What Is Crema?
In recent times, the word “crema” has become one of the hottest buzzwords being discussed out there in the coffee world right now.
It has become an obsession for some coffee fanatics, because it has come to symbolize coffee quality.
Although crema seems to be something that the coffee world has come to focus on more recently, it has indeed been a part of coffee culture since the invention of espresso, over one hundred years ago.
A Brief History Of The Word “Crema”
The first espresso coffee machine was invented by Angelo Moriondo in 1884, where he displayed his marvellous invention for the general expo of Turin.
Coming from a very entrepreneurial family, the idea for the espresso machine was sparked when the customers at his hotel began demanding a faster-produced coffee, due to their increasingly busy and hurried lives.
The diagram you see below was built by a mechanic named Martina, who worked closely with Moriondo, as the machine received its patent and was subsequently re-patented as Moriondo made great improvements over time.
Unlike the espresso machines of today, this bulky specimen was not yet prepared to fulfill the “express” part of the word “espresso”, and it was at first unable to deliver a hot, tasty beverage super-quick to an individual customer.
It wasn’t until decades later that, in Italy, espresso bars and espresso consumption began to explode in popularly due to increased urbanization, and coffee making became more of a fine art.
Baristas with a high level of skill became highly prized, as they were able to dazzle customers not only with the exquisite taste of their coffee making, but also the style with which it was presented. A rich crema, as it became known, was part of this presentation.
But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Italian coffee company Gaggia began to produce a new line of espresso machines with a revolutionary new technology to make high quality espresso faster and better than ever before. The idea for his new machine was inspired by Achille Gaggia observing pistons of an American army jeep in action.
*Read more about the Gaggia story over here at their website.
Due to the way in which they built their new espresso machines, Gaggia espresso makers became known for being able to produce rich and flavorful crema with their espressos “on demand”, which added an enticing aroma to their already delicious drink. It was at this time that word about crema began to spread, as prior to this crema was a more incidental happenstance with espresso.
What Is Crema?
Simply put, it is the thin layer of cream-like foam at the top of a cup of espresso, formed during the process of an espresso extraction. This foam, or froth, when done right, is usually a red-golden color, and accompanies the espresso into the cup as the shot is pulled, and sits temporarily on the top.
Maybe some of you are having their cup of espresso without even noticing whether there is a crema on top of it or not, but for the professional baristas out there, it’s sure to be a big consideration in their preparation of espresso.
When serving espresso, a good barista can determine the quality of the espresso just by taking a close look at the crema that sits on the top.
To provide a slightly more technical definition, crema consists of gas bubbles suspended in a liquid film which has high “surface tension” between the water molecules.
During the coffee roasting process, a lot of CO2, or carbon dioxide, is produced. Although a great deal of this CO2 is lost as the porous beans cool and rest, with most roasters taking a couple of days between the roasting and the grinding, once the grinding has started, there is also a significant quantity which retains in the cells.
As the hot water hits the ground coffee with high pressure in the espresso machine, the water emulsifies the otherwise insoluble oils in the coffee; suspending them in micro bubbles of air, and the water gets supersaturated with the CO2. The result is hundreds of tiny bubbles appearing as soon as the liquid is released from the porta-filter.
*Note to coffee geeks: to really get a good idea of what crema is all about scientifically, you may want to take a closer look at the emulsion process itself, via this link here.
So, crema is a kind of unstable emulsion formed from coffee bean oil and water being brought together through high pressure. Being unstable, it won’t last too long. It is similar to the “head” on beer, in that it eventually goes away, but definitely serves a purpose when it comes to the smell and taste of, in this case, espresso.
With crema, its all about the anticipation…!
So now that we know (hopefully) what crema actually is in the definitive sense, lets talk about what the heck the point of this is for an espresso drinker.
For instance, does it have any flavor? What is it supposed to look or taste like? Well, opinions on this will obviously differ between different baristas, but here’s our personal take on it.
In terms of the whole experience of having an excellent cup of espresso, crema is there to give your taste buds and your olfactory senses their first indication of the flavors locked into the espresso in your cup. Think of the crema as the first glimpse, or the unlocking of the subtle flavors inside your beverage.
Like fine beer, the crema perched precariously on top of your espresso, or the bubbles that make up the crema, act as messengers of true substance which is your espresso liquid.
To get slightly poetic for a second, you know when you see a sky first thing in the morning, and you can anticipate the type of day ahead – crema is like that sky! 🙂
However, by the same token, if the sky is looking a little bit red and angry in the morning, you may be in for some rough sailing ahead that day. Meaning, crema can just as easily tell you if your drink is going to be good or whether or not you should expect some sort of trouble.
So what makes for a good, or we might say healthy looking crema?
Have a watch of this video to see some healthy looking crema.
Like a lot of things, you can almost tell when the crema isn’t looking so “healthy”. Why? Because it won’t be rich, amber-hued, and full of luscious little swirls. There are definitely some signs which can indicate a problem with our espresso.
Lets quickly run through some of these telltale signs of unhealthy crema…
1. Too light = not good.
2. Too gritty = not good.
3. Too many large bubbles = not good.
4. Disappears too quickly (under 1 minute) = not good.
So the crema can show us as to whether the coffee is fresh (or not so fresh), and how fully the coffee was extracted. However, although it does count for much of the allure of a great cup of espresso, and it does give us a good indication of whether our espresso shot was a success or not, there is something we should mention, which is to say that crema isn’t always an indicator of the espresso’s quality.
Crema Isn’t The Be All End All
The twist here is that you can actually have espresso with very little crema or none at all that tastes amazing as well, and it all depends on the way the beans were processed at the plantations, and on how darkly they were roasted.
On the other hand, you can have low grade beans that manage to produce a good-looking crema, but they still may be bitter or unsavory to taste.
So, on the surface (literally), the crema might look great, but the espresso could still not be of high quality. But all of this points to a broader conversation about the how beans are prepared, of which crema is simply one aspect of this huge topic. The bottom line is that if the crema looks good, the espresso will be most likely good, though there can be exceptions.
How To Get Great Crema
You need a few things to possibly achieve a good and tasty crema with your espresso. You need a great coffee grinder, preferably one with conical burrs. You need a great espresso machine, of course. And you need great-tasting, healthy water. With all of these things, you’re well on your way to being a coffee and espresso expert, and making espresso with the most delicious crema imaginable! Good luck!