What Is Coffee Crema? All About This Contentious Espresso Layer

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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If you're a java junkie like me, chances are you've heard the term "crema" with regard to the ideal espresso shot. But what is coffee crema exactly? Is it the holy grail of the perfect espresso? Or is it just another fancy term for coffee foam?

If you’re a java junkie like me, chances are you’ve heard the term “crema” with regard to the ideal espresso shot. But what is coffee crema exactly? Is it the holy grail of the perfect espresso? Or is it just another fancy term for coffee foam?

As a former full-time barista turned espresso fanatic, I’m here to unlock the mysteries of crema for you. I’ll unpack what espresso crema is, how it forms, why it forms and why it’s important. Let’s get the low down on this contentious coffee layer!

What Is Coffee Crema?

Coffee crema is that golden-caramel, honey-like layer that floats atop espresso. If you love ice cream sundaes, you’ll know precisely what crema means to coffee drinkers. Crema is like the cherry on top; the crowning glory of the perfect espresso.

Now we all know that coffee historians agree on Angelo Moriondo having invented the first espresso machine. However, credit goes to Achille Gaggia for inventing the first machine to produce crema in 1948. His inaugural Gaggia espresso machine leveraged water and pressure, forcing hot water through ground coffee at high pressure. The result was an espresso coffee with a creamy layer called crema (Italian for “cream”).

You should note that this delicate foam isn’t just there for the optics. A good crema broadly indicates a properly brewed espresso as well as the freshness and quality of your brew. Crucially, coffee crema also preserves espresso’s distinctive aroma and flavor.

Why Does Crema Form on Espresso?

That’s a good question. Crema is a natural by-product of the high-pressure brewing method that is espresso making.

The road to the perfect crema begins with the roasting process. As a roast progresses, coffee beans release their natural oils while accumulating more and more carbon dioxide gas.

When brewed, freshly roasted coffee expands in a process called “blooming.” This happens as soon as hot water comes into contact with the coffee grounds. Blooming is vital; it allows carbon dioxide gas to escape, in turn ensuring a good shot.

How, you may ask? You see, as espresso brews, carbon dioxide repels water, which adversely affects extraction.

Breville Barista Touch Impress Pulling Espresso Shot

Espresso, which brews at 9-bar pressure (nine times that of normal atmospheric pressure), keeps much more of this carbon dioxide gas. That’s because this pressure is much higher than in gravity brewing methods, such as pour-over.

As hot water forces its way through the tamped espresso grounds, gas quickly escapes. As a result, millions of tiny bubbles rise to the surface of the espresso coffee liquid. In doing so, they release carbon dioxide extracted by the higher pressure in an espresso machine.

At the same time, coffee sugars, proteins and soluble oils present in coffee beans emulsify with these gases. The result is the creamy foam we call crema.

While crema is most associated with espresso machine preparations, it shows up with other brewing methods too. Chief among these are Aeropress and moka pot preparations, which brew with 0.75-bar and 1.5-bar pressure, respectively. Although this thin layer is not as pronounced as with true espresso, a hint of it adds a touch of elegance, depth and flavor.

Why Is Crema Important?

This goes to the heart of the “what is coffee crema?” debate. Well, to begin with, coffee connoisseurs often judge an espresso’s quality by its crema’s richness and thickness. That’s not to say all coffee geeks agree on this; different experts have their own opinions on what makes a good espresso.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

Fresher coffee contains a high concentration of carbon dioxide gas. Because of this, you might notice a thick, dense crema on your espresso shot. The same goes for a medium to darker coffee roast. These profiles release more natural coffee bean oils to the surface during roasting, which help produce crema during brewing.

In contrast, older coffees and lighter espresso roasts will show a lighter colored or thin crema. This is due to their lower carbon dioxide gas and oil content.

To complicate matters further, many roasters used to increase the amount of Robusta coffee beans in Arabica blends. They also roasted these blends darker, producing a coffee with more crema. This, in a misguided effort to equate more crema with a higher-quality shot.

However, the downside was a coffee with an ashy bitterness, nothing like a good espresso. So, no, not everyone, and that includes me, agrees that the best crema equals flavor.

The bottom line is, there’s no direct correlation between beautiful crema and taste. Granted, crema helps espresso have a fuller, smoother body and longer aftertaste. But I must insist, it isn’t the only factor concerning taste. Low-quality Robusta coffees, improper grind size and a sub-par espresso machine, may all yield shots of espresso that taste, well, bad.

What Does the Ideal Crema Look Like?

Jura J8 Crema

Coffee crema is so distinctive you can’t miss it. But as there are good and bad versions, it’s worth my while going through what the ideal crema should look like.

First, I’ll touch on the color. The perfect crema boasts a rich, caramel to golden-brown hue reminiscent of toasted almonds or honey. In a nutshell, this depicts the harmonious balance that denotes optimal extraction.

Next comes texture. The ideal crema should boast a luxurious and velvety texture. When drinking espresso, crema should smoothly coat a drinker’s tongue and be dense enough to linger on the surface of your espresso (not too dense that it feels heavy and oily, though).

Lastly, let’s talk volume and consistency. The best crema is a pronounced crema, about a 1/4-inch to a 1/2-inch thick (6-12 millimeters). This mouth-coating foam should float across the surface of your espresso shot like a flawless canvas of liquid silk. There should be no visible gaps or patches.

Why, I hear you ask? A crema that lingers for several minutes and covers the surface of your espresso preserves the flavor and aroma of the coffee beneath. This, I assure you, is your golden ticket to flavor town!

In short, the ideal crema should be a pleasure to behold. It straddles that curious space that is the science and art of coffee brewing. I can unequivocally say that pulling a shot with the perfect crema is one of my favorite coffee moments. It stands as a shimmering testament to my brewing skill and craftsmanship honed over the years.

What Does Crema Taste Like?

Describing the perfect-tasting crema is like trying to capture the essence of a Grand Canyon sunrise in words – you simply can’t! Still, for the purposes of this post, I’ll give it a try.

When you first encounter crema, the aroma should hit you like a ton of bricks! It’s a complex bouquet of freshly roasted coffee beans and cocoa, and depending on the terroir of your coffee beans, hints of spice, fruit and floral goodness.

Then, as you take that initial sip, you should notice its velvety texture. It should glide across your palate, coating your mouth with a soft, creamy richness.

Next comes the subtle hint of sweetness akin to caramel or honey. This gentle kiss of sugar enhances the flavor of your espresso. It adds depth and body, while balancing out any bitterness.

Degass Coffee Beans Without Airscape Plunger

Coffee crema also has pronounced nutty undertones reminiscent of toasted almonds or hazelnuts. These notes intermingle with the slight bitterness and acidity of espresso. The result is a coffee drink with an intriguing complexity and lingering mouthfeel.

It’s this curious juxtaposition of bittersweet, nutty and delicious coffee flavors that keeps espresso lovers coming back for more.

How to Get the Perfect Coffee Crema

Achieving the perfect espresso crema requires precision and expertise. It’s not just about the coffee beans; various factors are crucial in forming the ideal crema.

The Italians, pioneers of espresso, have a particular philosophy on brewing this king of the coffees.

This philosophy, the 4Ms, emphasizes the interplay between: 

  • Miscela: The coffee blend. Good quality espresso blends will give you good coffee (and good crema!).

  • Maciazone: The grind setting. Using fresh coffee grounds with a recent roast date and the right grind sizes ensure a high-quality brew.

  • Macchina: the espresso machine. A quality machine will almost always brew good espresso over a cheaper one. Similarly, a manual espresso maker brews coffee differently from a semi-automatic, super-automatic or portable espresso maker.

  • Mano: Do not overlook the barista. A skilled barista spends years honing their craft to master the art of crema creation. In short, they ensure that every shot they pull is a work of liquid gold.

Taking all this into consideration, how can baristas, or indeed you at home, brew an espresso shot with the perfect crema? Well, here’s how you can get your espresso brewing game off to one heck of a start:

Go All Out for Fresh, Quality Beans

Always choose a high-quality, freshly roasted espresso blend. If you can’t get a 100% Arabica blend, you may use a good-quality Arabica-Robusta blend.

I would also recommend choosing medium to dark espresso roasts. These have enough surface bean oils to produce a thick, velvety crema.

Whatever you do, don’t use bad coffee. In this instance, what goes in really does determine what comes out. And always use filtered water!

Grind Your Beans Just Right

Breville Smart Grinder Pro Coffee Grounds Portafilter

Next, grind your own beans. Remember to use a high-quality espresso grinder on a medium-fine setting, unless you’re making turbo shot espresso.

Coarsely ground coffee will give you a sour, flat and under-extracted shot of espresso. On the other end of the scale, a setting that’s too fine may lead to over-extraction, and a harsh, bitter coffee with less crema.

Preheat Everything!

Yes, that’s right, everything! Temperature is an important factor when it comes to brewing a shot of espresso.

Unless you’re using an espresso machine with automatic controls, make sure to preheat your machine and accessories, particularly your portafilter and espresso cups. This ensures you maintain the optimal temperature for brewing perfection.

Flex the Proper Tamping Action

When tamping coffee grounds into your portafilter, ensure you use just the right amount of pressure. This pressure equates to approximately 20-30 pounds. The goal is to create a level, even surface for the hot water to pass through during extraction.

Uneven or improper tamping may lead to over- or under-extraction. This is because it affects how water flows through the coffee bed. As a result you may get an uneven or thin, lighter crema. Heck, it may even hinder crema formation altogether!

To this end, many baristas use weighted espresso tampers like these that mitigate this factor.

Brew Like a Boss

Espresso Bottomless Portafilter

Unless you’re using a super automatic, make sure you’ve dialed in your espresso machine before brewing. Aim for a pressure of 9 bar and temperature range of 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit (90-96 degrees Celsius).

The right temperature and pressure helps you extract the perfect shot with a beautiful crema layer. Insufficient temperature may lead to a flat coffee with no discernible aromas. Brew too hot and you’ll get a bitter, over-extracted espresso with an uneven, dark or bubbly crema.

Keep An Eye on Extraction

Next, you’ll need to watch your extraction and, if necessary, time it. The flow of espresso should be slow and syrupy at the start, building up to a steady stream as brewing progresses.

Ideally, this should take 20-30 seconds for a double shot. The resulting volume or yield should be around 2 ounces (60 milliliters) for a double espresso.

Wait Briefly, Then Enjoy!

Once you’ve pulled your shot of espresso, take a moment to savor the aroma and admire the crema that crowns your cup. Then, stir before taking that much-anticipated first sip.

Remember, don’t wait too long to savor your coffee. Espresso with crema is best enjoyed fresh before it loses its heat, aroma and flavor!

Coffee Crema: Final Thoughts

To sum up, my coffee friends, I hope this answers the elusive question, “What is coffee crema?”

We now know that coffee crema isn’t just some fancy foam crowning your espresso but an inseparable component, integral to its body, aroma and flavor. In short, it’s what separates espresso from filter coffees, elevating it to a class of its own.

The next time you’re sipping on that just-pulled espresso, take a moment to appreciate the golden layer that is crema. Without it, we wouldn’t have the espresso we know and love, as well as all the flavor, aroma and satisfaction that comes with it.

I hope you enjoyed reading this exploration of coffee crema. Are you for or against crema in the “perfect espresso” debate? Let’s have at it in the comments section below!

What Is Coffee Crema FAQ

Coffee crema is that creamy-golden and velvety layer that tops espresso coffee. This layer is integral in giving espresso coffee its distinctive aroma, body and flavor.

On the whole, most experts agree that coffee crema is good as it gives espresso coffee its distinctive properties. However, some coffee experts view crema as a sign of an over-extracted shot and what gives a shot its bitter aftertaste.

Cafe Crema, not to be confused with crema, is an Italian coffee drink, consisting of whipped cream over espresso. It is rich, sweet and decadent with hints of bitterness and acidity from the espresso.

Espresso crema consists of emulsified coffee particles, coffee bean oils and carbon dioxide gas that rise to the top of espresso during the high-pressure extraction process.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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