June 26, 2020 4 min read
Of the various elements which indicate a good espresso extraction, the crema is probably one of the easiest to see. Here are our tips for a crema that is nothing short of perfection.
The crema is that caramel-coloured layer on top of your espresso. It adds texture, taste, and above all, is proof that the coffee beans have been properly extracted. In short, the crema is the oils from the coffee beans that were extracted by the machine. If the aforementioned machine does not do a good job (lack of pressure, temperature is too low, etc.), if the grind is not right or if there is not enough coffee in the portafilter, the crema will be affected.
Additionally, the characteristics of the coffee beans used will be reflected in the crema. As a general rule, the higher the quality of the coffee, the more extraordinary the crema will be, and vice-versa. In addition, coffee blends that are oilier, due to the roast or the origin of the beans, can produce a thicker crema.
The crema is also critical when creating latte art, or those small designs made by your barista at the café on the corner. No crema, no latte art (or at least it becomes significantly more difficult)!
Effectively, if you have properly extracted your espresso, you should get a nice crema. However, you should not expect to see the same quality of crema at home compared to your favourite coffee shop because the power of your at-home machine cannot compete with a commercial machine. The machine’s pressure is a critical aspect of obtaining a magnificent crema, so it is normal that your results at home might be a little less impressive compared to a commercial machine.
As such, to extract a perfect crema in your kitchen, you simply have to ensure that you produce an equally perfect espresso. The basic rules: have a good grind, choose a fresh and high-quality coffee and tamp your coffee into the portafilter well. You can find all of our tips here.
Once you have all the variables to get the best crema possible, you still need to know what the perfect crema looks like! This way you can determine whether something needs to be adjusted on your machine or during preparation.
The texture of the crema should be frothy, but dense and fairly thick. Just after extraction, the crema should make up approximately a ¼ to a ⅓ of the volume of the liquid in the cup. It will then decrease to approximately 1/10th of the total. If you tilt the cup to a 45° angle, then straighten it, the crema should stay stuck to the espresso and return to its original shape, like an elastic.
To figure out if your cream is the optimal texture, you can do the sugar test by simply pouring a bit of sugar on top of the crema; the sugar should rest on the surface for a couple seconds before going through the froth and sinking to the bottom. If the sugar goes through the crema instantly, the crema is too liquidy, which could mean that your coffee was too finely ground.
When extracted, the espresso dose should look a little like Guinness, meaning you should be able to watch the crema ‘fall’ down the inside of your cup (which indicates the crema is correctly separating from the espresso itself), which should leave you with small descending wave marks at the end of your drink.
In terms of the colour, there is a wide range: it can vary from a light caramel, almost yellow, for very light roasts, to a very dark brown if, you guessed it, it is a dark roast. One thing is for sure, regardless of the colour, the crema should be tiger-striped; proof of a good extraction.
Obviously, the taste of the crema varies enormously from one blend to the next. However, what is certain is that it shouldn’t be saturated with aggressive flavours: it should have a sweetness and there should be a touch of bitterness to the mouth feel.
The first sightings of the bottomless portafilters appeared fairly recently, around 2004. Chris Davidson, a coffee expert and co-founder of Barista Guild of America, along with his colleagues, developed a bottomless portafilter in order to see what the extraction would look like.
This is also called the ‘naked portafilter’, which is a fitting name, because it allows baristas to analyze the espresso extraction more precisely than a portafilter with spouts. In particular, we can observe whether there is channeling, if the grind is correct, or if the coffee is poorly tamped.
In addition to the ability of observing the espresso, the bottomless portafilter also allows the crema to remain intact, instead of a small part of it being lost when transferred through the spouts. This is very practical for latte art, but also improves the taste of the coffee. In that way it works like its spouted cousin!
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