Choosing Your Coffee in Spain

Dear Steve,

The coffee culture in Spain is different from what you find back home, and also quite different from what you will find in other places in Europe. Here people don’t run around with massive cups of coffee and, unless you are in a big city, it is rare that you will find a Starbucks. In fact, you may have to search around just to find someone who will make you 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, coffee was coated in sugar before transport. This led to grinding and roasting of sugar coated coffee beans that when, when made into a drink can have a slightly bitter or burned taste to it. Even though these traditional storage methods are no longer necessary to preserve the coffee beans, in stores you can still 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 of drinking this kind of coffee, some people in Spain prefer the sugar coated coffee to this day and oftentimes you might only get torrefacto when you are out.

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 bigger and less strong.

  • [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 it is even common to ask for slight changes to your coffee such as ‘with hot milk,’ ‘warm milk,’ ‘cold milk,’ or mixed milks. 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: While this is slowly changing with the influx of tourist that Spain sees every year, people here 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: Although coffee shops are very important in Spanish culture (read more about that here), many 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.

Sincerely,
Spain

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

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