What is coffee crema?

5 Jul 2021


Searching for the creme de la creme of coffee? Let’s explore coffee crema and how it forms…

A shot of espresso is the base of most speciality coffee drinks. Whether you like to go straight to the source and enjoy pure espresso on its own or prefer to transform it into a creamy latte, you may notice that the shot features a thin layer of foam on its surface. Known as coffee ‘crema’, this layer is rich in aroma and flavour. It can also reveal how fresh your coffee beans are.

Let’s explore coffee crema and what it brings to your favourite brew…

What is coffee crema?

What is crema?

Short and intense, espresso is coffee in its purest form. If you like your coffee to pack a punch, a single or double espresso can be the burst of caffeine and flavour you need.

If you make a coffee with an espresso machine at home or visit your local coffee shop, you’ll see your espresso shot has a fine layer of tan-coloured foam resting on its surface — this is crema. Some people even compare the appearance of crema on coffee to the head on a glass of freshly poured Guinness!

Not only does this layer of coffee crema create a striking visual appearance, contrasting against the dark body of the espresso, but it also adds texture. Smooth and velvety, the name crema comes from the Italian for ‘cream’. It creates a satisfying mouthfeel. Many people suggest it is the crema that gives espresso a more full-bodied flavour and lingering aftertaste than most filter coffees.

In addition, crema can highlight the flavour nuances in different beans — from the mellow caramel notes found in our Cashmere blend to the bold depth of Rocket.

Does all coffee have crema?

Not all coffee contains a silky crema froth. At home, you may like to make your coffee using a cafetiere, Aeropress or drip filter coffee machine. These brewing methods are ideal for creating long black coffee drinks that you drink straight away or add milk to. However, these filter methods do not produce crema. Instead, you get a coffee drink with a high water content and even colouring throughout.

In coffee shops, baristas will usually make an Americano coffee by pulling a shot of espresso then adding hot water to it. Even though this method contains espresso, it transforms into another longer drink with little or no crema.

So which brewing methods do create crema? To explore this, we need to look at the origins of the modern espresso machine and how it works.

Where did it come from?

Well, crema is only present in coffee made through an espresso machine rather than slower filter methods. The modern coffee machine was invented in the 1940s by Achille Gaggia, an Italian barista determined to find the perfect espresso.

Gaggia patented an innovative machine that used a piston mechanism to push water through coffee grounds at high pressure, thus forming crema.

Gaggia is still a popular coffee machine brand around the world, for both professional machines and coffee makers you can use at home.

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to get a delicious espresso at the push of a button, why not explore our range of Coffee Pods? Perfectly portioned and tamped, these pods are raring to go. Our capsules are also completely recyclable — good-quality, full-bodied coffee should never come at the price of the environment.

Espresso machine

What causes coffee crema?

It is the high pressure from modern coffee machines that creates the bubbles and makes crema possible.

During the coffee roasting process, carbon dioxide gets trapped inside the beans. When water is pushed through ground coffee at very high pressure, it extracts the coffee but also forces carbon dioxide out, creating tiny bubbles. These bubbles then mix with soluble oils released from the coffee and emulsify into a soft reddish-brown foam.

What affects it?

When it comes to pulling a dreamy crema-capped espresso, there are elements you can control, such as finding the perfect grind coarseness when using whole coffee beans. However, some factors that impact crema quality are more linked to the coffee beans themselves.

Coffee freshness

For instance, the freshness of the coffee beans can alter how much crema the machine produces. As a general rule, the fresher the coffee, the more crema you’ll get. This is because the coffee bean oils are still releasing gas from the roasting process. Once coffee beans start to go stale, they produce fewer oils.

Checking the roast date of your coffee beans can help make sure you get the tastiest cup, whether you stick with a straight espresso or flex your home barista skills with a creamy latte. However, there are also ways you can store coffee to keep it fresher for longer.

Coffee roast

The way the coffee is roasted also plays a role in how much crema the beans will produce. The darker the roast, the less crema there will be. Many people find that medium roast coffee to be the best for espresso crema as they retain the ideal amount of oils.

Machine type

Another factor that can affect coffee crema is the type of machine you use. Professional espresso machines used in cafes give the barista a great deal of control over every aspect of the shot-pulling. They can adjust how long it takes for the water to run through the ground coffee, for example. In contrast, many at-home machines have automatic controls which can restrict adjustments.

Good and bad crema

Crema can be a fickle beast. Baristas will each have their own ideas on what makes the perfect crema on coffee. Equally, every coffee connoisseur will have personal preferences — perhaps you like a thick foamy layer or prefer just a hint of crema.

Coffee crema close up

Ideal crema

As a general rule of thumb, coffee experts suggest that good crema should have a nice balance of colour — nothing too light. A rich reddish-gold colour that contrasts against the darkness of the espresso is ideal.

A velvety texture is also a sign of top-notch crema. Perfect crema contains a collection of tiny bubbles that create a smooth surface that caresses the taste buds. If it tastes gritty, then there might be some larger bubbles.

As for thickness, how much crema should there be? Again this really depends on personal preference. However, many baristas aim for a crema that takes up 1/10 of the espresso.

It should also remain on the surface for a couple of minutes before dissipating. If your crema dissolves into the rest of the coffee after less than a minute, then it could indicate that the espresso is under-extracted.

Over and under-extraction

The thickness, colour, and texture of crema can sometimes indicate a less-than-ideal coffee extraction. For example, over-extraction (where water runs through ground coffee too slowly, resulting in burnt, astringent flavour) can cause uneven, dark or bubbly crema. This type of crema can also be a sign that the water was too hot.

Under-extraction (where water runs through the ground coffee too quickly, which can lead to a weak flavour) can create pale, thin crema that disappears quickly. Looking at the crema can be a good way to assess the quality of your espresso.

Finding your favourite coffee

Every coffee drinker will have their preferences on coffee roast, flavour notes, and texture.

Whether you want a quick espresso hit or prefer to leisurely sip a foamy cappuccino, starting with good-quality coffee will get you one step closer to the perfect brew. At Hotel Chocolat, we’ve put together five signature blends to cater to all tastes. The Rabot Estate Coffee Collection ranges from light and mellow to fruity and punchy, so you can find your ideal fit. With coffee pod and whole bean options, you’re sure to get an espresso base with a rich, velvety coffee crema.