Espresso crema is an element that not only draws our attention to the beverage but also provides a remarkable level of textural and visual interest.
The light, caramelly foam enhances a coffee’s flavor and extends its aftertaste, indicating that a beverage has been poured by a skilled barista.
Even though it might not be the most important component of a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, when done right, crema can take its taste and texture to the next level. So, what is espresso crema?
Espresso crema is a light layer of caramel-colored froth that forms on top of a shot of espresso. The presence of crema usually indicates a good-quality espresso shot, as the foam contributes to a better overall flavor and texture.
If you’re interested in learning more about how espresso crema is created, what makes the perfect crema, and whether it indicates a better-quality espresso shot, keep reading.
At the end of this read, I’ll also provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to make espresso with crema at home.
In short, consider this article the “Everything you need to know” guide about the light, frothy espresso crema.
How is espresso crema created?
The creation of espresso crema has often been referred to as the “Guinness Effect,” as the phenomenon closely resembles the one that occurs when you pour a glass of frothy beer.
However, there are a few elements that make crema creation a distinct, fascinating process.
Espresso crema is created when coffee grounds come in contact with hot water, releasing small bubbles of carbon dioxide. These bubbles then attach to the fats found on coffee grounds, rising to the top along with them.
In short, espresso crema is nothing more than a collection of CO2 bubbles suspended in water, at least in theory. However, if you’re an avid coffee enthusiast, the frothy layer provides much more to the overall drinking experience.
Crema is a distinct indicator of espresso, as it requires its particular preparation method to be created.
The process especially relies on the use of pressurized water, which dissolves a higher percentage of the CO2 found in ground coffee beans after they get roasted.
However, as James Hoffmann (the author of “The World Atlas of Coffee“) points out in a video I’ll be linking to in a moment, when the beverage returns to its baseline atmospheric pressure, the water can’t hold on to the CO2 anymore, leading to the creation of many microbubbles.
Afterward, as I briefly mentioned, these bubbles attach to the fats found in coffee grounds, rising to the top of the glass. However, instead of releasing into the air, they get trapped within the liquid, creating their signature frothy layer as a result.
In short, the most important part of the crema-creating process is the use of a pressurized brewing method. Otherwise, the CO2 present in the coffee grounds will never get released in large enough quantities to create a stable foam.
This is why you’ll never be able to achieve the same effect when making a pour over cup of coffee.
Check out the photo below for a comparison between espresso (on the left) and regular brewed coffee (on the right) to see the difference it makes when brewing coffee using pressurized water:
In this article, you can check out the difference between espresso and brewed coffee if you’re interested in learning more.
If you’re interested in learning more about the process and the concept of espresso crema in general, I highly recommend checking out this YouTube video by James Hoffmann himself:
While crema can technically be considered as just a frothy layer composed of too many CO2 microbubbles, when it comes to a real-life drinking experience, the foam inexplicably seems to add a bit of extra flavor to the beverage.
Speaking from a purely scientific standpoint, the foam should be pretty much flavorless, yet somehow, an espresso’s taste seems enhanced when consumed along with crema. This is a phenomenon that’s a bit more difficult to explain accurately.
However, at the end of the day, we’re still visual creatures. Maybe the frothy, caramelly appearance of crema is enough to trick our brains into thinking we’re tasting something we’re not.
Factors that contribute to the creation of crema
There are quite a few factors that can affect your crema’s quantity, color, and overall quality. Here are some of the most important:
- Coffee freshness. Not all types of coffee are equally able to create crema. When coffee beans (or grounds) go stale, you’ll notice that they’ll start appearing duller and less shiny. This is because some of the fats present in them have evaporated with time, and as mentioned, fats are a crucial component of the crema-creating process. As a result, your espresso will be far less frothy if made using stale coffee grounds.
- Coffee quality. Freshness isn’t the only indicator of coffee quality. The way grounds are processed and handled matters as well. If these procedures are carried through correctly, there’ll be a higher percentage of fats still left intact, leading to a frother, creamier espresso shot. Therefore, I highly recommend purchasing from specialty coffee shops if possible.
- Espresso machine quality. When it comes to espresso machines, you usually get what you pay for. Most commercially-sold alternatives designed for home use don’t allow you to manually pull a shot, providing only automatic controls instead. These aren’t ideal if you’re looking to create barista-quality crema, which is something to keep in mind when choosing a new espresso machine.
What makes the perfect crema?
The perfect crema should take no more than 10% of the espresso shot and linger between one and three minutes. Its consistency should be smooth and creamy, neither gritty nor watery. Moreover, the foam should be a light caramel color.
Getting that crema color and consistency just right takes a bit of practice. Ideally, the foamy layer should add body and complexity to a shot of espresso while making its taste last longer on your tongue.
Even though espresso purists might argue that crema is far down on the list of qualities that make a shot of espresso perfect, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Even though crema’s aesthetic appeal is often underrated, in reality, it plays a significant role in our tasting experience.
The overall look of crema is usually a dead giveaway of how the rest of the espresso is going to taste as well.
Therefore, you’ll want to aim for a frothy, light appearance that takes on a light caramel cue.
This type of shade works wonderfully with espresso’s dark brown, while the airy texture creates lots of visual interest, contrasting the drink’s heavier appearance.
Even if the beverage itself is well-made, a poorly-executed crema will inevitably ruin its overall taste and texture. It’s difficult to enjoy a smooth, perfect-consistency espresso when the foamy layer resting on top of it is gritty and thick.
Watery crema doesn’t do much for the drinking experience either. The perfect consistency is creamy, neither too thin nor too thick.
Another factor to keep in mind when judging the quality of your crema is quantity. No one likes to anticipate the taste of a strong, aromatic shot of espresso only to get a mouthful of foam instead.
Therefore, you’ll want to make sure that the crema doesn’t comprise more than 10% of the espresso shot.
This is a quality that takes a bit longer to perfect compared to the ones I’ve already mentioned; however, when you’re able to keep the crema on top of your espresso for the perfect amount of time, you’ll be able to finally enjoy the ideal drinking experience.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want your crema to linger for roughly two minutes.
However, as soon as you start nailing that one to three-minute range, you’ll be able to notice a drastic difference as far as your enjoyment of espresso goes.
When your crema drops after less than a minute, chances are your extraction was too fast.
The process should usually last longer than 15 minutes; however, it’s always best to consult with the owner manual that comes with your specific espresso machine first.
Coffee roast is another culprit that might lead to your crema going away too fast. If you keep on facing this issue regardless of how long you extract, you might want to switch to a darker roast coffee.
If the crema lingers for more than three minutes, you can try limiting the extraction time or opting for a lighter roast coffee instead.
Even though crema isn’t supposed to add much of a taste to your espresso, it at least shouldn’t impact its overall flavor profile negatively.
Whether the foam adds a layer of complexity to espresso is up to debate; however, there’s no doubt that sometimes a poorly-made crema can taste unpleasantly bitter in a way that doesn’t complement the bitterness of the coffee.
If you’re dealing with this issue, chances are you’re behind on your machine’s cleaning schedule. Dirty espresso machines hold a lot of buildups that can sometimes affect crema’s overall taste.
Moreover, as I previously mentioned, the freshness of your coffee beans also plays a significant role when it comes to the quality of your crema.
Sometimes one or more of the issues I listed above can be solved simply by purchasing fresher/ better quality coffee grounds.
Is crema a sign of a good espresso?
This is quite a controversial question among coffee enthusiasts. While some claim that crema is just an aesthetic “accessory” with no real impact when it comes to an espresso’s taste and quality, others consider it an integral part of the beverage.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Crema can be an indicator of a good espresso. The texture, quantity, and lastingness of crema are all linked to coffee freshness, quality, and roast level. Moreover, a barista skilled enough to make an even, frothy layer of crema is more likely to brew a better espresso as well.
In short, while crema quality isn’t always the most important feature in a good cup of espresso, it isn’t as unimportant as purists claim it to be either.
Therefore, it’s safe to say that crema is at least indirectly correlated to espresso quality.
What does this mean? The frothy layer itself doesn’t have enough of an impact to make or break an espresso drinking experience.
However, experience says that a barista who’s not experienced enough to make a decent layer of crema probably doesn’t know how to reach the delicate flavor balances in an espresso either.
Likewise, a barista skilled enough to produce foamy, airy crema likely makes a remarkable espresso shot as well.
As with most rules, there might be some caveats and exceptions to this line of logic. However, generally speaking, it’s an accurate enough rule to go by in your day-to-day life.
When discussing the importance of crema in the overall quality of an espresso shot, it’s best not to ignore its aesthetic appeal.
Most coffee drinkers enjoy their drink using all their senses, sight included.
Therefore, don’t be surprised if the frothy layer resting on top of the actual espresso is the component that makes or breaks their drinking experience.
How to make espresso with crema at home
Considering the pro-crema stance I’ve taken on in this article, it’s safe to assume that by now, you’re probably wondering how to get that perfect foamy layer when making your daily cup of coffee in the morning.
I want to say off the bat that perfecting your crema-making skills might take a bit of time and practice. However, by practicing the following steps and tips, you’re guaranteed to improve in no time.
Here’s how you can make espresso with crema at home:
- Finely grind the coffee beans.
- Fill and tamp the portafilter with the coffee you just grounded.
- Pull one or two shots of espresso.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when making crema at home:
- Make the espresso in a clear glass to follow your progress as you’re making the crema.
- Use fresh coffee beans.
- Grind the coffee beans yourself.
- Invest in a high-quality espresso machine.
- Use good quality water.
Espresso crema is a light, airy layer of foam that perfectly complements the drink’s dark flavor and heavier texture.
When done right, crema can significantly improve the appearance, taste, and overall quality of an espresso shot.
However, perfecting your crema-making abilities can take a bit of time and effort. Make sure to always use the freshest coffee, the best quality water, and a good espresso machine.