Wot no crema!?

cofee crema

I was on-site with a café customer the other day when the owner turned to me and said. “I think it’s time we changed the coffee to something that gives a better crema”. Immediately alarm bells started ringing. Crema is nothing to do with the type of coffee, you can get a crema on pretty much anything as long as the coffee is fresh, the water temperature is correct and the coffee is ground correctly.

So much mythology builds up as to why coffee looks / tastes the way it does for a host of other reasons than how it has been roasted. In this short blog I’ll focus on freshness.

The particular site is typical of so many relatively low volume coffee users. The challenge is how to keep the coffee fresh and deliver an acceptable product to the end customer.

So how do you know if the coffee is stale? In the first instance the taste will be very flat and faded. You might even get a papery taste. Simply put it’s a very unenjoyable experience. The problem though isn’t immediately obvious. The grind of the coffee may well look fine, even the timing of the pour may appear fine, however what won’t be fine is the look of the liquid at it comes out of the group handle.

In this case there was just a black liquid when in fact there should have been a dark caramel appearance to the liquid. This is before it even hits the cup. Just to mention I had eliminated any water temperature or grinder setting issues already.

In this instance the grinder was designed with a holding hopper for the ground coffee from which you dispensed the dry product. Again as happens so many times this holding hopper was full of ground coffee. This occurs because café owners are busy people and they see grinding coffee ahead of time as the equivalent of prepping food. It isn’t.

A hopper full of beans and a lower hopper full of pre-ground coffee is a recipe for disaster in a low volume outlet. The beans will be staling in the hopper if left there in the heat for a few days. The ground coffee will be staling even quicker due the amount of surface area the oxygen has to attack. We’re talking hours rather than days, some would say minutes. In simple terms what you smell is lost from the cup.

To demonstrate this issue I made an Americano with the existing ground coffee prior to emptying both beans and ground coffee. Next I took a small amount of coffee beans (circa 250g) placing them in the hopper and switched the grinder on. I made sure that any coffee still sat within the grinder discs was cleared before attempting to make a fresh cup of coffee.

It’s all a bit more painful to make a cup of coffee when you only grind up small volumes. The dosing arm no longer dispenses the correct amount of coffee and you have to watch carefully as you fill the group handle. Really important the group handle is properly filled (see soggy coffee blog).

Tamp coffee and then lock handle into machine et voila! The change is transformational, the coffee produced a beautiful thick crema, the very lost crema that almost resulted in the coffee blend being changed.

I can’t overstate the importance of managing coffee in the same way you’d manage fresh fruit or veg. It is after all an organic product and as we know oxygen is the enemy when it comes to maintaining freshness. The less exposure to oxygen the better the shelf life of your coffee.

If your coffee supplier is willing ask for your coffee to be packed in 250g bags rather than kilo bags. That will help preserve freshness. They may consider doing this if the volumes are low but you may have to pay more for the privilege. 

When pre-grinding coffee. Keep it to a minimum. Recognise which are the busiest trading periods and if you have to, grind some additional coffee ahead of time. The best case scenario is to grind coffee only when a drink has been purchased but sometimes reality takes over!

There are many reasons as to why your coffee may not taste as great as it should, this is just one of them but because it’s a common issue in lower volume sites I felt it worth a topic for discussion.

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