When it comes to coffee, Spain is never mentioned in the same breath as France or Italy. Yet, coffee in Spain is as varied as delicious as that of its European neighbors. There are a number of understated cafes in the country that serve good coffee at reasonable prices, at least as far as Euro are concerned. Coffee culture thrives so well here that you can visit one café daily while spending weeks in Madrid and not visit the same café twice due to the sheer number of cafés present!
The FEC (Federación Española del Café, or Spanish Coffee Federation) maintain that the very first Spaniard to drink coffee was a Jesuit missionary named Pedro Paez. The experience may have held bitter memories for Paez as he had been enslaved at the time, in the early days of the 17th century in the country now known as Ethiopia. His memoir, "História da Etiópia", describes the drink as a dark, bitter infusion. It then took another 100 years before the Borbon dynasty brought coffee to the country, formally introducing the Spanish to coffee.
Ironically, the first café in Spain was opened in Madrid in 1764 by the Gippini brothers, who were Italians. The Spanish were quick to recognize a good thing when they saw it, and more cafés quickly sprang up in the cities of Barcelona, La Coruna, Bilbao, Valencia and Cartagena, eventually taking root all over the entire country. As of 2007, the Spanish Coffee Federation (Federación Española del Café, or FEC) estimated that more than 24 million cups of coffee were drunk in Spain every year. This is equivalent of each person in the country imbibing 599 cups every year!
Many of the café chains found in major cities around Spain are of Italian origin and attracted by the locals' love of coffee. However, there are also a number of locally established cafés that have been in business for hundreds of years. One of the oldest cafés in the central Spanish region of Madrid is the simply named Café Commercial. In operation since the 1880's, the café boasts both modern and classic trappings, boasting an internet café upstairs and old-fashioned lounge downstairs. Further down south in Malaga, it may be interesting to note that the current site of Café Central is a combination of 3 separate cafés, namely the original Café Central Café Munich and Café Suizo.
Other notable cafés in Spain include Cafetería Glorieta in Valencia. While, the city itself promises a blend of Madrid's frenetic energy with Seville's friendliness and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Barcelona together with its own relaxed beach-town nature, the retrospective fittings of the café itself promise to transport coffee-lovers to a bygone time. In Barcelona, the beautiful Mauri café serves chocolate-filled croissants and other exquisite pastries for both eat-in and to-go as it has since 1929. These are only some of the oldest and most well-known cafés in Spain, and hardly serve as an accurate representation of all the outlets that are waiting to be discovered.
"Un Café Solo, Por Favor!"
As a country that possesses a vast vocabulary when it comes to all things coffee, ordering a plain "café" will get you quizzical looks from the server. While coffee beans are usually a Spanish roast or dark French roast or "torrefacto" (roasted with sugar), there is a virtual dictionary of coffee terms spanning café con leche and carajillo. Some of the more common terms, and their variations, in the espresso-based coffee lexicon of Spain are: Café Solo – single espresso or black coffee. Ask for café solo con agua caliente (single espresso diluted with hot water) for a weaker drink. Prepare to be the subject of derision if you do. Café Doble – a double espresso. Café Suizo – a café solo topped with whipped cream. Café con Leche – literally "coffee with milk", this is coffee with milk usually in equal portions. Café Cortado – espresso cut with just a drop of milk. If you're picky, you can specify the amount of milk you want and whether you prefer it hot or cold. Café sombra – the intermediate between café cortado and café manchada. It's supposed to contain more milk than coffee, though the coffee to milk ratio may vary between establishments. Café manchada – the polar opposite of café cortado, comprising a spot ("mancha") of coffee in milk. If you've kept up with me to this point, it's also known as "nube" ("cloudy") or "leche manchada" ("spotted milk") in some areas. Café con Hielo – espresso served with a glass of ice. Pour the espresso over the ice, and not the other way around. This can be quite messy and it'd be a shame to dilute a perfectly good coffee though, if you asked me. Carajillo – espresso spiked with brandy or whiskey. Anisette and rum is also used. Trifásico – a Catalan specialty, this is essentially a carajillo with a bit of milk.
Any list of drinks, as extensive as it is, is always made at the risk of leaving out a number of variants. Regional variations for some of the coffee you find in Spain may prove quite confusing to newcomers. For instance, in the northern region, a cortado is a tiny cup of dark, strong coffee with just a touch of milk and can be finished in 3 sips, while a café con leche comprises equal volumes of milk and coffee but in a similarly modest serving of 5-6 sips' worth./
However, as a traveler moves further south, such as in Seville, a cortado is more similar to a café con leche, while the café con leche becomes something even milder; being made up of milk with a small shot of espresso. A more accurate term for this last drink would be "leche manchada".
Different regions of Spain also boast of coffee that is unique to the area. The sweet-toothed can rejoice if they visit the western Alicante region and order a café bonbon. This is a café solo served atop a generous serving of condensed milk that fills a third of the glass. Ordering it "con hielo" will bring you an accompanying glass of ice, ala café con hielo. For more coffee served with more than a note of milk, the warm leche-leche from the Canary Islands contains evaporated milk at the bottom of the glass which is topped with espresso and foamed milk.
For individuals who prefer decaffeinated coffee, the choice of café descafeinado, sadly, lies between cortado, Americano or cappuccino de maquina (machine-brewed decaf) and de sobre (instant coffee from a sachet).
Modern coffee houses are quite a contrast to what Spanish coffee houses used to be like in the late 19th century. Back then, coffee houses were the places where cognoscenti of the time, intellectuals, artistes, poets, writers and philosophers alike, gathered. The surroundings bristled with good taste and luxurious fixtures. Then, as it still is now, cafés were places to see and be seen, although the atmosphere was more restrained, less casual and more akin to that of a fine dining restaurant. Customers were served by elegant waiters dressed in black tie.
Still, while social graces may change, some brews remain perennial favorites. One of the most popular drinks at breakfast, or at any other hour in Spain is café con leche. The beverage is served by simultaneously pouring hot, dark coffee and steaming hot milk into a cup. The preparation of the drink is can be a source of anxiety for the uninitiated, seeing as how both liquids are carried to the table in giant pots balanced on the same tray. Where the weather is colder, locals prefer a carajillo to get their day started. Self-proclaimed pundits hold that coffee is second only to drinks that contain alcohol as the most popular beverage in the country.
Coffee is also a mainstay during the midmorning/early afternoon break known as merienda, where café solo is a firm favorite for many. Generally, each meal is accompanied or ended with coffee, and of course, it's needed to get started again after that 2 hour siesta. It's also an apt way to end a day, especially after a particularly long and grueling tapas bar crawl. At the end of a long day, a carajillo comes in handy to revive the spirits. Hardly anyone gets their coffee "to go"; having a coffee is an end in itself. The emphasis is on creating close social bonds, and a café is often the social nexus of any given neighborhood.
In Spain, a cafe isn't just a convenient rest stop where one orders a coffee and pastry for the simple purpose of refueling. It's also a place to watch passers-by, read a newspaper, think, or even make a phone call. Given that many of the cafés also serve decent food, although menu choices may be limited, it is incredibly easy to while away a few leisurely hours just dawdling over coffee like the locals do. Why else would pastries accompany the coffee if not to give a person a reason to linger a little while longer?