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What is crema in coffee and espresso?

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Crema explained

Crema is what makes an espresso picture perfect. It’s more than a question of taste, it’s a tradition and no barista worthy of this name would ever dream of serving a coffee grounds without a thick layer of foam. 

There are some infidels out there who say crema is not that important, but they are very wrong as the golden-brown foam adds to the flavor of espresso and gives it its particular aftertaste.

It’s a shame regular coffee doesn’t come with a layer of foam, although there is one particular brewing method that allows you to get a pretty decent crema.

What is crema?

The aromatic layer of foam that sits on top of a good espresso is made when air bubbles combine with the oily substances in coffee grounds. Now, if your espresso has a layer of foam, this doesn’t mean it automatically qualifies as good crema.

A coffee expert can tell many things about its quality just by looking at it.

  • First, the color, which has to be quite right – not too dark, which is a sign of over-extraction, and not too light, which means quite the opposite, under-extraction of the coffee. A perfect crema should be hazelnut with reddish highlights.
  • A proper crema should last for approximately two minutes before sinking into the espresso. If it vanishes in under a minute, that should tell you that either the coffee is not high quality or the barista is still new to the trade and has a thing or two to learn.
  • Last, but not least, the crema should be smooth and velvety, the odd gritty bit is not a good sign.

Barista tip: The layer of foam should be neither too thick, nor too thin. Ideally, crema should be about 1/10 of an espresso.

What affects crema?

Obviously, the type of coffee used has a great influence on the quality of the crema. Arabica coffee is widely seen as a superior, more flavorful type of coffee but is Robusta coffee that is best suited for espresso as it creates better crema.

Another factor is the color of the beans. Dark roasts make little crema, but light roasts aren’t ideal either. Many companies have their special blends designed to create the perfect espresso with just the right amount of oils for a perfect crema

Look on the label of the package to see if it is marked as an espresso roast

Freshness also plays an important role. Freshly-roasted beans are the best, but also hard to find on the market. If you have an espresso machine at home you should look for a reliable supplier able to provide beans straight from the roaster.

What coffee types have crema?

Not many, actually. You won’t find any foam in the pot of your coffee drip. However, there is one type of coffee that can have a layer of foam thick enough to rival that of espresso.

We’re talking about Turkish coffee, traditionally brewed on the stovetop. Coffee is brewed in a special pot with a long handle known as Ibrik. The best are those made of copper as these take longer to heat, and the longer the cooking takes, the more crema you get.

If you don’t have a copper Ibrik, you can use a regular kettle. To get as much crema as possible you can force the coffee to produce more foam by keeping it longer at the overflow point. 

You need to remove as much crema as you can with a spoon, put it in the cups while the pot continues to boil, before finally taking it off the heat source. Pour the coffee gently into the cups to allow the crema to rise to the surface. 

A thick layer of hazelnut-colored crema is the sign of a good espresso. If you want to prove your talents as a barista make sure you use an espresso blend of freshly-roasted beans.

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