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How to Make Perfect Espresso Crema

Crema is the essence of good espresso coffee. I like to think of it as the Holy Grail of espresso coffee. Without it you might as well pour it down the drain, and in fact at the cafe where I was trained as a barista, MacFarlane's Caffe in Inglewood, New Zealand, that's exactly what we had to do; no crema or bad crema and we had to start again. Down the drain it went. The test was to drag a teaspoon through the crema and if it didn't close up again and completely cover the surface of the coffee, then it was not good enough. So don't forget: espresso coffee without good crema is not good espresso.

Espresso shot with crema floating on top
Stylish Glass Espresso Cup with Stainless Steel Handle
There are several elements to "extracting" espresso coffee and achieving rich, creamy crema.

The beans

Some beans will never produce crema, even some that are sold as espresso roast. The best espresso roasts use primarily Arabica beans, which originated in Ethiopia, but have spread throughout the coffee-growing world. Some Robusta beans are typically included in the blend because of their ability to generate crema. Most people imagine espresso roast beans to be dark, but it all depends on the roast. You can get both light and dark espresso roasts. The beans in an espresso light or mid-roast tend to be quite dry and shrunken when compared to dark roasts which are plump and oily. If you are buying your beans from a good source, they should be able to describe for you the crema-producing qualities of the beans. (My recommendation: Coffee Masters Ethiopian Yirgacheffe)

The grind

It seems everything has to be just so when making espresso and producing good crema. The next thing is the grind. Basically you are aiming at not allowing the water to pass through too quickly, but not making the grind so fine that your machine won't be able to force the water through without straining. This is achieved in two ways: the fineness of the grind of the beans, and the tamping of the beans in the portafilter. To achieve good crema, for a double shot, extract 2 to 2.5 ounces of coffee into your cup in 20 to 30 seconds from the moment you turn on the pump. You will see this referred to in various places as "The Golden Rule". (I have a completely different Golden Rule for perfect espresso you should read about.) A single shot should still take 20 to 30 seconds, but now you will want 1 to 1.5 ounces of coffee in your cup.

The flow of the coffee when being extracted should be steady and even, coming from both holes of the portafilter. If your coffee beans are ground too coarsely, the flow will be too fast and no crema will be produced.

On the other hand, if they are ground too finely, the flow will be too slow, or hardly any flow at all and your pump will be straining. To a certain extent, you can make up for the grind being too coarse by tamping the coffee harder, or if the grind is too fine, by tamping more gently. With a bit of trial and error, adjust your grinder setting until you achieve the correct flow and perfect crema production. You need to use a conical burr grinder that grinds the beans to an even consistency and which has multiple variable grind setting. Here is my recommendation for a conical burr grinder (Breville Smart Grinder).

Tamping

Tamping is the process of pressing down on the ground coffee in the portafilter with a tool known as a tamper. The tamper should fit snuggly into the filter basket. Tamp with even pressure of about 30 lbs. How do you know what 30lbs is? Get out your scales and put them on the counter and practice so that you get the feel for how hard you need to press down. Tamping is aimed at achieving an even and consistent flow of the water through the coffee. If the coffee is packed unevenly, the water will find its way through gaps in the coffee, flowing too quickly through them for there to be a good extraction; most of the water will flow through the more loosely packed coffee, and not flowing through some of the coffee in the filter basket at all. In fact it is possible to bang out the coffee after the extraction is finished and see whole areas of coffee that are completely dry. You can't make good crema without tamping your coffee before the extraction.

Correct brewing temperature

The temperature of the water has to be hot enough to caramelize the sugars in the coffee to make the crema. The optimal temperature range is around 92 to 96 degrees Celsius (198 - 205 Fahrenheit). The best machines use a metal for the boiler that has good heat retention, such as brass. Also, many machines offer separate boilers for coffee brewing and steam generation. This is because the water used for steaming has to be heated to a higher temperature than is the optimal temperature range for brewing the coffee.

Correct brewing pressure

Effective brewing requires pressure of at least 130 psi, which some domestic machines just don't seem capable of. The pressure rating for your machine will be quoted in "bars". Many of the cheaper domestic machines achieve 8 bars of pressure, which is a stretch when it comes to achieving good crema. Get a machine that is rated about twice that. Sometimes these machines are described as "semi-commercial", but don't you believe it; consider this the minimum standard for your home espresso machine. (My recommendation: Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler Semi Automatic Espresso Machine or the Gaggia Evolution. See my reviews).

At the beginning, you will have to accept a certain amount of trial and error. Practice, practice, and practice some more. Vary everything: the grind, the amount of tamping pressure you use, and your beans.

With just a little bit of practice, provided you are using good fresh beans, you too will be pulling the perfect espresso shot with a rich layer of crema floating on top. Yum!


23 comments:

  1. Thanks alot. Your posts have been really helpful to me. I recently started using my step-dad's espresso machine and have been in need of some guidance.

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  2. So glad you've found my articles helpful. Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment.

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  3. This is so useful for me! I'm glad you wrote this up; now I think I know enough to hopefully make some good espresso, or at least start practicing.

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  4. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for visiting and glad you found it useful. Best of luck creating your own perfect crema.

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  5. Nice article, very helpful...going to go down to my shop now and try...not sure how it will go though, we have a commercial machine but I don't know how accurate it is. My company is too focused on volume instead of value...

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  6. Will be interested to know how things went, Andre.

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  7. I have just attempted my first ever coffee on a standard home espresso machine. Was ok - wasn't expecting much. Wanted to try it out first and see how it worked before I got too technical and started searching for technique. So here I am on your blog (out of all the coffee sites on the web!) Second thing I read on your blog about McFarlanes cafe in Inglewood. Ahhhh... It makes perfect sense now. The Inglewood McFarlanes cafe is the BEST coffee in the world. I live in NP and could get a reasonably good McFarlands coffee from several places over the years, but I'd say the general standard of NP McFarlanes coffees has dropped in the last few years as McFarlanes afilliates have watered the technique down perhaps? (I'm now wondering this reading your blog about barista training?) I could be wrong. But an Inglewood McFarlanes cafe when out that way or traveling south is almost the best part of my trip! Large caramel flat white thanks :-) I will be trawling through your blog now with more of a personal and local interest knowing your advice must be the best!

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  8. Thanks for you feedback, Annon. It's a long time since I worked at MacFarlanes and often the best becomes a victim of its own success. Hopefully the "mother-ship" in Inglewood will at least maintain its standards.

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  9. Cheers for this, it is quite hard to find good espresso tips on the net and I am to poor to pay a couple of hundred dollars for a Batista coarse.

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  10. An excellent piece of work! Its 2012 and this page is as fresh as a perfect cup of espresso. I bought myself a small espresso marchine (15 bars) and working hard to get a perfect shot. With your tips, I should get there very soon.

    Many thanks!

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  11. Really good article! It helps a lot for me, a rookie. So do you have any recommendation of the brand of Arabica espresso beans that can generate lots of crema?

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  12. Hi,
    This was a great article. I have a Gaggia Classic Expresso machine and grinder. I get a nice crema that is a brownish/tan in color.
    For my birthday, my wife got me a Pasquini Livia g4. I set the boiler temperature to 200 degrees and pulled an espresso. The crema was about 1 CM thick (what I am use to) but the color was not as dark as usual. The doser did not seem to take as much coffee as the gaggia. Could that be the problem, or am I doing something else wrong?

    Thanks,

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  13. HI,
    I have a gaggia classic espresso machine and grinder. It pulls a good espresso w/ crema that is usually about 1cmm thick and a dark tan in color.
    My wife got me a pasquini livia G4. It should be a better pull. However, when I pulled my first expresso, the crema was about 1cm thick but lighter in color and the espresso tasted "thinner" to me. I had set the boiler temperature to 200F.
    It seemed like the doser takes a little less coffee than the gaggia's does. Is that the problem or am I doing something else wrong?

    Thanks,

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  14. Thanks for great article!!!

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  15. This is so helpful but I have 1 confusion going on in my head. I just purchased a decent espresso machine and it comes with a 4 cup carafe. My question is..if an espresso is one shot or 1 oz why does my machine come with a 4 cup container? Wouldnt that make it to diluted with water? Also the "4 cups" is actually only about 8 oz.

    I keep reading that you use about 1 tablespoon of coffee for 1 shot of espresso but my container is 8 oz so doesnt that mean its just making a normal cup of coffee and not an espresso???!!!

    Im not really understanding this. Anyways..would it be safe to only put 1 oz of coffee in the reservoir and brew the 1 oz of espresso in an espresso cup? Or do I just put in the 8oz of water into the reservoir and turn the machine off once it makes 1 oz of coffee? (as it wont automatically know Im only in need of 1 oz of course)

    This is just confusing me a bunch for some reason lol. Thank you so much for any advice on this!!!

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  16. Hi Trina,

    Can you let me know what make and model of machine you are using?

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  17. Yes! I am using the bialetti 5 bar pressure steam espresso machine here is a link to it pretty sure this is it http://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/1/1/348006-bialetti-steam-espresso-maker.html

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  18. Hi Trina,

    Did you notice the review for the machine? Take a look at it. The person who wrote the review says "However, it does NOT brew true espresso. You will never be able to get a thick crema from this machine..."

    A true espresso machine does not brew into a carafe. Espresso coffee is brewed directly into either the cup or a small pitcher. (My recommendation is that you brew directly into the cup as I wrote about in my post The Gold Rule of Espresso Making).

    So yes, as you suggest, just don't use the carafe, but rather put your cup below it. However, I'm afraid the portafilter (the thing you put your ground espresso into) may only be designed for making 8 oz, or are there a variety of "baskets" to put in the portafilter? If there is only one size, filling it less than full with coffee grinds will just make runny coffee.

    Anyhow, all I can say is to play around but unfortunately I agree with the person who wrote the review: this is not a "real" espresso machine, despite how it is described on the website.

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  19. Oh thank you so much for your input!! I will try it out a few more days and see how it goes...we have kept the receipt and all the packings so Im sure we could return or exchange if needed... do you have any suggestions for an espresso machine that isnt too expensive or similar in price perhaps (under $100)?

    There miiiiight be different sized baskets that you can buy separately...but I am not 100% sure about that!
    55

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  20. Hi Trina,

    Unfortunately I don't think there are any espresso machines under $100 that I could recommend. The cheapest one that I have used and can recommend is the Gaggia Evolution. You can read my recommendation at Gaggia Evolution espresso maker recommendation. There are probably some others in that price range that are good, but I only recommend what I have tried myself.

    Good luck on your quest!

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  21. Great definitions and methods for brewing coffee. I'm becoming a coffee snob and just got an espresso machine at home. Now I know the difference between a cappucino, latte, and flat white. I can't wait to try making them!

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  22. A bit long, I'm afraid, and I'm an Englishman writing from France

    Anyway, some years ago, whilst still in the UK I bought a Gaggia Baby, plus a Gaggia burr grinder. The coffee it produced was good with a reasonable crema After about 5 years servcie, I replaced it with a Nespresso machine, which also produced (in my opinion), good coffee.

    Last week, I treated myself to a Sage (Heston Blumenthal trade name) dual-boiler machine (in the US it's marketed as a Breville, I believe), plus the accompanying automatic grinder.

    Now, I've been faffing around with this for days, and just cannot get a nice tasting espresso, with a crema - it's always dark, and bitter, and looks nothing like those that you manage to pull!. I've tried everything I can think of, and followed various instructional videos (yours are particularly good).

    I've varied the grind, the amount, the tamping etc., etc, and the coffee machine always manages a 30 second or so shot, with just over 9 Bars of pressure, but the result is awful.

    I've tried various beans, from various sources, too - the only thing I can't establish is the roast date of the beans in each case, so heaven knows if they're six weeks or six months old.

    But still the result is dark, and bitter.

    I've mastered milk frothing, and that's just about all!

    Any pointers, please - I'm throwing away a lot of coffee!

    Thanks

    Chris

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  23. Hi Chris(xenisega),

    My apologies for the delay in responding. From what you described, the only thing that could be causing you not to get any crema is the beans. Either they are oxidized/stale, or too roasted. Are there any coffee shops near you that do their own roasting? Hopefully there are and you can buy some beans from them that are within a few days of being roasted. Also, be sure not to use a dark roast. If the beans are shiny from oils from the beans, then they will not generate crema. You preferably want a medium roast, or even a light roast.

    See if you can get better results with fresh medium-roast beans and let me know how it goes.

    John

    ReplyDelete

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