Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Crema Conspiracy

A long black / Americano: 150ml hot water with a half teaspoon of sugar, topped with a shot of espresso made from freshly roasted week old Ethopian Harrar coffee beans. The crema floats on top.

Crema is the emulsion that floats on top of a properly made cup of espresso. It's like a foam containing all sorts of aromatics and coffee oils. Espresso fanatics worship it, and it seems to be present in every good espresso, but is crema really the holy grail of coffee? James Hoffman took a closer look, and discovered what many a coffee-geek will find difficult to accept.

Crema sucks. It's bitter and simply isnt very pleasant to drink.

The experiment is simple.
  1. Make a standard double shot of espresso split into two cups.
  2. In the first cup, mix the contents up with a teaspoon.
  3. In the second cup, use another teaspoon and scoop off the crema.
  4. Taste the crema from that teaspoon.
  5. Taste the first cup.
  6. Taste the second cup without crema.
I am convinced beyond doubt that 99% of people will prefer the second cup without crema.

Ok, crema isnt all that bad. It gives properly extracted coffee that flavourful 'kick' or "body" that makes it suitable in milk based drinks. In other words, the crema helps the coffee flavour cut through the milk that is added to latte's and cappuccinos. But by itself, taken straight as espresso, it is pretty extreme stuff, and will turn most people off. I still leave the crema on my long blacks, as it floats to the top anyway, and gives the first few mouthfuls that extra kick.

That said, there is a bit of truth behind the myth of espresso tasting better when there is alot of crema. You see, nice, thick crema only forms properly when beans are fresh. Hence the best cafe's with freshly roasted beans will have the best tasting espresso. It tastes good because the beans are fresh - not because of the crema.

Crema is a byproduct of freshly ground coffee, properly extracted.

Most smaller establishments dont have sufficient turnover to finish the beans in their grinder daily, and as a result you get coffee that was probably roasted months ago, and left exposed to air in the non-airtight grinder. Coffee beans are 30% oil by weight. And oils go rancid you see. Imagine leaving a deep fried prawn cracker (keropok) on the kitchen table for a month exposed to air. How do you think it would taste like after a month? Personally, I keep beans in an airtight container and only take out small amounts for each individual shot. Even then, I finish each batch of freshly roasted beans within two weeks of roasting.

Lousy cafe's, and just about every Starbucks/GloriaJeans/McCafe make bad coffee because of stale beans and the part time highschool students working behind the counter. Even the relatively upmarket Dome is 50-50 hit and miss. They grind wrong. They tamp wrong. And they brew wrong. All those factors make for lousy coffee. Instead of a crema-rich emulsion dripping down slowly like honey from the espresso machine, they get black, bitter, sour, burnt swill gushing out into your massive takeaway cup. Starbucks' smallest cup uses two 'shots' of what barely qualifies as expresso (bitter swill). Ever wonder why nobody seems to order espresso (short blacks) from Starbucks? Ever wonder why everyone seems to only order coffee that is flooded with milk and sugar and cream and even ice cream? Ever put heaps of sugar in your Starbucks long black to mask the terrible bitterness and sourness? Well now you know.

Most people have not tasted really good coffee, and that would be the topic of my next post.

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