The Easy-But-Heretical Fix for Bitter Espresso

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If you have trouble stomaching a shot of bitter espresso, consider a move that might feel wrong: Skim and discard the pale, frothy top layer—the crema—then sip again.

The crema is, for many, an object of desire—mysterious to arrive and quick to disappear. It's also a sometimes-beguiling map to the liquid below, indicating the freshness of the coffee and whether the beans have been well (and evenly) extracted. According to the menu at the Australian café and coffee shop Bluestone Lane, it should be "thick and golden."

But tasted alone, crema has been described as a "dry, ashy, overpoweringly bitter substance that would be unpleasant to drink terribly much of." Its mouth-coating bitterness is what gives the first gulp of an espresso its bracing character—and why I can't help but wince upon first sip.

Photo by Pen Waggener via Flickr Creative Commons

The pale, frothy layer floating atop the shot is the result of the scientific process of making espresso (and what seems like a little bit of magic, too). The water in the boiler of the espresso machine is forced through the freshly ground coffee, which is releasing carbon dioxide. This pressurized extraction emulsifies the oils from the beans and entraps the CO2 and other gases, so that the airy crema rests on the liquid below.

By skimming the crema off the top of an espresso, you can, as 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffmann explained in a 2009 video, remove some of its bitterness.

Known as "espresso-stripping," the movement to scalp espresso shots of their crema spread from Copenhagen's Coffee Collective. Their 2008 blog post noted that removing the crema immediately before serving produced "a more clean and less bitter cup" with an extremely "soft finish."

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But with every win, there is also a loss. Yes, it may remove some of the bitterness, writes Erin Meister for Serious Eats, but skimming also "eliminates a not insignificant contributor of the pungency that makes espresso sort of like the whiskey of the coffee world: It tastes good and bad at the same time, and burns a little bit on the way down." (Or, as one Telegraph writer put it in 2008, "An espresso without crema just looks and feels wrong.")

If you're avoiding the bitter, tongue-slicking qualities of espresso, some may wonder why you're drinking espresso at all. Scooping off the crema, many coffee aficionados argue, destroys the character of the drink. "Crema does taste horrid, ashy, acrid and burnt, and you would think that removing it would make coffee taste better," the roaster Steve Leighton told Caffè Culture, "but espresso is the sum of its parts—drinking an espresso without crema is like eating the icing of an iced bun."

Some might find that delicious; others, cloying. And then, there are the stirrers, who agitate the espresso to mix the crema into the dark liquid below, speeding up the natural process. "To me, this is akin to putting sushi in a blender," writes Brenna Ciummo for The Shot: "I would like the mouth feel and complexity of the layered elements, but you may not. It is okay. We are all unique snowflakes."

Photo by Paul Evans via Flickr Creative Commons

Do you savor, skim, or stir your crema? Tell us in the comments below.

Tags: Coffee, Alcohol-Free Drinks, Tips & Techniques