What is...

What Is Crema? (How Do You Get It And Is It Desirable?)

September 22, 2017

Crema is a nice sounding Italian word that seems to get misused every time I see it. I’ve even seen instant coffees with the word ‘Crema’ on it just because it sounds better.

What is crema?

Crema is the thin layer of brown foam that sits at the top of freshly-made espresso. More simply, the foamy stuff on your espresso. It’s produced by the fatty oils from the coffee bean combining with the escaping CO2 gas from freshly roasted and ground coffee. This creates little bubbles that sit in a thin layer of liquid until they dissipate. You can think of it as a lot like the head on a pint of Guinness.

(That photo above has a small foamy crema sitting just above the dark brown coffee.)

Now the bigger question is why do we have crema, what is it for and is it even desirable in our coffee?

Oh and also the same damn misconception I hear people say every time I hear them talk about crema! Let’s get into it.

What Crema Is… (With Photos!)

Crema, or espresso crema, as defined by the foremost encyclopedic oracle of our times (…Google):

Crema is the thin layer of brown foam that sits at the top of freshly made espresso.

As I said above, it’s the foamy bubbles on your espresso, created from fatty oils within the coffee bean combining with escaping CO2 gas that is created from the roasting process.

The little bubbles sit in a thin layer above the brown coffee just after an espresso shot has been pulled. Crema is highly prized by baristas and coffee drinkers alike for reasons I’m about to go into.

Its color is a slightly paler shade of brown than the espresso. And you don’t get crema on top of any other method of making coffee, despite what you may have heard from certain dubious internet experts.

The easiest way of seeing what crema is and isn’t is to look at loads and loads of photos of delicious looking espresso.

Now, crema is present on top of espresso only but will vanish into the mixture when you’re adding steamed milk or oher such embellishments.

So when you order a Doppio you can expect some crema, when you order a Cortado then you won’t be getting crema.

(Don’t know what a Doppio or Cortado is? Then you need to learn about your espresso drinks! Check out my ultimate guide on 16 of the best drinks you can make with espresso here.)

Espresso with Crema Close up of Espresso with Crema
espresso with crema closeup of espresso with crema
Espresso without Crema Brewed Coffee (No Crema)
espresso without crema brewed coffee with no crema

What Crema Is Not…

As previously mentioned, crema is a product of CO2 escaping to the surface of your espresso and nothing else. Some things that crema definitely isn’t…

The foamed milk that is added to a Cappuccino. Crema is not milk or cream, it is carbonated CO2 bubbles. Just because a Cappuccino with it frothy milk will have a similar texture does not mean it is crema.

Found on non-espresso coffee. I’ll expand on this a little more in just a second, safe to say if someone tells you about the crema that their Aeropress produces, you can silently judge them with all the awesome knowledge you’ve gained from this article.

Related to ‘cream’ in any way. A newbie mistake for sure, but a common one. Although I believe the word in its original Italian is in some way related to cream, the English word has nothing to do with it.

Why Is Crema Considered A Desirable Aspect Of Espresso?

Crema is a well-established espresso tradition, to the extent that it is considered poor form for a barista to not have created any on your espresso. Here are a few reasons why it’s so treasured.


1. Mouthfeel

The crema on an espresso adds a foamy quality to the drink which creates a pleasant mouthfeel when you drink it.

Mouthfeel is 1 of the 4 ways of describing the unique taste of a coffee, and essentially means the texture, how it feels in your mouth.

To learn about the other 3 and get a primer on making your coffee’s notes of blueberries and hazelnuts really sing, check out my article on tasting notes in coffee here.


2. Aesthetics

You’ve seen the photos above. Espresso with crema just looks nicer. And it has become so popular that a shot of espresso without the crema looks a little… lacking.


3. Sign of Well Made Espresso

Crema is not easy to produce. The barista needs to make sure things like the pressure, water temperature, tamping, grind size and lots of other stuff is on point.

So in a way, it’s a quick barometer of how well made the coffee is. It’s also an indication that a good espresso blend is being used and that the coffee beans are freshly roasted.


Despite all this, it is by no means necessary for a great coffee. It is very possible to make a superb shot of espresso without a hint of crema on it.

Can I Get Crema With Brewed Coffee?

Crema cannot be made from any other method other than the notable exception of Turkish coffee which uses a quite unique brewing process.

Brewing your coffee with a french press, pour over, cold brew, Aeropress or any of the other great methods of making coffee will not make crema for one reason: the filter.

If you watch your Chemex as you’re pouring hot water over the ground coffee you will see the coffee begin to bloom and form a lighter brown over the top of the coffee/water mixture.

This is the same process that creates crema but none is going to end up in your cup.

It’s the unique high-pressure combined with the way espresso is forced through the coffee that creates the Crema’s microfoam on your resulting shot of espresso.

Are There Any Downsides To Crema?

People generally like Crema on their espresso but some don’t. One common criticism is that the crema part of the coffee is bitter. And it is.

Luckily crema is just created by a collection of gases that are happy to disappear if you can wait a short while, it can be a problem if you hate it but need your espressos burning hot though.

Another issue is the tendency of some modern (and usually cheap) espresso machines to pressurise the espresso in a way that creates crema somewhat artificially. This loses one of the biggest advantages with crema and that is seeing that you’ve got the conditions for making espresso in the right ballpark.

Avoid these cheapo espresso machines at all costs!

How Do I Get Crema?

1. Be able to make good espresso.

The first step to having crema on your espresso is being able to make good espresso.

The ability to do that is a skill with so much depth that professional baristas and coffee aficionados spend a lifetime dedicated to mastering the art of espresso. A little out of the scope of this 800-word article.

2. Use a good espresso blend.

You may have noticed when you pop down to your local roasters that some of the bags say ‘Espresso Blend’ on them. So what makes these coffee beans different to the ones you grind up and put in your pour over?

Well, one reason is that espresso blends have a small amount of Robusta coffee beans with the Arabica coffee beans that are more popular.

These Robusta beans are more bitter, more caffeinated and crucially are better at producing a small layer of crema on your espresso.

3. Use freshly roasted coffee

Buying your coffee beans freshly roasted is just damn good advice full stop, but particularly if you want crema on your coffee.

If you wait too long, lots of the CO2 in the bean will have left and your espresso will not have the right conditions to produce crema. Just be careful not to brew your coffee too quickly after the roast, espresso blends in particular need a little more time to degas.

4. Use lighter roasts

When considered the roast of the coffee, darker roasts bring more of the natural oils in the bean to the surface (which is why dark roasts look so shiny).

This will then transfer to packaging containers, grinders or other equipment which results in less overall oil/fat in the coffee grounds themselves that can be emulsified. So darker roasts tend to produce less crema.

5. Use Naturally Processed Coffee Beans

Beans that are naturally or dry processed will naturally maintain more of their sugar and fat, resulting in more crema production during extraction.

You’ll find beans produced in Africa and Brazil to use these processes, with a movement in other Central and South American growing countries toward ‘Honeyed’ and/or pulped natural processing.

Beans from moister climates (such as Sumatra) will have a very different taste and oil content to them because they are most often wet processed.

Of course, the funky taste of naturally processed beans does put a lot of people off! I wrote an article on the difference if you’re interesed.

Photos

Here’s some juicy pics of that delicious looking stuff.

crema

more crema

even more crema

crema again


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