Because many of you are rightfully tired of us harping on the same topics (as are we!), today we introduce a refreshing guest post from Samantha Joyce (by way of Seattle Coffee Gear’s Brenna Ciummo) on espresso: crema, in specific. — TheShot Crema means cream in Italian, the mother tongue of espresso. It is the light colored foam at the top of your espresso shot like the head of foam on a beer. It is also something of a misnomer, and that adds to the heated arguments surrounding it. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have in your demitasse? Some say crema is sweet and some say it is bitter. People tend to fall into three heavily fortified battle camps: mixers, scoopers and hoarders. This radical polarizing effect leads to different espresso preparations and feeds the flames of controversy.
First Let’s Drop Some Science
Crema forms as water from the boiler of the espresso machine is forced through the ground coffee in the portafilter under pressure. This combines a natural post-roast out-gassing of CO2 with the magical compounds inherent in the coffee. The coffee varietal used and the way it was processed contributes to the crema yield. Crema is visible in a shot glass as a “Guinness effect” of bubbles that rise and form a head on the espresso shot. Some of the arguments presented are purely semantic over the scientific processes involved in this combination of heat, water and coffee. I’ve heard it called colloidal foam, an emulsion and micro-bubbles. Whatever words you care to use to describe the tango dance of gas, carbohydrates, proteins and oils in your espresso shot glass is fine with me. If you happen to be more scientifically inclined then by all means put on your safety goggles and start your Bunsen burner. It is the taste, not the molecular evaluation, which concerns me.
Some think that mixing the crema into the body of the espresso makes a more enjoyable and more homogenized taste sensation. Those who subscribe to this camp generally do not take note of the quality or quantity of the crema produced with the espresso shot. They speed up a naturally occurring phenomenon by manually re-incorporating it. To me, this is akin to putting sushi in a blender. I would like the mouth feel and complexity of the layered elements, but you may not. It is okay. We are all unique snowflakes.
In some cafes they unceremoniously scoop the crema off the top and serve the espresso naked. Great! I would love to try that. I drink Americano coffee and according to 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffman “scoopin” takes the bitterness out of that beverage. He was a big proponent of crema previously and has now joined the crema abstainers camp. Here I think that it depends on the coffee varietal, the way it was processed and the intended beverage to determine if skimming the crema off the top before it dissipates is worthwhile.
For those who chase after the Holy Grail of sweet crema here is a tip: It is going to be found in the fourth dimension. No TARDIS is required to go there. It helps if you pull your own espresso shots or stand elbow to elbow with your barista. Noted coffee expert David Schomer explains, “It is important to consider this in enjoying caffe espresso as a culinary art, for the full flavor and silky texture: you must enjoy it immediately. Two quick sips from the hand of the barista, at the bar. The first sip is bracing, all the sass with lighter body, in the final sip are the sugars, which invariably sink to the bottom of the cup.” The fleeting nature of crema changes from one nanosecond to the next as it devolves into its component parts. Our sense of taste is unique to each of us. Exactly when we tasted the crema will also change our perception of how it tastes.
Don’t be Fooled
There are many caveats when it comes to the enjoyment of crema. Let me call out the shortcuts that some use to achieve (gasp!) faux crema. Pressurized portafilters and superautomatic espresso machines may aerate the coffee during extraction. Charlatans! This gives the look of crema without any taste since it is quite literally full of hot air. It’s okay to do this but don’t marvel aloud at the quality and freshness of your nondescript grocery store coffee. It is just lipstick on the pig. Real crema is impacted by the following variables: Quality coffee beans, processing method, roast date, roast color and espresso brew method. It does make for a lovely photo opportunity though, as fake crema seems to last a little longer.
It Takes All Kinds
Guaranteed in your own gustatory experience you will find espresso shots with very little crema that taste amazing and you will find thick crema that can be sweet or tangy or both. This is the wonder of espresso. There are so many variables and personal preferences involved that it is a shame to live with absolutes. I feel I can’t take sides on this debate. I need further first-person crema research. I need to visit all of the purveyors with staunchly held crema beliefs in order to taste the “proof” of their theses. Will you join me for an espresso? Samantha Joyce is a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear and enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things coffee.
- scott says:
3 September 2013 at 9:32 pm +00:00T
Great article. I was unaware of the controversy. I do agree that crema is a crucial element to mouth feel and scooping it off seems like a travesty. But I’ve never tried it as I love crema but who knows.. I’d hate to think I’m missing out on something great all these years.
- Peter says:
4 September 2013 at 8:50 am +00:00T
We have used much of the best there is in espresso equipment and best there is in roasted espresso coffee from around the country and imported. We have had widely varying amounts of crema and the common thread, much more-so than the equipment used, is the freshness of the coffee. There is a direct link between freshness of the roast and crema as long as shots are dialed in using correct grind, dose and tamp. After purchasing the best coffee from around the country and comparing, many famous even pricey brands produced merely a thin layer no matter what adjustments to grind, dose and tamping were done. The best crema we achieve is with fresh roasted coffee using higher quality green coffee beans. In a double shot glass, the crema fills the glass to about the 3/4 mark, there is so much of it. When we hear of poor crema, we right away think the coffee must be too stale and possibly of poorer quality. Roasted coffee is best left whole bean, stored in air removed valve bag and used withing 7-10 days while ground coffee is good for only about 10 minutes before it loses freshness. Tip: use fresher, better coffee and crema will not be an issue.
- Peter says:
4 September 2013 at 9:00 am +00:00T
The gobs of rich reddish-brown crema we get from fresh roasted gourmet quality coffee always draws comments from our friends and customers about it’s lip smackingly good exquisite taste. Often they can be observed swirling a spoon or their fingers around inside of cup grabbing all the crema left and then licking it all up and saying ‘yummm, that’s the best part’. Scoop it off? Are you kidding?
- TheShot says:
4 September 2013 at 9:07 am +00:00T
As I posted elsewhere, I personally don’t get the point of espresso without its crema. One of the great qualities about espresso is that it has gas, liquid, and solid compounds that each contribute to its flavor. Just lopping off an entire category is like serving boneless chicken without the skin: sure it still might be pretty good, but something soulfully important is missing. There are also few cultures that comprehend the value of the Italian amaro as a potentially positive sensory experience. “Bitter” is always associated as something bad and that should be avoided in North America, where flavors like orange peel to the Fernet Branca are often considered verboten. As a result, many modern coffee flavor profiles in North America are skewed towards sweet-seeking palates typically exemplified by candy-craving children. That doesn’t mean we don’t love the sweetness of a mildly roasted Guatemala Huehuetenango, nor are we fans of the Starbucks‘ volcanic ash cloud. But aversion to a more complex, dare-we-say “more adult” flavor palate is taking that sweetness-seeking to an extreme. Especially when people are scooping off their espresso crema because it doesn’t taste enough like candied fruit.
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