Spain’s café culture is crammed full of regional idiosyncrasies that make ordering your coffee of choice harder than you might expect.
Here’s everything you need to know to get your caffeine fix a la española.
Spanish coffee habits
Spaniards may not be the biggest coffee consumers in the world (a 2017 study by the International Coffee Organisation found they weren’t even in the top 20), but they certainly have the same passion and tradition for café as their Mediterranean counterparts.
In fact, breakfast (first thing rather than mid-morning) for many in Spain consists of only coffee rather than adding any food to the mix. So much for it being the most important meal of the day!
Spaniards tend to prefer to have milky coffee to wake up in the morning and then wait for a stronger brew after lunch or during the afternoon.
It’s also worth noting that coffee is drunk by and large in bars and cafeterias rather than at home. If they’re at work, Spaniards will pop out for a coffee break with their colleagues and if meeting with friends they’re also more likely to sit outdoors in a terraza than invite each other round their homes for a brew.
It’s fair to say that the ritual and socialising that comes with coffee counts more than actually getting a caffeine fix.
What kind of coffee do Spaniards drink?
Coffee in Spain is brewed by and large the espresso way. That means that the amount served is generally smaller and less watered down than in northern European countries, but often packs a lot more punch.
That means it’s usually served in small glasses or cups rather than in the kind of big mugs used by Starbucks.
Spanish coffee is unique in that most of it is torrefacto, which means that the coffee grain has 15 percent of sugar added to it before it is roasted.
This gives it a distinctively bitter and stronger taste, even though one might think that it would end up tasting sweeter, as the sugar burns and coats the beans giving them a black sheen.
The torrefacto tradition dates back to the Spanish Civil War as the cost-cutting practice meant the coffee beans were preserved for longer and increased the roast volume.
Even though there are critics who argue it spoils the taste, Spaniards are so used to torrefacto coffee that they’ve come to expect it as the standard.
How do I order a coffee in Spain?
The Andalusian City of Malaga has its specific vernacular for ordering coffee. Photo: Café Central Málaga
If you’re new to Spanish coffee, don’t assume that the fact that it’s mainly torrefacto will mean you only get a dark, thick and bitter brew every time you order.
There’s a colourful and varied array of regional coffee preparations depending on where you are, but you’ll be able to make yourself understood all over Spain with the following general terms:
Café solo: A small cup of strong, black espresso without milk.
Americano: Same as a café solo but with more water to make it less strong
Cortado: A small cup of espresso with a dash of milk
Café con leche: Coffee with milk served in equal amounts
Carajillo: Coffee with alcohol, often Baileys or brandy
… con hielo: the summer version of every coffee can be ordered with a few ice cubes.