Don't tell my Italian relatives.

By Maria Yagoda
Updated February 24, 2020

Crema is one of the most prized components of a well-made espresso. Caramel-colored and creamy in texture, the foamy puff is created when hot water emulsifies coffee bean oils and floats atop the espresso with smooth little bubbles. The first crema is believed to have debuted in 1948, thanks to Achille Gaggia, the Milanese café owner who invented the now-ubiquitous, lever-driven espresso machine.

But does crema make coffee better?

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While the consensus for decades has been a resounding "yes," more and more coffee experts are suggesting that drinkers scrape off the crema before drinking their espresso. This is sacrilege for many coffee drinkers around the world (like my Italian relatives, who I hope aren't reading this).

James Hoffmann, U.K. coffee expert and 2007 World Barista Champion, has been famously scraping off the crema of his espresso since at least 2009. In a Serious Eats article from 2013, Erin Meister wrote, "True, taken on its own the crema is a dry, ashy, overpoweringly bitter substance that would be unpleasant to drink terribly much of. So skimming it off a shot of espresso achieves a few things, in theory. Not only does it eliminate some of the ashy bitterness, but it also eliminates some of the mouth-coating foam and cleans up the texture on the drinker's tongue."

On a recent visit to Jacobsen & Svart Coffee Roasters, a progressive roastery in Trondheim, Norway, barista and coffee roaster Kenneth Robertsen encouraged me to try two shots off the same espresso: one with the crema, and one with the crema scraped off. They tasted like two separate beverages with remarkably different flavor profiles. The range of flavor in the espresso without crema was fuller, and spoke more specifically to this particular bean, which was earthy, fruity, and slightly savory.

"In the past, if you had a thick crema, it was considered a good espresso," Robertsen said. "We’ve learned that the crema takes away some of the details—depending on what you want out of the espresso. It makes it a lot more bitter. If you mix it in, or take it off, you’ll get a totally different experience."

As Robertsen pointed out, crema is packed with C02, which lends an extra bitterness, so the result of a scraped espresso (or mixing it in) is a more delicate, balanced flavor that does more justice to the beans.

He's only seen the scraping-swirling trend take off in the past five years, and not everyone supports it. "It depends on the barista," he said. "It depends on a lot of things—it’s not a common thing to do."

I'm still undecided as to how I'll take my espresso shots in the future. While unpleasant on its own, the dry bitterness of the crema makes up part of the coffee's identity. Meister may have put it best in her article: "As with whiskey watered down too much, would espresso be as delicious (or as fun) without the bitter burn?"

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