In short – coffee is a dark-brownish, bitter drink prepared from roasted coffee seeds (beans). Well, while it may be a good scientific description, it does not reflect the reality. These days, the coffee is the world-wide phenomenon having multiple meanings, connotations, values….
For some, the shot of coffee is a “resurrection toll” bringing them back to life from the state of “tiredness”, for others it’s a spontaneous but meaningless daily habit (just like brushing teeth – you do it without thinking why). For many however, it is much more than the dark liquid at the bottom of the paper-cup, bought at the take-out window. In fact, for many the coffee is a Lifestyle, it’s a Social Time with “real” friends (as opposite to “virtual” ones hiding in the vastness of the “NetVerse” (Internet’s Universe)), it’s an element of general culture, it’s a time when we can distance ourselves from the hectic life by escaping to the Coffee-Land (hence the famous “coffee-break”).
Given the fact that coffee achieved the status of the “Drink Sans Frontières”, one may expect that especially these days when the globalization took deep roots all-over the world, the coffee in Spain is the same as for example one in Seattle’s Starbucks, or on the floor of the famous Istanbul’s Bazar. In practice however, nothing can be more wrong than this assumption.
These days, the basic dark coffee has so many “incarnations” representing unique local traditions, tastes, needs as well as available ingredients. Served in a glass or a ceramic cup, short or long, black or with some amount of milk (whole, skimmed, steamed, condensed, cream you name it), hot or cold, with or without sugar and eventually with an alcohol (rum, whisky, baileys etc…). Basically, only the sky is the limit and even this statement may not be true given coffee’s reputation as the “godly drink”. That’s why we would like to make sure that visitors to Spain won’t find themselves in a sort of “Coffee’s Tierra Incognita”.
But before we start the presentation of the landscape of Spanish coffee, let’s first bring to our attention some fundamentals. While for many coffee-drinkers there is only “Good” coffee and “Bad” coffee, for coffee lovers this sort of simplification expresses sort of barbarian insensitiveness to this otherwise heavenly drink.
So, let’s start with basics: There are mainly two types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta.
The Arabica comes from coffee’s Motherland – Ethiopia. It is very aromatic, have relatively “soft” taste and contain moderate amount of caffeine. Thanks to these characteristics Arabica is highly valued and obviously more expensive. To better “visualize” its divine nature – just think about aroma spreading from the cup of freshly-brewed coffee – if it will have an impact on you, then certainly it will be the Arabica.
The Robusta originated in drier regions of Central Africa. It has higher concentration of caffeine, but also clearly “bitter” taste compared to Arabica. That’s why Robusta is considered as the lower quality coffee, these days cultivated on “less demanding” soils across the whole world and definitely is less expensive. Obviously, when ordering a cup of coffee, you rarely have the choice of coffee beans as this decision stays in hands of business owners. More often however, you can select the café bar specializing in some regional “brand-name” coffees like Java, Columbian, Hawaiian Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain etc…. There are more than few methods of preparation of coffee, of which the most popular are:
These days, infused coffee is probably the most popular one (at least on the Western hemisphere). The whole concept is simple – you pass the hot water through the filter stuffed with grinded coffee and then collect the seeping liquid. In practice however, the “devil” determining coffee’s taste, aroma and texture is in the details. For example, the process of making an Italian espresso (BTW rightfully considered as the Mother of all infused coffees) is precisely defined by the Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano. During the brewing process, the hot water at temperatures between 90 – 95oC (194 – 203 oF) is forced under the pressure of 9 bars through a metal filter containing 7.5 grams of grinded coffee (1 bar is roughly equal to the atmospheric pressure at the ocean’s level). After 25 seconds of brewing, should result in about 25 ml of an Italian espresso. This is a “golden standard” of the infused coffee, but in practice, everything that is brewed in more of less similar way we proudly call “espresso”. Note that in recent years, the industry introduced capsule-based coffee-makers for home use. They make almost “espresso-quality” coffee, but in much simpler and more practical way than industrial espresso machines in cafeterias.
Turkish coffee is prepared by bringing to the boiling temperature the mixture of grinded to powder coffee beans, cold water, sugar with a blend of aroma-enhancing spices (usually the powder of cardamom, but also cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg…). Traditionally, the Turkish coffee is brewed in metal container called “Cezve” or “Ibrik” – it’s a tall and narrow, brass or copper pot with long handle. Once the boiling temperature is reached and the coffee starts bubbling and nearly overflowing, the metal container must be removed from the heat. In practice however, to increase the strength of the brewed coffee, container may be briefly re-heated. Traditionally, the Turkish coffee is served in a small ceramic cups called “kahve finjani” with the glass of water on the side. In difference to the infused coffee, the Turkish one is not filtered so it comes with grounds. That’s why, traditionally before sipping the Turkish coffee you should gently agitate it to mix sediments (grounds) with the liquid coffee. Obviously, there are also those following just the opposite routine that can be summarized by words: don’t shake it before you drink it! As the name suggests, the Turkish coffee is popular in the Middle East (and in general in regions that ones were part of the Ottoman Empire). Note, that while the Turkish coffee is also popular in Greece, if you want to be served never ask for it under its original name! In Greece, it is the Greek coffee! It’s worth to mention that for centuries, this was the main coffee-brewing and serving method, so at least for its “seniority” (if not other merits) the Turkish coffee deserves our respect and commitment to try it!
This is a popular commercial coffee that quickly dissolves in liquids (hot water, milk etc..) is rather known under brand names like for example Nestcafé. The main advantage – easy to serve at home, but unfortunately it lacks the qualities of infused coffees. In this presentation of Spanish coffees, we will focus on infused (espresso-based) ones.
Coffee in Spain
- Café sólo
It is the simplest and purest form of coffee that outside of Spain is known as espresso. It is strong, sort of “thick”, usually coming with a tinny layer of foam on top and served without any sweetener, so quite bitter (that’s why it is essential to make it from pure Arabica beans). Typically, it is served in small, narrow ceramic cup (demitasse), consistent in size with the amount of coffee (around 25-30 ml).
It its “short” version of Café sólo, containing only about 15 ml of coffee (just one sip). This is achieved by cutting the brewing time to only 15-20 seconds from usually 25-30 seconds needed for “full” espresso. It’s stronger, thicker and bitter than café solo. Outside of Spain it is known as “Short Espresso” or “Piccolo”
- Café largo
Known as “Long Espresso” (Italian “Lungo”), it is made from the same dose of grinded coffee as café sólo, but with a double amount of water and longer extraction time. As the result, the Café largo includes about 50-60 ml of liquid infusion, but it is only slightly softer and less bitter than café solo, because the longer brewing time allows for “deeper” extraction of essential components from the milled coffee beans. The café largo is served in large ceramic cups and obviously makes the ‘pleasure” longer!
- Café Doble
It is a double espresso (Italian “Doppio”) made from twice as much of grinded coffee and water as regular Espresso within roughly the similar extraction time of 30 seconds. It’s a sort of “killer” usually taken to stay awake. Indeed, “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you maybe not stronger, but certainly fully awaken and up”. Containing about 50-60 ml of strong and bitter liquid infusion, the Café Doble is served in large ceramic cups Traditionally, all above coffees are served without pre-added sugar (or sweetener), however sachets of sugar are often provided on the side of the cup (if not, you can ask for). And if you are lucky, you may have the choice of white or brown one.
- Café con hielo
This Spanish version of an Ice coffee is an espresso (Café solo) served with a glass of ice cubes on the side. Given the climate, the “Café con hielo” is quite popular during hot summer months. Traditionally, customers themselves pour the hot espresso on the ice cubes, stir it and wait for the coffee to be cold enough to drink. The Valencian version of Café con hielo is called “Café del Tiempo” (probably in reference to changing weather (tiempo) from winter to hot summer when the “hot” is not that much on demand). The slice of lemon over ice cubes adds to it not only some extra freshness but also local “colors”.
Coffees With Milk
The simple idea of adding a milk into coffee opens unlimited possibilities not only in terms of forms of milk: full, skimmed, vaporized, steamed, frothy, condensed, cream, hot or cold, soya (for vegans), but also compositions.
- Café cortado
Essentially, it’s a regular espresso (Café sólo) with a touch of “taste-softening” milk. In fact, due to very small amount of milk, sometimes it is called “Café Manchado” (meaning “coffee stained with milk”). Similarly, as the café sólo, it is served in a small, narrow ceramic cup and topped with steamed, foamy hot milk that is added until the cup is filled to the edge. In Catalonia it is known as “tallat”, but both words (Spanish and Catalan) basically have the same meaning: “Coffee that is cut” in reference to the impact of milk that “cuts” the bitter taste of the espresso. Thanks to soften and less bitter taste, it is one of the most popular coffee drinks in Spain, but not that much known elsewhere (the closest siblings are probably the French “Café Noisette” and Latin-America’s “Cortadito”). Note that sometimes you will find cortado served in small glass exposing colors of its two distinctive layers: coffee and milk.
- Café con leche
Coffee with milk shares all advantages of Café Cortado (soft taste with full bouquet of aromas of a good espresso). Typically, it is made as half espresso/half milk and served in large 200 ml porcelain cup with beautiful swirl pattern on top. No doubt, it is the most popular coffee in the whole world and in many countries, it has its local names. In Catalonia, it has not easily recognizable for most of us name “Café amb llet”, but certainly more familiar is “Café au lait” in France, Milchkaffee in Germany and popular across many countries Italian name “Café Latte” or simply “Latte”.
Please note that in contrast to the Coffee with milk, the Italian name “Espresso” was almost unanimously adopted in most countries as the official local name. For many, café con leche is an essence of the “Coffee break”, a key element helping to gather friends around the table at the corner of the street. In fact, the heavenly aroma emanating from the freshly brewed espresso combined with an amazing “Latte-art” design on its surface, are acting on all our senses. So, in no time we can “shift” our mind from the busy and stressful life to our “oasis of peace & coffee”, somewhere in the middle of the proverbial Gardens of Eden. Obviously, there is not strictly defined proportion of milk and coffee in milky coffees.
A good example of where such liberty can lead is Malaga. The story goes back to the small coffee-shop “Café Central” in the post-war Malaga. Facing shortages of coffee beans, the owner, Mr. Jose Prado Crespo, decided to minimize the coffee waste by “narrowly” targeting customers expectations and tastes. To achieve this goal, he itemized by name nine different types of coffee with the well-defined content of coffee ranging from 100% to 10%. This very pragmatic approach soon spread across the province and with time become Malaga’s recognizable benchmark for coffee. The table below representing Mr. Crespo’s original set of options may help you to order the coffee in Malaga.
Solo: 100% café
Largo: 90% café 10% leche
Semi-largo: 80% solo café
Solo-corto 60% solo café.
Mitad: 50% café y 50% leche.
Entre-corto: 40% café, 60% leche.
Corto: 30% café, 70% leche.
Sombra: 20% café, 80% leche
Nube: 10% café, 90% leche.
No me lo Ponga: (Don’t bother)
The last one completing the list (Don’t bother) was added later at the understandable request of waiters 😊 Here is the helpful (although limited) vocabulary based on assumption that the remaining names are self-descriptive. Nube (Cloud): glass of milk with a trace of coffee. Sombra (Shade of coffee): glass of milk with a visible touch of coffee Mitad: half coffee and half milk (basically today’s Café con Leche) For completeness of the vocabulary of the “milky” business, here are few more essential Spanish words helping to understand the forms of milk (leche) in the coffee: Nata: Milk-Cream Espuma: Foamy (frothy) Milk
- Café Bombón
It’s an espresso served with condensed milk in proportion 1:1. One may say – milk is milk, so what’s the difference? Well, there is a big difference compared to café con leche. Firstly, the condensed milk is sweetened (note that most coffees, including café con leche are served with sachets of sugar on the side, leaving the decision to use it or not to customers). Furthermore, the condensed and sweetened milk is heavier than the coffee (espresso) so the Café Bombón is served in an “upside-down” way.
On the bottom there is a layer of milk, then the layer of espresso and finally some sort of coffee foam on the top. For these reasons, the café bombón is typically served in a transparent glass to expose the well-defined layered composition of the drink. Due to a lot of sugar and heavy texture of the condensed milk, the café bonbón tastes more like a sweet, chocolate-covered candy (BTW – its name seems to reflect popular French candies known as bonbons). While it is possible to find the café bombón all over the Spain, the truth is that it is popular mainly in the region of Valencia (Catalan name: café bombó).
- Leche Manchada
While we are still in the section describing Spanish coffees, this one is at the low end of the coffee’s-ladder. In fact, it is an antithesis of coffee. As its Spanish name implies, the Leche Manchada (literally “Stained Milk”) is the glass of hot milk gently tinted & flavored with few drops of coffee. Do not confuse the Leche Manchada with the Café Manchada (famous Cortado) – the latter is a totally different animal having its rightful place on the opposite side of the coffee’s ladder.
Coffees With Alcohol
While the coffee with alcohol is well known (and appreciated) across the world, this one is a typical product of Spain. In its simplest form it is an espresso (Café solo) with alcohol – usually brandy, whisky, rum, pomace or anise. While the proportion of coffee and alcohol is not strictly defined, usually the coffee will be in the range from ¾ to half with the balance left for the favorite liqueur. Highly flavored alcohols like for example the anise-based liquor (Anisette) thanks to its sweet and herbal aroma will “break” usually strong and bitter taste of the raw espresso defining the distinctive flavor of carajillo. Apparently, the carajillo was “invented” by Spanish soldiers in Cuba in the time of colonial wars.
To find some sort of relief and add a much-needed courage (“coraje” in Spanish), they were “massively” adding rum to the coffee. Although some claim, that soldiers did not have time to drink the coffee and alcohol separately, it does not change much the objective: coffee to increase awareness and alcohol the courage) No wonder that initially, the drink was called “corajillo” (diminutive name for “coraje”). There are many different versions of carajillo (obviously at the Cuban times there was no espresso, so the regular black coffee was used instead).
With time the recipe evolved and in its more elaborated version is much more sublime than the original one, for good reasons often called “corajillo without identity”. The good carajillo (in other words the one with “character” or “Identity” if you wish) is prepared in two steps. First, the alcohol with sugar, few raw coffee beans, lemon or orange rind and sometimes a stick of cinnamon is heated, stirred and then literally set on fire. It helps to release and mix all distinctive aromas and enhance the final flavor. The flame is then set-off by covering the pot with the coffee cup. In the final step, this highly aromatic mixture is filtered and added to the freshly brewed espresso. Traditionally, the carajillo is served in the glass. It seems that the carajillo” is a “harmonious” drink where caffeine, alcohol and aromas embrace each other creating an earthly substitute for an elixir of happiness (at least for enthusiasts of “Café con Electricity”).
It’s not surprising that such divine drink found its local versions and with them aficionados all over the Spain. While the recipe and proportions may slightly vary (favorite liquors may be Baileys, Calvados, Liquor 43….), in Valencia the Carajillo is known as “Cremaet”, in Catalonia “Cigaló”, in Baleares “Rebentat” (apparently it means “explosive”), in Murcia Café Asiático (also called Russian coffee), in Southern Spain Café Belmonte and in Canarias Barraquito (the last three coffees are often mixed with condensed milk). On the international level – the Italian “Caffe Corretto” seems to be the closest cousin of Spanish Carajillo. Note: While it may be quite obscure to most of foreigners, the Licor 43 is a famous Spanish liqueur made from the combination of citruses and fruit juices, flavored with vanilla and other herbs and spices for the total of 43 different ingredients (hence its name). It may be also worth to mention few very local rarities on the Spanish scene of “alcoholic-coffees” such as:
- Café con gotas (Coffee with few drops of brandy, original of Galicia)
- Café Perfumat (coffee with the touch of anise, original of Barcelona)
- Café Tocaet (Valencian version of Café con gotas)
Interestingly, in some way, the “Café con gotas” may be considered as the predecessor of Carajillo. Back in the mid of the 19th century when the coffee was making its triumphal way across the Spain, coffee shops started offering for free few drops of brandy per cup of coffee. It was a symbol of “welcome” and an “opening for happiness”. In fact, at some point, this noble ritual became a sort of social “Institution” deeply rooted in human habits. It all ended at the very end of the 19th century with sharply increased taxes on alcohols. Among described above Spanish coffees you will certainly find some that meet or even exceed your expectations. But if it is not the case, do not panic! Spain is open to tourist so you will fine here such international coffee-icons like Cappuccino, Caffé Mocha, Caffè Macchiatto…. You will also find Coffee Americano although much less popular than mentioned Italian coffees because let’s face it – in Spain, they do not consider it as the coffee, but rather a “Water stained with coffee” (In Spanish it will be something like “Agua Manchada”.
What makes the coffee good, so-so or bad (the last one in Spain will be called “Café Desgraciada”) is the combination of several factors of which the most important are quality of freshly grinded coffee beans (preferably Arabica), purity of water, carefully chosen ingredients (if any) as well as well-controlled milling (texture) and brewing processes (water temperature, pressure, time….). Also, please note that:
- Due to full exposure to oxygen, crushed/grinded beans deteriorate with time, losing their divine aroma. That’s why, coffee beans should be milled shortly before being used;
- Finer coffee particles (milling) allow for extraction of more flavor during the brewing process and result in bitter taste;
- Good coffee can be only the one that is served hot, right after its preparation is finished (there is nothing worse than the re-heated coffee)! Even the ice coffee (café con hielo) must be hot before it’s poured on ice cubes;
- Good coffee requires good cups (preferably ceramic or china, and if possible, pre-heated to make sure that the served coffee is still hot). Exception to this rule are multilayer-coffees that should be served in transparent glass to enhance important visual effects. Paper or plastic cups should be considered an insults to these goodly drinks.
As we mentioned earlier, the bad coffee will never be good. While, as someone said – “Even bad pizza is still pretty good”, for sure this rule does not apply to the coffee.