Choosing Your Coffee in Spain

Dear Steve,

The coffee culture in Spain is different from what you find back home. People don’t run around with massive cups of coffee and, unless you are in a big city, you won’t find a Starbucks. In fact, you may have to search around just to find a coffee-to-go. On top of all that, if you want to make coffee at home, your housing of choice (homestay, residency, or apartment) probably won’t have a drip coffee maker to set on a timer, but other coffee making options instead. So what are the basic things to know? Let’s start with these five things:

1.) The coffee itself can be different: Traditionally, in order to preserve the coffee beans, they were coated in sugar before transport. This led to grinding and roasting of sugar coated coffee beans that when turned into a drink can have a slightly bitter or burned taste to it. In stores you can see the difference between coffee that is torrefacto, sugar coated beans, mezcla, or mixed sugar coated and natural beans, and natural, just natural beans. But, because of the long tradition, some people prefer the sugar coated coffee and in some places you might only get torrefacto.

A  café cortado  and homemade cookie at my favorite coffee shop in Granada.

A café cortado and homemade cookie at my favorite coffee shop in Granada.

2.) People drink smaller coffees: Even if you ask for an americano or American style coffee, it will be espresso with added water, and it will be a lot smaller than what you are used to. The main types of coffee you will find in any sort of coffee shop or bar are:

  • Café Solo: like it names implies this coffee is just coffee, or an espresso.
  • Café Americano: is an “american style coffee” or an espresso with water added to make it look bigger.
  • [Café] Cortado: is a ‘short’ coffee, or an espresso with an equal amount of milk as coffee added to it.
  • [Café] Manchado: this is ‘stained’ milk, or milk that has had some coffee added to it.
  • Café con leche: this is the typical Spanish way to drink coffee, ‘with milk’. A couple of years back there was a whole upset about this term when the mayor of Madrid used it while speaking English and everyone was upset about the fact that it is not English (the criticism was pretty intense as you can see in the video). However, I have yet to find a good translation of what café con leche would be in the States.

3.) Keep in mind that these coffees are not standardized: They can vary from city to city and the milk quantities are not always constant. Here they even have nuances such as ‘with hot milk’, ‘warm milk’, ‘cold milk’, or mixed. Depending on the time of year or how much of a rush you are in, you might ask for hotter milk or colder milk.

4.) There is no take-away culture: People go to coffee shops to have their coffees, and hardly ever take them away. This means that it is totally acceptable to take 15 to 45 minutes to go out alone or with your work colleagues and have a coffee (and breakfast) somewhere between 10:30am and 11:30am. (Read up a bit more on Spanish-style eating here.)

5.) The relationship that people build with their coffee shops doesn’t always have to do with the quality of the coffee: Most people frequent the same one or two places for coffee and it usually has more to do with the location or the staff at the coffee shop/bar than the quality of the coffee. Some places might be packed and have terrible coffee (just a heads up). So don’t be afraid to try out a bunch of different places before you find your favorite―and don’t reject places off the bat just for what they look like, sometimes the best coffee is in a hole-in-the-wall bar.


P.S. If coffee isn't your thing, our article on other morning beverages will be up soon.