Cup with Espresso Crema

Is Nespresso real crema?

We have been returning often on the comparison of Nespresso with real espresso. We like to explore the differences between coffee brewing systems, in a fair way. Not like in marketing or such. If you haven’t read our previous explorations on the subject yet, we wrote on how Nespresso and Espresso compare and whether Nespresso is to be considered real espresso. Both are about how Nespresso coffee made with any of the Nespresso machines compares to coffee made with an espresso machine, and whether Nespresso can rightfully be considered as a proper espresso.

Both our previous articles were on the scientific/technical aspects that make a good espresso and explored how these applied to the coffee that is normally brewed with a Nespresso machine. Both articles are a prerequisite read to this article, so head to the above links first if you haven’t read those.

In this one, we want to explore what makes an espresso a “real” one in terms of taste profile and aesthetics.

Yes, appearance matters with espresso. It is the single coffee drink that can be immediately recognized by anybody, even non-coffee drinkers, just by looking at it. If you aren’t an expert or an usual drinker at least, you can’t discern between a latte and a cappuccino, or a macchiato and an affogato. An americano can look like a pour over to the uninitiated.

An espresso is unique in this regard. And that’s thanks to its crema. That little foamy coffee layer that sits on top of any properly made espresso. Other brewing systems can create a little foam as well, but none as thick, dense, as persisting as an espresso.

Therefore, the first question of our comparison: is Nespresso’s real crema? Exactly like an espresso? Let’s see.

How espresso’s crema is formed, anyway?

Some definitions are necessary here. In an espresso machine the combination of high pressurized water and the beans’ fats and oils generate the crema. The water passes through the coffee grounds, trapping the fats and oils into tiny micro-bubbles. It’s a bit like when you foam milk for a cappuccino, only made with coffee alone. It is technically called “emulsification”.

A few factors influence how crema is formed and its qualities. Namely:

  • Freshness
  • Plantation location
  • Beans variety
  • Roast level
  • Brewing technique

Any coffee can make crema brewed as an espresso. But fresh coffee has more CO2 in it, which can be trapped by the brewing process and make a more foamy crema. Fresh coffee grounds will make better, thicker, longer lasting crema than months’ old ones.

Roasted Coffee Beans
Roasted Coffee Beans

Second, the plantation location of the coffee used for an espresso plays an important role in the formation of the crema. This is because the beans have unique characteristics, like more fats and oils, depending on where they’ve been grown and what process was used before the roasting. A dry processed coffee can retain more fats and oils, and this will help in making a good crema. Temperature and moisture influence the fat content percentage in the beans. The way the raw coffee is stored also can increase or not the fatty acids in it, making it more prone to generate a good crema later.

If you want to investigate more these differences, a good scientific paper is this (pdf).

Arabica has a higher lipid content compared to Robusta. Typically, 15% of Arabica beans are fats or oils, versus a 10% in Robusta beans. Espressos made with mostly or fully Arabica coffee should have an advantage in making a good crema.

Third element influencing the quality and quantity of espresso crema is the roasting level. Dark roasted coffee will have more oils on the surface, possibly losing some of them while handling the beans, grinding them and so on. These oils will not be present then when brewing, making for a slightly lower amount of crema.

Light roasts aren’t usually the main beans used in an espresso because they have developed fewer oils than darker roasts, overall. Most companies thus develop “espresso blends” that are either medium roasts or a mix of various roasting levels, to balance out any differences and have a harmonious espresso, with a good crema.

Last factor is the brewing technique. For instance, some of the best espresso machines have properly sized portafilters where to put the coffee grounds, much larger than a Nespresso capsule. This gives them an advantage in terms of crema production, as these portafilters can aerate the coffee better and introduce then more air into the coffee when brewing. The results are more bubbles.

Krups Nespresso Machine Brewing
Krups Nespresso Machine Brewing

The right grind size is also an important element to consider when we want to produce a good crema. Too coarse grounds will not be evenly extracted by the espresso machine, and will not thus be able to produce as much crema as finer grounds. Plus, the temperature of water is an influence on the overall brew, crema production included.

Lastly, a clean machine helps to avoid stale coffee residues to pollute the fresh brews. Espresso machines are regularly cleaned after each brew, whereas Nespresso ones aren’t. They should, and most Nespresso drinkers do, but it’s not a given. Flushing hot water between each brew is advisable but not comparable to completely removing the portafilter to clean it, as it is usually done in a cafe. Old coffee grounds remaining inside the machine are spent and can’t contribute to making a rich crema. Quite the opposite, they may infinitesimally obstruct the passage of the fresh coffee, worsening the flow and imperceptibly ruining the Nespresso’s crema.

Is Nespresso real crema then?

Considering the above factors, Nespresso could make a perfectly fine espresso crema. But as with anybody who has regularly drunk espresso at their local café and has a Nespresso machine at home has noticed, the crema on top of a Nespresso coffee is slightly weaker, less creamy and more bubbly, than what can be obtained with an average espresso machine.

Spoon in Cup of Coffee
Spoon in Cup of Coffee

Without getting into technical details (you can read them in the previous article), Nespresso is more than capable of making a “true” espresso. Yet the crema doesn’t seem quite right. This is because of the shortcomings of the Nespresso system and because of the compromise being made in favor of convenience with this system. In simple words, the “portafilter” that is included into the Nespresso machines isn’t as big as a proper espresso one, thus unable to aerate the coffee grounds.

That would explain only part of the differences, though.

The primary reason why Nespresso isn’t quite real crema is the freshness. No matter the efforts of Nestlé in preserving it, most of the capsules are brewed weeks or months after being roasted and ground. This doesn’t happen as often with an espresso machine: the coffee may have been roasted as far back as any Nespresso pod sometimes, but it is ground shortly before brewing it. The comparison in freshness is all in favor of coffee beans ground before being brewed in an espresso machine.

Moreover, Nespresso uses somewhat less coffee into each pod compared to what a barista would put into a portafilter of an espresso machine. It is not always the case, but often there are up to double the grams of coffee grounds used in an espresso than in Nespresso. That gives another advantage in crema-producing capabilities: more grounds means also more fats and oils, that are the components that in the end make the crema. The more there are, the more they can be extracted and make a delicious espresso crema.

These two reasons, freshness and coffee quantity, are why Nespresso crema isn’t really a real one but mimics what a proper espresso machine can instead produce. So no, not “real crema”.

Taste and aesthetics of espresso crema

That doesn’t have to mean that Nespresso crema is bad or tastes nowhere close to real crema. Quite the opposite: Nespresso has done a good job at making a small machine, with not so fresh coffee, using minimal amounts of water producing a nice layer of crema, that foams like you would expect in an espresso and can last a long time. The technology behind the Nespresso system is admirable in replicating the espresso experience, with a minuscule fraction of the effort and knowledge necessary to brew a good espresso. The convenience of the Nespresso system relative to the overall output quality is hard to beat.

Yet, Nespresso crema definitely tastes differently than real espresso crema. It has a medium body, compared with a heavy one in a true espresso, has more little bubbles in it, giving it more a feeling of a “coffee foam” than “coffee cream”. It lacks in flavor, generally speaking. Often when tasting an espresso by only touching the top of it, just the crema, most of the features of the underneath coffee can be guessed already. Not so much with Nespresso, where the crema has noticeably less flavor than the coffee itself.

As a personal example: over years of reviewing Nespresso capsules we have often noticed how the aroma and the taste of the crema only are quite unlike the taste of the coffee underneath. There are sometimes stark differences. This very rarely happens with espressos made in a true espresso machine. The crema there matches closely in aroma and taste profile of the coffee. Exceptions happen, of course, but this is a phenomenon that is definitely more common in Nespresso capsules than in espressos.

Aesthetically wise also, Nespresso crema is rarely of that bright, intense, beige/gold color that so many espressos possess. Rarely the crema in a Nespresso is more colorful than a vague yellowish/gray/dark brown mixture. It is not “ugly” per se, but it shows a limited range of colors compared to the crema made with a good espresso machine. Most coffee snobs dislike Nespresso because of this factor alone.

An Intense Espresso Crema
An Intense Espresso Crema

Lastly but not least, the body of the coffee under the crema in a Nespresso-brewed coffee is quite good and approaches closely the body of a light/medium roasted espresso. Anybody that says otherwise is in our modest opinion either nitpicking or has exceptionally developed palates. The difference widens when comparing even the most intense Nespresso pod, like a Kazaar or an Ispirazione Napoli, to a medium-dark roasted espresso, made with quality Arabica beans. There’s little to no feeling of oils, coffee sediments in the Nespresso coffee. An espresso easily possesses a very oily, smoother mouthful, leaving you with a stronger taste of it on the palate, like it filled you more with its qualities. A Nespresso pod occasionally does the same. But only occasionally.

It’s hard to compare, and for obvious reasons this is largely subjective. Yet years of trying different espressos and Nespresso capsules, made with different machines and by plenty of baristas around the world, consistently taught us how a good espresso is regularly “better” than the best Nespresso pod, whereas a good Nespresso capsule can match an average espresso. Obviously, feel free to disagree, as it is normal, being this last observation personal.

Coming back to the original topic of this article, the espresso crema, we can assert that Nespresso crema isn’t on par with real crema. Contrarily to the actual qualities of the coffee, that we find very close with those of a real espresso but for the very best espressos out there, as previously abundantly explained, the crema shows the limits of the single serve system of Nespresso (and others alike).

Not something that most Nespresso drinkers weren’t aware of already, admittedly. But we hope that this article showed you the “why” Nespresso crema isn’t real espresso crema.

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