso is better or worse. Just that it is different.
Why do so Many People Think it is?
This bit needs a little walk through history:
In 1948, Gaggia Achilles changed the coffee world with the introduction of the first high-pressure espresso machine. But consumers were put off by the foamy layer on top as it looked ‘scummy’ or ‘dirty’. So he did what any good business person would do: he spun it into something positive.
Instead of a weird layer of foam, it was ‘Crema Caffè Natural’.
This trend continued in the early days of mass-produced espresso. Coffee companies used marketing campaigns to suggest that the thickness and density of coffee crema was a sign of quality when in reality it was masking lower-quality coffee.
This created an entire generation of coffee drinkers who believed that crema is a hallmark of quality coffee.
Demand for cheaper and cheaper coffee caused suppliers to grow increasing quantities of low-quality Robusta coffee. But it had to be roasted very dark to mask the natural flavor (or lack thereof) of the beans themselves (dark roasts = more crema).
The coffee’s bitterness needed sugar added to make it drinkable. So marketing teams spun this into sayings like “your crema should be thick enough to hold sugar for X length of time”. This cemented the (false) idea that a thick, dense crema was a sign of quality coffee.
Even today, the “sugar test” persists in the older generation with some believing that if a spoon doesn’t stand up in your coffee, you need to add more sugar.
I was once told by a self-professed “coffee connoisseur” that they knew the espresso they were served was “exceptional quality” as it had so much crema… It had come from a Nespresso machine!
If you were to spoon off and drink just the crema of a coffee, you’ll quickly discover it tastes very bitter and harsh. Imagine taking the head off a draft beer and drinking that alone. It’d be weird.
The reason it’s so bitter and weird is that it’s mostly carbon dioxide with insoluble things like coffee particles, oils, and sometimes ash in very dark roasts. Not exactly a recipe for deliciousness. So while it may look like a tasty airy chocolate mousse, it sadly does not taste like one.
But just because the taste by itself is harsh and unpleasant doesn’t mean you should remove the crema from your espresso.
Great espresso is all about balance after all.
The bitter notes in the crema matched with the sweet and sour liquid create a layered and complex flavor that makes for a delicious espresso. Personally, I like to stir my espresso to mix all those flavors together. I find that if you don’t, you start with a bitter mouthful and end with an overly sweet one.
Whilst there are no hard and fast rules (taste is subjective, after all), the resounding consensus from experts throughout the coffee industry is that no, you shouldn’t scrape the crema from your espresso.
The idea of scraping crema from espresso hit the internet in 2008 when the Coffee Collective in Denmark advocated for removing it in a blog post. They’d been doing it with americano for a while and mused about the difference it could make to espresso too. James Hoffman then published a video in 2009 discussing the same, and it went viral.
The argument for removing it is that on its own it tastes ashy, bitter, and unpleasant. So why would you want to drink it?
But the argument against scraping is that bitter flavors are desirable as long as they’re balanced with acidity and sweetness. Without those bitter notes, you fundamentally change the flavor that makes espresso so incredible.
So we’re firmly on Team Stir, not Team Scrape.
That said, if you’re drinking an americano then scraping the crema from the top can release more aromatics. It stops the small coffee particles from adding bitter notes to the coffee making it smoother and easier to drink.
Alternatively, you can mix the crema into your americano to distribute the harsh flavors more evenly through the coffee. This will also create a very different flavor profile as the bitterness is blended through the full coffee.
If you’re looking to make the best coffee crema, follow these tips. The result will be a beautiful reddy-brown layer on top of your espresso:
- Use a quality espresso machine. It’s simply not possible with non-pressurized coffee makers. So you need to look for an espresso machine that uses a minimum of 9 bars of pressure
- Ensure the grind size is right for your preferred beans and espresso machine. Too coarse and the shot will be sour, watery, and have no crema. Too fine and you’ll likely block your machine or end up with a cupful of very dark crema, big air bubbles, and no drinkable espresso
- Apply even pressure when tamping your ground coffee so it sits level in the portafilter and water flows evenly through the whole puck
- As fresher coffee has more CO2, it will produce more crema than old, stale beans. (We’re looking at you, supermarket coffee.) So buy freshly roasted beans and don’t stockpile them – use them while they’re fresh.
- You’ll get a better crema from darker roasts as lighter roasts naturally have less CO2 no matter how fresh they are. But there’s a limit – if you go for too dark a roast, some of the natural oils will rub off and reduce the amount of crema. For the best bet, we recommend medium-dark or medium roasts.
- Robusta will produce more crema than Arabica varieties but they’re also (usually) lower quality. So you have to consider what’s more important to you – a pretty crema layer, or 1oz of espresso-y goodness.
If you’re wondering ‘what is crema on espresso?’, wonder no more:
Crema is the pretty red-brown foam layer that appears on top of your espresso shot. It’s made from the trapped CO2 naturally generated in coffee during the roasting process. When brewed under pressure, the carbon dioxide dissolves in the water and bubbles to the surface along with the oils and small coffee particles. This results in the thin, bubbly layer we know as crema.
Whilst it’s good to look at, it doesn’t tell us anything about how good (or bad) an espresso shot will taste. So it’s not a good sign of quality. Instead, it means the beans are fresh, aren’t lightly roasted, and the shot was extracted slowly enough.
It could also mean the espresso maker uses pressurized baskets to artificially create crema.
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