The espresso crema can act as the first impression of a cup of coffee. It adds body, complexity, and lingering finish to your espresso.
Traditionally, the velvety tan-colored foam has been seen as a sign of the perfect espresso. But in recent years, some of the leading baristas and coffee connoisseurs proposed the idea that coffee crema is overrated and isn’t all that important.
Where is the truth? Is coffee crema a sign of good espresso or is it an outdated belief that is no longer accurate?
What Is Espresso Crema?
Espresso crema is a thick brown-colored froth on top of your espresso. It is formed by the highly pressurized brewing process generated through an espresso machine and adds flavor and body to the coffee.
The crema is created when the hot water gets in contact with the coffee grounds. The water emulsifies the oils present in coffee, which then gets supersaturated with carbon dioxide, creating a layer of tan-colored creamy foam on top of your espresso.
The importance of the espresso crema was formed in Italy with the invention of the espresso machine. In 1938, Achille Gaggia invented the first espresso machine that used high pressure to brew coffee (*).
Using high pressure for brewing was a new concept that produced the “crema,” unique to espresso coffee. This is where the concept that a good crema is needed for great espresso comes from.
What is the Perfect Crema?
No matter how big the importance you place on the crema, this velvety foam adds body, complexity, and lingering taste to your espresso.
Most baristas agree that the perfect crema should make up roughly 1/10th of the espresso shot and linger on top of your coffee for around 2 minutes.
Espresso crema acts as the first impression of your coffee, and if it’s too gritty, too thin, or too dark, it usually indicates that the coffee won’t taste optimal either.
Aspects That Influence Crema
What are the aspects that contribute to the perfect foam on top of your espresso?
The coffee-brewing optimal timeline is 7-21 days after the roast date. If you try to pull a shot with coffee that was roasted more than 21 days ago, the crema will be harder to achieve. This is because the gasses responsible for crema have essentially left the coffee beans.
Likewise, if the coffee was roasted less than 7 days ago, the gases produced by roasting haven’t settled yet. Wait at least 3-5 days after roasting for the ideal crema.
The perfect crema is impossible to achieve without a correctly adjusted grind. If the grind is too fine, the resulting crema will be too dark and the coffee will taste over-extracted and bitter.
If your grind is too coarse, the resulting shot will have a light thin, or non-existent, crema and taste too sour.
Following the correct recipe will optimize the result in your cup. Measuring the ratio between the beans and the yield and optimizing the brewing process for around 30 seconds will ensure the best crema.
The coffee grounds need to be tamped with the correct amount of pressure. Too much pressure will result in prolonging the brewing process and crema that is too dark. Not enough pressure will produce insufficient crema.
The disappointing crema can be also caused by the fact that your machine is too cold. Keeping your espresso machine at around 195-205 degrees F (90-96 degrees C) will give you the best chance of creating a good crema.
The Crema Tells a Story About Your Espresso
Although a perfect crema doesn’t always guarantee a perfect espresso, you can tell a lot about the coffee from the look of the crema.
The color of the crema is influenced by the roast and the type of beans you’re using. In general, if the espresso crema is too dark, it usually indicates that the shot is over-extracted and will taste bitter. On the other hand, crema that is too light indicates under-extraction.
Baristas often talk about the desirable tiger-flecking characteristics of the crema, which guarantee the good quality of coffee beans and the optimal taste of the espresso.
As mentioned, crema should make up around 1/10th of the espresso shot. While crema shouldn’t be too thin, too much crema isn’t ideal either and signals over-extraction.
But there are other aspects that influence the amount of crema that are not directly correlated to the quality of the shot.
Better Crema Doesn’t Always Mean Better Espresso
Apart from the essential steps such as freshness of the beans, correct tamping, or the temperature of the espresso machine, there are other attributes that influence the crema.
These are more nuanced and don’t always indicate a better espresso, which is why some people believe the importance placed on espresso crema is overrated.
- Darker roasts have less crema because more oils have evaporated during the brewing process
- Naturally processed coffee produces more crema than washed coffee beans
- Robusta has more crema than Arabica coffee
- Coffee beans that are brewed when they are too fresh, less than 7 days after roasting, will produce more, but less balanced, crema
The notion that the perfect crema indicates a perfect espresso comes from the long Italian tradition. But since not all the aspects that influence the crema also mean a better espresso, some coffee experts advocate that crema is not all that important.
Because of the strong crema tradition in Italy, some Italian cafes are known to be purposefully using Robusta instead of Arabica in order to have more crema on top of their espresso.
People can also be tempted to judge the quality of the espresso machine by the quality of the crema. But it is important to recognize that since there are more aspects that influence the crema formation, a good machine doesn’t always guarantee a good crema.
Many experts encourage reversing the thinking process surrounding the espresso crema.
Since crema isn’t complex enough to tell the whole story about the espresso, focus on brewing a great espresso shot, and surely, a great crema will follow.
Scraping Off the Crema
Apart from experts advocating to prioritize making a great espresso rather than focusing solely on the crema, some baristas, and coffee enthusiasts even promote scraping it off altogether.
This new movement, which would no doubt give Italian cafe owners a heart attack, claim that espresso with a scraped-off crema has a more delicate and balanced flavor profile.
James Hoffman, a UK coffee expert, and World Barista Champion has famously been scraping off the crema of his espresso since 2009.
He claims that getting rid of crema eliminates the dry, ashy lingering flavor from the espresso, and result in a smoother shot that is easier to drink (*).
Arguably, when you taste two identical espresso shots, one with preserved crema and the other one with the crema scraped off, you’ll experience two completely different tasting profiles.
The advocates of this movement argue that without the crema, which often overpowers the flavor, you can taste more delicate tasting notes from the bean.
Others argue that while crema is making the espresso more bitter, it adds to the intensity of the shot. And some take the in-between approach of mixing the crema in, claiming that this distributes the bitterness and keeps the shot balanced.
To Scrape Or Not to Scrape?
The notion that the perfect crema indicates that you’re about to drink a perfect espresso shot stemmed from the invention of the first espresso machine.
While the important aspects that contribute to a great tasting espresso shot, such as freshness of the beans, correct recipe, or tamping, also contribute to the perfect crema, there are other aspects that influence the velvety foam on top.
Many coffee experts advocate focusing on brewing a great espresso shot rather than putting too much focus on the crema.
Scraping off the crema will get rid of the overpowering bitterness and allow you to experience the more nuanced flavors of the coffee bean. On the other hand, leaving the crema on will add bitterness and balance the complexity of the shot.
Whether you choose to scrape, not to scrape, or mix in the crema, depends entirely on your taste preferences. But why not experiment and try both?