The Golden Rule of Espresso Coffee Making

By now you've probably studied my 9 steps to making perfect espresso coffee and the separate lesson on making perfect crema. In the lesson on making perfect crema, I made reference to "The Golden Rule" that you see frequently quoted, which is: "Extract 2 to 2.5 ounces of coffee into your cup in 20 to 30 seconds from the moment you turn on the pump."

I have a completely different Golden Rule for making perfect espresso coffee that I am going to share with you now.

Perfect Crema
New Zealand where I grew up has an even more deeply entrenched "espresso coffee culture" than the United States, and there is one significant difference in how espresso coffee is made in New Zealand cafes and coffee shops. That key difference is this: in the United States the espresso is typically brewed into a pitcher and then poured into the cup. In New Zealand, and many other countries for that matter, the espresso is brewed directly into the cup from which is will be drunk.  This one simple difference makes a huge difference in flavor. Why? The crema!

Crema is the caramelized coffee sugars and coffee proteins that float on top of a well-brewed espresso coffee, and carries with it immense aroma and flavor. If you've had espresso and not liked it, it may have been because the "barista" didn't do a good job of making the espresso and literally threw most of the crema down the drain!

How so? Quite easily; by using the technique popular in the U.S. of brewing the espresso into a pitcher and then pouring it into the cup, most of the crema is left clinging to the sides of the pitcher, to be washed down the drain. What a crying shame! But it happens millions of times all over the U.S. in almost every coffee shop.

Crema - The Liqueur of Coffee

Crema consists of caramelized coffee sugars and coffee proteins.  It will be formed only when you brew your coffee at the right pressure and right temperature. Read this lesson on how to make perfect crema.

Crema left behind
Here's an illustration of what I mean. I brewed an espresso into a glass demitasse cup so you can clearly see the caramel-like foam on the top called "crema". Sometimes it may even appear milky-white when looking down on it, hence the name "crema".  Then I poured the espresso out into another cup. Look at all the crema left behind on the sides of the demitasse cup! The same thing happens when the coffee is extracted into a stainless steel pitcher and then poured into a cup.

Why is it that here in America so many coffee shops wash crema down the drain?

So that's my Golden Rule: Make your espresso directly into the cup from which you are going to drink it!  Don't be guilty of washing your crema down the drain. You'll be amazed at the difference in flavor!

To be able to make espresso with great crema, several things need to come together. After your espresso maker, the next most important thing is the beans you use. You can raise your chances of success by using these Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans that I buy on standing order from Amazon every month.


  1. Hello John! Thank you for a great coffee blog. I am a newbie, gleaning info as I can. My limitations are finances (ha!), and I live in Peru, where even spinning-knife coffee grinders are hard to find. I do not aspire to be a purist, but I switched to espresso in steamed milk when I decided my lifelong habit of drip cofffee with non-dairy creamer (all that's available here) was too much of a health hazard. I purchased a small home espresso machine - Oster, one boiler, no information whatsoever on pressure amounts. Ooops. I have not been able to get any crema at all in my espresso. I adjusted the packing and amounts with no success. I have a couple of questions: one, if I grind whole beans with the knife grinder instead of a conical grinder, how much quality am I losing? And two, is there any way to calculate how much pressure is produced in my machine without info on the machine or in the manual? I am using a aerator to stretch my milk, as the one on my machine is not good. Thanks again!

  2. Hi Beth, So nice to hear from someone who is passionate about trying to make some good coffee to enjoy at home. I will try and give you some tips to work with what you have got. With your "mill" grinder, the greatest difficulty is getting a consistent grind, plus there can be some burning of the coffee because of the high speed of the blades. You can also consider buying beans that are already ground, but they need to be really fresh, or if you can, buy whole beans at a store that has a grinder available for you to grind the beans when you buy them - that's if such arrangements exist in Peru. Here in the U.S. it is quite common.

    Make sure you are grinding the beans fine enough. If you are grinding them to the point that they are more "gritty" rather than "powdery sand", then you need to grind them a bit longer perhaps.

    Also, the beans themselves have a huge impact on whether you will get crema or not. You will probably have no luck at all getting crema if you are using dark-roasted beans that are oily. The best beans are those that are a medium roast with little to no oil evident on the outside of the bean. If the beans are shiny, then they have been roasted too long for making espresso crema.

    Play around with packing your portafilter as full as possible. You need to be able to lock the portafilter in place still otherwise it will blow off under the pressure of expressing the coffee, but pack/tamp the coffee into the portafilter with as much pressure as possible with it being as full as possible. However I know from past experience, you can get to the point where you machine won't be able to produce enough pressure to force the water through the coffee, so you will need to play around.

    Anyhow, from my own experience with less expensive machines in the past, the most critical thing is the beans, so you need to find the right roast. Next is the grind; if it's too coarse then the water will simply pass quickly through the coffee grinds and make something like bad filtered coffee.

    Good luck and let me know how it goes.


  3. Hei,
    I bought a La Pavoni hand worked espresso machnie and now I'm strugling to get some crma on my espresso. All the info I get is welcome so I came across your blog. Right now I am using
    Lavazza arabica espresso beans

    But I het 0.0 crema... I wanted to follow your advice on theCoffee Masters Gourmet Coffee, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, but I can't buy it in Holland. Di yoy have any more tips on which beans make good crema and also availavle in Holland or Europe. I came across Thijs one but am not certain

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sorry for the typos, tried to fix it, it won't let me. I said I was having problems steaming, with very little foam. Also, if anyone is having this problem, try the trace minerals. My machine steams like a champ now.

    2. Hi Dawnia. Despite the typos, I did understand your first post (which unfortunately you have now deleted so it's not clear what your problem was and how you resolved it). Anyhow, I only use distilled water in my Breville espresso machine which I make myself with a still like this: Pure Water Distiller All Stainless Steel Internal 4L Purifier Filter Effective. I have never had any of the issues you mentioned with steaming milk. It's amazing to think I have probably had my machine for 4 or 5 years now, and it's still going strong. Using distilled water certainly extends its life, I'm sure. John

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