In the world of espresso, crema is all the rage. Often, a coffee shop’s reputation exists in the two or three inch layer of crema that sits atop their espresso beverages. Everything from a cappuccino to a flat white has crema.
This layer of crema reveals much about the espresso beans used in the brewing process. It can reveal freshness, roast type, and even location. But, what exactly is this crema made of?
To understand what espresso crema is made of we must first understand the following:
- How espresso is brewed
- How crema is formed
The Espresso Brewing Process
To put it simply, espresso is brewed by forcing a jet of highly pressurized water over espresso beans at a high temperature. The beans are first roasted in the espresso machine before they are subjected to the pressurized water.
This water then strips the espresso grounds of their fats,oils, and flavor. This flavor is transferred into the shot, which is pulled by the machine (or released) into the espresso glass.
What happens to the fats and oils?
The fats and oils are caught by the pressurized water and trapped with the plethora of microbubbles that are realized during the espresso process.
How is Crema Formed?
A combination of the highly pressurized water, the bean’s fats and oils, and the heat, crema is a byproduct of the espresso brewing process which gives any espresso beverage its credibility.
When the highly pressurized water forces itself over the espresso beans and traps the bean’s fats and oils inside of tiny microbubbles the crema is formed. This formation is ultimately a product of the bean’s emulsification process.
The emulsification process is the “fancy term” used to describe the process we just discussed.
You can see this post to read more about what causes crema to form.
What Should Espresso Crema Taste Like?
When soluble oils in your espresso grounds mix with hot water they create tiny microbubbles and a lighter, fluffy layer of emulsified oils that floats on top of your espresso called crema. Your espresso comes with its very own whipped cream, don’t throw it away!
A good espresso crema doesn’t have much of a flavor of its own. It will have a flavor profile that matches your espresso while bringing out the darker flavors.
This can lead some to toss the crema aside and sip only on the sweeter espresso beneath.
Texture: What espresso crema should provide is a very specific texture experience. It should be very soft and velvety smooth, adding a smoothness to the taste of your espresso rather than a flavor of its own.
Creaminess: When allowed to settle into the espresso, or stirred in, these bubbles can provide a pleasant toning down of more bitter flavors on the tongue and the velvety texture provides a creamy type of feeling in the mouth.
In the same manner as those who add a fat to their coffee and blend it, espresso is its very own bulletproof coffee. No carbs to boot!
Aromatics: The crema should provide an aromatic experience as well, bringing out many of the flavors that otherwise may mingle into the espresso if stirred together.
Some may find this to be bitter or acidic, and it certainly can be depending on the flavor profiles of the bean.
Leaving the crema off can provide a sweeter flavored beverage, but it can also indicate a problem with the brewing process.
If Your Crema is Too Bitter
- Grind: Your espresso may be ground too finely.
- Extraction: Your espresso may be over-extracted. Try a shorter brew time, or a coarser grind.
- Temperature: You may be brewing your espresso at a temperature too hot.
- Freshness: Your beans may be stale if they are only producing bitter flavors.
If Your Crema is Too Thick, Thin, or Gritty
Thick or thin crema can be related to the grind of your beans or the brewing time.
If you’re getting any grit from your crema you should adjust your grind to a little coarser.
What is Crema Made Of?
Therefore, ultimately, crema is a combination of co2, the bean’s oils, and the bean’s fats.
This combination creates the layer of reddish-brown foam that most people regard as the “payoff” of any espresso beverage.
This is also why the flavor of crema is less potent on it’s own than you might expect – with crema it’s all about the look and smell!
The Smell & Look: Why is Crema is Important
An espresso beverage is judged on its crema. This makes crema one of the most important products of any coffee establishment.
A lack of crema can say bad things about a coffee shop, its beans, its suppliers, or its employees.
However, the appearance of a hefty amount of tan crema indicates skill not only upon the barista in charge of the espresso machine, but also upon the coffee shop or individual that set up the brewing process.
Crema’s importance in the coffee world has caused many competitors and coffee shops to turn to expensive machines instead of skill. It is easier to buy your way into “perfect” coffee instead of having dedicated people learn what makes perfect coffee.
Expensive espresso machines are equipped with the technology to mimic crema.
This ability mimics the crema’s consistency, but fails to mimic the crema’s flavor, since the bean’s fats and oils were never harvested into the espresso’s top layer.
This leads us to a reasonable question:
How Much “Real” Crema Should Espresso Have?
As you now know, espresso crema is the small layer of fine foam or bubbles that you will find on top of your espresso shot created by the emulsification of coffee oils under the high pressure brewing environment of an espresso machine.
These bubbles should be just slightly lighter in color than the espresso itself. This Crema should remain on the cup for two minutes or so before beginning to dissipate into the espresso.
The speed and fullness of immersion allow the coffee grounds to bloom during the pull, and microbubbles will form as some oils from the coffee dissolve into the water along with trapped gasses from roasting.
What’s the Ideal Ratio of Espresso to Crema?
The amount of crema you get from your espresso will change depending on the roast of the beans.
The darker your beans are, the less crema you can expect to get from your espresso.
The fresher your coffee beans are, you can expect to get more crema from them. As the crema is formed when the oils mix into the water, fresher coffee with more oil will always create a better crema.
More crema means less espresso so there is an optimal ratio of about 10% crema, 90% espresso.
How Can you Change the Amount of Crema Produced?
- Roast: A lighter roast will produce less crema, while a darker roast will produce more crema.
- Freshness: Freshly roasted beans will produce more crema. Similarly, beans should be freshly ground to produce the best crema.
- Grind: If your grind is too coarse you may find your crema bubbles are too big and your crema too thick. You may have grittiness if your grind is too fine and particles are being picked up in the brewing process.
- Extraction: Under-extracted beans may not have enough crema, while over-extracted beans will produce a beautiful crema and taste bitter. Espresso should take about 15 to 30 seconds to brew.
- Clean Your Machine: A dirty espresso machine can severely impact the ability to make a good crema, as well as changing the flavor of your espresso
This race for the perfect crema has changed the coffee world overall.
Some say it’s for the better, some say it’s for the worse.
I say it’s all delicious!