What is Espresso Crema? Newbie Coffee Guide


If you go to coffee shops frequently, you have probably heard one or more snobbish patrons complaining about the crema of their espresso. Maybe even admonishing barista for their lack of skill. The reason for this is that some coffee experts consider crema to be the ultimate indicator of quality a cup of espresso is. In essence, they claim that they can tell just how good or bad the coffee is without even tasting it, basing their judgment on a visual appearance of crema. The opposing school of thought dismisses these claims, saying they are rubbish and that cream is just one of the factors. That it’s not even the most important one, determining the quality of the espresso. We couldn’t leave such a polarizing issue alone, so we decided to dog in and see who, if anyone, is right.

Continue reading to find out whether crema is the supreme gauge of how good the espresso is or is it just another coffee myth.

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What is Crema?

In the world of coffee, espresso crema is a relatively new addition. Before 1948, espresso was made without it. It was only when Achille Gaggia introduced his revolutionary modern steamless coffee machine that used water under pressure that crema was born. Crema is created when hot, pressurized water from a coffee machine hits grounded coffee. They release oils, which are emulsified and immediately get supersaturated by CO2. This creates small bubbles, which is the foamy layer of crema.

Ideal cream will be red-gold color. If it is darker, it is OK, but too light color may indicate some issues. It should be smooth and comprised of only tiny bubbles. If it is gritty or you see large bubbles on the surface, there may be something wrong with either the coffee or the machine that made it. A good cream will last about two minutes, plenty of time for the barista to place the cup in front of you. If it drops before that, it can be a sign of too fast extraction or too light a roast.

Some coffee companies use dirty tricks, like mixing some Robusta coffee in their espresso blends, because they make lovely crema. Other than that, crema isn’t really an indicator of how good coffee is. Bad coffee can make excellent crema and vice versa. It depends on many factors, like the machine used or the skill of the barista.

Don’t get this crema confused with regular coffee creamer. Check out “How to Make Healthy Coffee Creamer?” to see our guide to healthy coffee creamer.

Is Cream That Important?

This is an issue many experts take on opposite sides. Some claim that it is an essential part of espresso and that it can indicate the quality of the entire process. On the other hand, others say that it is simply a visual ornament and has no bearing on the quality of the coffee. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Cream adds to the flavor of espresso and helps create that beautiful aftertaste. That doesn’t mean that espresso with bad-looking cream will taste bad. Crema is also affected by a lot of factors. Plantation processing, the first step after harvesting, determines how much sugar and fat will remain in coffee beans. Robusta grown in south America will maintain more oils and as a result, create beautiful crema. Beans from wetter climates will have different oil content that isn’t very good for crema. Roasting can also affect crema. Darker roasts bring more oils to the surface, where they can be rubbed off during handling and packaging, leaving less for the emulsification and resulting in a thinner crema. That is why lighter roasts often produce much nicer crema. Finally, espresso machines have different length of extraction, depending on the model. An experienced barista will be familiar with their machine and will be able to control the process for the best results. However, most home machines have automatic extraction, meaning the process can’t be controlled as well as with professional ones. This makes them easy to use, but not suited for the best results and that rich taste you get in a coffee shop.

Yes, crema is an essential part of espresso. It can tell you a thing or two about what to expect from it and maybe even about the skill of barista that made it. However, it is far from being a final judgment on the quality of either espresso or barista. The only important thing about a cup of espresso is how it tastes. As long as crema compliments the flavor, it is OK in our book. Asking for anything else is just nit-picking. Yes, a nice layer of cream does look appealing, but it is far from being the most important part of your espresso experience. In the end, it comes down to personal preferences, and since there is no accounting for taste, there are bound to be many versions of espresso crema.

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