Crema: The Magical Espresso Foam

October 1, 2021
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In keeping with the theme of our last few blog posts, an article featuring espresso as a brewing method is all but essential. Here in the United States, espresso is a well-known coffee beverage, but it doesn't nearly hold the status that it does in many European countries. This, along with the prohibitively high cost of homebrew espresso, has led us to realize that many of you may not be familiar with espresso at all: what it is, how it's made, or even what it tastes like. If you thought general coffee brewing was complicated, then espresso is a fresh headache, so instead of jumping off the deep end into this more technical, delicate form of coffee, today we are going to discuss one of the magical aspects of espresso that has become synonymous with the drink.

Where Does Crema Come From?

It doesn't take a linguistics degree to deduce that crema means cream and refers to the naturally forming foam topping well-made cups of espresso. The espresso itself outdates crema and has its own rich history, but the discovery of crema can be traced back to one man in Italy, circa 1938. Achille Gaggia, an enterprising inventor, and Milanese barista patented the new espresso machine that produced espresso using pressurized water instead of just steam, the standard method at the time. A byproduct of this pressurized system was a foamy head resembling what you may find atop the beer. Keeping that in mind, coffee aficionados of the mid-twentieth century didn’t initially take to what must have looked like a science experiment gone wrong in their eyes. It took nearly a decade before the idea caught on, in part because Gaggia spun what he dubbed “Café Crema Naturale” into a feature of his new device. He argued that his machine offered superior extraction, manifesting in the pleasant cream upper layer. Wouldn’t you know, he was right! Espresso is principally made the same way across the world today, and the foam, once considered off-putting, is now permanently married to the drink.

Crema Science: It’s All About the Pressure

It helps to have some knowledge about coffee extraction (we happen to have a great article on that topic here), but suffice it to say, the key is in the pressure. All modern espresso machines utilize pressure in order to pass water over the grinds. That pressure helps extract some of the more elusive compounds that aren’t very present in coffee brewed using other methods, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2). This CO2 is actually present in every cup of coffee you’ve ever made, it just escapes before you’re able to take a sip. This is due to the absence of adequate pressure: first, without enough pressure, the CO2 escapes from the brew much too fast to form foam. Secondly, the pressure aids in extracting a greater amount of caffeine. This, along with other compounds normally present in much smaller amounts, act as a surfactant to the CO2. Without going into too much detail, these surfactants trap the carbon dioxide in tiny bubbles, accumulating into the light foam we know as crema.

The Importance of Crema

Just what makes crema so desirable then? Well, there are a few reasons, some of which favor form over function. One of the more recent trends have baristas drawing artful designs into the crema using milk, known as “latte art”. Of course, this hasn’t always been the case, with old schoolers preferring their crema untampered. In fact, the state of the crema can be a good indicator as to not only the freshness of the coffee, but also its strength. The amount of crema produced during the brew directly correlates to how fresh the beans are; less crema tends to mean older coffee beans, and nobody wants that. The color of the crema can also reveal how strong your espresso is. The darker it is, the stronger your brew!

Practice your Latte Art Skills with Minas Espresso

Half of the fun of making your own coffee is personalizing it, and nothing says custom coffee like drawing your own design into the foam! Minas Espresso is happy to say that we offer some of the freshest, high-quality beans from Minas Gerais, Brazil. That means more crema the next time you brew your next cup of espresso! Looking for a darker foam? Our Benedito Roast is roasted longer for that bold flavor and dark profile. Not into homebrew espresso yet? We’ve got some great content in the works that explores everything about espresso, so stay tuned!

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