Last Updated on July 20, 2023 by Barry Gray
There is something to admire about a well pulled shot of espresso. Not only is there the enticing aroma that emanates from that dark liquid but there’s also this substance of what looks like bubbles on top.
Those bubbles are known as the crema, and if it’s missing from your espresso, you will miss out on an essential part of the entire espresso-drinking experience.
If there’s no crema on your espresso, it can mean one of several things. The grind was too coarse, the beans were stale, the brewing temperature was wrong, you didn’t tamp the coffee down correctly, or there was incorrect pressure. Any of that short list can result in no crema and your espresso being ruined.
I admit I had no idea of the role the crema would play with an espresso when I started my coffee-drinking adventures. I thought it was simply some air that had gotten into the coffee, and I was even aware of myself trying to remove it to get to the coffee.
Looking back, I was crazy. It certainly accounts for the rather strange looks I was getting from more experienced espresso drinkers around me.
I’ve managed to learn from those early days. Now, if my espresso doesn’t have that crema sitting majestically like a crown on top, I know something is wrong.
But I don’t want you to be sitting in that position where you are looking down at your espresso and feeling disappointed. So, here are the reasons why your espresso is lacking the crema and what you can do about it.
Is the Crema Important with an Espresso?
I said how I used to look at that foam on top of an espresso and wonder why it was there. I had no idea of the crema’s role in the espresso, and I know I’m not alone in that.
The crema is that layer of golden-brown colored foam that sits majestically on top of your freshly pulled espresso. It’s made by air bubbles that have combined with the soluble oils in the finely-ground coffee.
But here’s the important thing. The crema has several functions in an espresso.
- It shows freshness and quality in the coffee. The thicker and more even in color the crema is the fresher and better the coffee. If the crema looks weak and poor, your coffee could either be poorly roasted or the beans are stale.
- The crema will add some flavor and even some body to your espresso. Yes, this foam substance can even add body, which is amazing. That’s because the crema actually contains oils and acids from the coffee itself, and those two things add to the somewhat characteristic flavor of an espresso. I also find the crema dances on my tastebuds, resulting in a more pleasant drinking experience.
- The crema is also something of a shield for your espresso. It reduces the amount of air that then gets to your freshly-brewed shot, which means there’s less chance for oxidation to occur. This increases the time you have to drink your espresso before the aroma or flavor starts to vanish.
If you just look at those three things, you see why having the crema on your espresso really is important. Still, there’s more you should know about it before I start working through the reasons why you may fail to produce the crema on your espresso.
What Does the Crema Add to Your Espresso?
I see the crema as adding several things to your espresso. Honestly, I’ve had many espresso shots where it’s missing, and the difference between the two is shocking.
For me, I see crema as having these three effects on your espresso.
- It will add bitterness to your espresso. The bitterness is caused by the carbon dioxide that’s contained within the crema. Carbon dioxide is naturally bitter, but how bitter does depend on the roast used for your espresso. The darker the roast, the more bitter your crema will be.
- The crema coats your tongue, changing how you taste and experience your espresso. I find it makes the espresso taste more substantial and fuller as a result.
- The crema will also have an impact on the aroma. This is because of the oils in the crema, and those oils contribute to the aroma. Again, this enhances your espresso experience and makes your shot way more inviting.
Why Does Your Espresso Have No Crema?
I think I will have managed to convince you why having crema on your espresso is so important. Without it, your experience will often be relatively poor, and nobody wants to ever experience a poor espresso.
But you probably want to know why it has no crema, and there are primarily four common reasons why the crema could be missing from your espresso.
- The wrong grind size. This is key to a good espresso. If it’s too fine, the water won’t pass through the coffee leading to a weak crema. If the grind is too coarse, the water flies through the coffee, and the crema simply has no time to even form. Getting the correct grind for espresso is crucial.
- Your coffee beans are stale. You need carbon dioxide to produce crema, and stale coffee beans will have less carbon dioxide, so your espresso machine has nothing to work with.
- Your water pressure is wrong. An espresso machine must use high pressure in order to successfully extract the coffee from the grind. The pressure is also required to produce crema. If your water pressure is too low, your espresso will taste awful as it will be lacking in coffee and also crema.
- Poor tamping. The art of tamping the coffee grounds is another vital component of producing a good espresso. Do it too much, and the water won’t pass through the coffee leading to a weak crema. Don’t tamp enough, and you will also have a weak or nonexistent crema as water passes through too quickly.
How to Get the Perfect Crema on Your Espresso
After already telling you why your crema is missing, it should be easy to identify how you can get the perfect crema.
Grind size is very important to get not only the perfect crema but also the perfect espresso. However, it’s not easy.
There’s a fine line between having a grind that’s fine enough to produce espresso but not too fine that it makes it difficult for the water to pass through the coffee.
If I’m grinding the beans myself, I tend to use a blade grinder. It usually takes me in the region of 30 seconds to get to what I’m looking for.
Always try to use fresh beans. If they were roasted a month ago, you may run into problems with getting that decent crema, thanks to the problem with carbon dioxide having already escaped.
Also, stale coffee beans simply won’t taste as good. They lack that punch, and the aroma is also dialed down.
You need to get your hands on the freshest beans possible. It makes a huge difference.
Setting Your Espresso Machine
A major concern is not having the correct pressure in your espresso machine, as that will undoubtedly influence the quality of your espresso and the crema. But it’s not only the pressure that will play a role.
You need to ensure your espresso machine is producing a minimum of 7 bars of pressure, or I promise you will be disappointed in your shot.
But the temperature also plays a major role in the quality of espresso and crema you produce.
What you are aiming for with the temperature is a figure around 200F. However, if you get the temperature anywhere from 195F to 205F, then it will still work.
Get that combo of pressure and temperature, and there should be no problem in pulling a perfect espresso and getting that gorgeous crema on top.
How to Tamp Correctly
The final thing you must focus on is correctly tamping the coffee grounds. Again, there’s this fine line between too much and too little that you need to deal with, and it’s not easy until you get the hang of things.
It’s important to press the grounds down firmly, but don’t overdo it. If you tamp the grounds too much, they become too condensed, and the water will struggle to work its way through the grounds.
This will lead to a poor espresso, and the crema will also be barely noticeable.
I tend to tamp down a couple of times to a point where I can see the grains are not loose, but it also doesn’t look too solid and resembles a coffee brick.
My Recap on Why Your Espresso is Lacking the Crema
I certainly don’t want you to go ahead and produce a poor espresso in both flavor and appearance. It ruins the whole experience, and that’s never a good thing.
So, here’s my recap on the key points regarding the crema and why it’s perhaps missing from your espresso.
- You failed to use the correct pressure with your espresso machine.
- The temperature of the water was too low to produce crema.
- The beans were too old, resulting in less carbon dioxide to produce crema.
- The grind size was either too big or too small.
- You either didn’t tamp enough, or you pressed the grounds down too much.
- Use fresh beans, the correct grind, and set your espresso machine up correctly.
- The crema adds flavor and texture to your espresso.
Again, you won’t always produce the perfect crema. It can be tough to achieve it, and that’s why a good barista is worth their weight in gold.
But by really focusing on what you are doing with the beans and your espresso machine, I know you can improve your chances of producing something that resembles a fantastic espresso.
While you don’t have a 100% guarantee that your espresso will come with a glorious crema on top, I hope the information I’ve provided to you will at least increase the chances of you making an espresso you can recognize.
An espresso without a crema is a disappointment. I don’t think it should even be called an espresso.
You miss out on so much of the coffee-drinking experience when it’s missing, so follow my tips, and I hope you won’t still end up feeling disappointed.