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Crema: What is it and What Can it Tell You?

by Tara Alley

With espresso quickly becoming one of the newest, trendiest, must-have drinks for the late night dessert pairing just as much as for the premium caffeine choice at 6 a.m., a new vocabulary connected to espresso is suddenly a lingo that we have to understand if we don’t care to feel completely left out or prefer not to seem entirely uncouth.  So, whether you’ve been bombarded with words like: ristretto, dermitasse, and lungo, chances are pretty good you have heard of crema. But, do you know what it is and what it can tell you about that espresso you’re drinking?

The basis of the word crema actually simply stems from the Italian word for “cream,” and it’s the delicious, creamy layer of foam that you find when you order yourself an espresso.  As basic as it sounds, there’s actually a lot that must happen to form a good crema.  The foam is created as a direct result of CO2 within the coffee beans, which is created during the roast process.  This means, first of all, the beans must be good quality, and secondly, the roasting process must not be underdone or overdone in order for the appropriate amount of CO2 to form.  Although most of the gas evaporates after roasting as the beans cool down and come down to a rest, the gas that doesn’t escape then stays intact within the bean until it’s ground, when it will suddenly become exposed.  This is important because the closer the brewing occurs to the time of grinding, the more CO2 present and the better quality of crema that will be present. Hence, a good espresso will be made with beans ground just moments before use.

When hot water comes into direct contact with coffee grounds in the espresso machine, it absorbs the CO2 until it reaches the point of saturation.  When the water is pressurized through the espresso pull (the extraction process) and the liquid is then released from that intense pressure, tiny bubbles are instantly formed and spread themselves out in the liquid.

This is where crema gets slightly more complicated.  Gas does not directly equate to foam.  You can picture a can of pop, which is certainly full of gas, yet there is no creamy foam on top.  For foam to occur, chemicals must envelope themselves around a gas bubble to build it up and give it strength to stay intact.  This chemical that exists in coffee is known as melanoidin.  Melanoidin just so happens to be repelled by water and therefore finds the closest source of air to attach itself to, which, in a cup of espresso, is those little bubbles of gas.  These little bubbles supported by melanoidin are what pile upon one another to form crema.  Note that melanoidin is not only repelled by water, it is also destroyed by oil, and thus a group of beans with a very high oil content will cause crema to vanish rapidly.

Not only can you decipher the quality of the beans (roasting process/oil content), you can also see how well your barista extracted the espresso based on your crema.  The darker the crema, the higher the odds that your espresso was over-extracted and will most likely taste slightly burnt.  Likewise, a light crema is representative of under-extraction.  Ideally, your crema should be reddish brown in color. 

 



Author Tara Alley is a freelance writer currently working on researching espresso and various types and brands of espresso machines. She is working alongside Coffee Home Direct. She is a freelance writer and coffee fanatic native to Montana, currently writing out of Orange County, CA. You can reach her at: tara@coffeehomedirect.com. Visit her website at: http://www.coffeehomedirect.com/


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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