Live Like a Local: Spain | How to order a coffee or espresso in Spain

If I had to guess I would say that the US became obsessed with Dunkin' Donuts coffee not for the taste, but for the simplicity - it was much easier to simply order "a cup of coffee." Not to mention the to-go factor. As a culture, we've developed a global stereotype (particularly acknowledged by Europeans and Middle Easterns) that our coffee is watered down, dull and hardly enjoyed, sipped or swigged in huge cups at the speed of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp®. It wasn't until the introduction of Starbucks that we thought we got a little more class, that our coffee consumption skyrocketed to include fancy-pants sizes and milk variations with shiny flamboyant Italian nicknames.

Then around 2005 something called the Gibraltar happened in San Francisco to a little (now well invested! as of 2015) company named Blue Bottle Coffee - which if you know anything about being hip has helped spawn a catalyst within the SF coffee movement, as well as along the West Coast, over to New York and popping up in London (although they have a lot of influence from the Aussies, whom also make excellent coffee). But did that really happen? Was that really an invention? Or a renaming of the existing Spanish cortado? All finger pointing aside, coffee and espresso drinks are some of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, and the manner in which they are ordered and prepared differs according to countries, backgrounds or the baristas' habits.

The Spanish people have developed quite a taste, or perhaps dependency on coffee since its arrival from Turkish immigrants in the 17th century. The general consensus is that the coffee here is good, although it may be argued that the coffee tastes better in Italy and Portugal, and certainly worse in France.

What do you need to know to order an espresso drink or coffee in Spain?

Spaniards aren't known to eat a hefty breakfast, in fact for a true experience during your stay in the country, steer clear of restaurants or cafes offering an American or British breakfast. On a given day, the local eateries will be filled with common citizens, or even hotshot politicians (if they dare show their faces), munching a pastry, or toasts with tomato pulp with their café con leche, 1:1 ration of strong coffee or espresso with steamed milk, or what we might register as a caffé latte.

That said, coffee in Spain is consumed at all hours of the day, particular after larger meals or in the late afternoon at the merienda hour (5-7pm roughly) served alongside a slice of olive oil or egg yolk cakes. Besides this fact -- you'll soon see for yourself during your time in Spain a culture of tomando un café (or tomar un café -- to have a coffee) via patios, terraces, cafes, bars, gas stations, and restaurants offering all sorts of food stuff but also always coffee, and this practice is not only a time for caffeine, but an opportunity to catch up and meet with friends, family, colleagues, or intercambios (language exchanges).

Café Solo - a very strong and small serving of coffee; generally a single shot of espresso. I have no statistics to prove this theory, but I most commonly witness people ordering this version after lunch for a quick pick-me-up, therefore reducing the likelihood of falling into a food coma, or after dinner for the sobremesa chats and table lingering.

Café Solo Doble* - same as above but with a double shot of espresso and maybe a larger vessel (pending the bar/cafe) 

(Café) Cortado - an espresso cut with steamed milk (from Spanish verb cortar), typically 1:1 - 2:1 espresso to milk ration, and served in a short and stout glass. It's similar to the piccolo in Australia, the Gibraltar in US and to the Italian version of a caffé macchiato. Popularly ordered around the merienda hours to give a little jolt as well as the illusion of eating something sweet between meals (with the addition of sugar packets most likely).

Café con Leche - to reiterate from above, this is one of Spain's most popular drinks, and often the favorite for its balanced flavors and comforting sensations, equal parts milk and coffee. Breakfast is a common timeframe for this size, as is the merienda a 5pm snack hour, but it's really as classic as El Clasico (a futbol / soccer match). Sometimes this drink will be served table-side, with the waiters pouring the (very) hot milk into a short & skinny glass, or wide brimmed demitasse cup.

(Café) Americano - an espresso shot served in a larger glass and watered down. Usually ordered by out-of-towners looking to replace their usual coffee routine since you won't find filtered coffee in many places in Spain; espresso machines are the norm, or instant coffee.

Café Manchado - a less common order, but a popular choice nonetheless for those that like their caffeinated beverages just "stained," the literal term for staining a short (café con leche) glass of milk with a small amount of espresso. May also be referred to on some menus as a lágrima - from other Spanish speaking countries like Argentina.

Café con hielo - during the hot summer months the Spaniards cool down with this espresso and ice cubes, served in a whiskey glass.

Café Suizo - a shot of espresso served with a dollop of whipped cream; identical to the Italian 'espresso con panna' although not very common on Spanish menus.  (I like La Granja Viader in Barcelona for this drink because of their homemade cream).

Café Bombon - a café solo (espresso) served with a hefty spoonful of condensed milk, thought to have originated in Valencia, Spain.

Carajillo - a café solo served with a touch of brandy, although whiskey or rum can be substituted.

Trifásico - a less common and often regionally ordered drink along the Costa Brava and Costa Blanca, the trifásico includes three ingredients: coffee, milk/cream/or condensed milk and a liquor (usually anything from whiskey, brandy to Baileys).

Know your caffeine preference upfront, otherwise they will assume you want regular or strong espressos and coffee. Typically decaffeinated, descafeinado, comes from an instant coffee packet,  so if you want decaffeinated and from the espresso machine you must request for example, café _________ + descafeinado de maquina.

AND if you didn't have enough already: You also have the option to speak up about your exact coffee preferences; so with the cortado or the café con leche you could order 'corto de café' (literally short on coffee) or 'largo de café' (long on coffee). 

*Double shots - If you're looking for more caffeine that resembles a ristretto then you'll need to request that your drink be made as a double shot; the standard is one. To do this, use the above terminology but add doble to the end, e.g. Café con leche doble, cortado doble, manchado doble.
**Also note in Spain, unlike in Italy (or other countries that I haven't visited yet), if you would like a glass of water to go with your coffee, you must ask your server for it - un vaso de agua por favor.

Sugars / Sweeteners
Spaniards are quite generous with their sugar packets, the processed white variety, or common table sugar. Bars & cafes often put of a lot of effort into insuring that theirs are printed with their business name and address (reminds me of the omnipresent matches in the US during the 90s). Should you need more however, simply ask "me traes /or me das un poco de azúcar por favor?" (will you bring / give me sugar please?). If you're a fiend for raw sugar, azúcar de caña,  is the courser, less processed version (sometimes) available.

Stevia may be making an appearance (as of summer '15), but the mainstay sugar substitutes are: Sacarina (common brand is Sweet N' Low), sucralosa (Splenda), aspartame (Nutrasweet).

Honey: very rare to accompany coffee in Spain, but still worth a shot if this is your preference, and if you ask nicely. The word for honey is (la) miel.

Milk & Alternatives
Cow's milk (leche de vaca) is no doubt the most popular and default coffee accoutrement -- you'll hear it steamed-up alongside the espresso machine at all hours of the day. By craft coffee standards most cafes will burn the milk, i.e. heat it to a very high temperature (as habit and also turning their attention away from the beverage to do other things), but you can ::try to:: specify if you prefer it menos (less) or más (more) caliente (hot), for instance the common way you may request with lukewarm milk is 'con leche templada'.  Also to note that Spain serves very little fresh milk, the vast majority is tetra-bric packs of UHT pasteurized milk.

Soy milk - leche de soja - is picking up steam, although it is generally pre-sweetened with sugar in the bricks it comes in.

Ask your barista if alternatives are available or look for them on the menus/walls; with more and more allergies arising in the population this might be a more common site, although certainly a nearby healthfood store would have all/some of the below options and in a pinch you could bring your own milk to the bar/cafe.

  • Almond milk  --- leche de almendra 
  • Goat's milk -- leche de cabra 
  • Hazelnut milk -- leche de avellana 
  • Tiger nut milk  -- horchata*/leche de chufa
  • Rice milk  -- leche de arroz  (*note that horchata the cinnamon-rice drink served in Mexico it is not the same as the Spanish version)
  • Oat milk -- leche de avena 
  • Coconut milk(very rare) -- leche de coco  

Now the above mentioned list should allow you to order a coffee or espresso throughout any part of Spain with no problems. Be sure to visit my favorite neighborhood vendors and recommended coffee shops; Toma Café in Madrid, La Bicicleta, and Satan's Coffee Corner in Barcelona (more Spanish coffee shop recommendations at bottom of page).

However, if you plan to "monkey see monkey do" and order a coffee like a local when in Málaga, then pay attention to the following:

Café Central tucked along a narrow side street in the old city of Málaga has claimed the invention of the following coffee ordering standard, a brain scramble, un cacao mental, for outsiders but none the less a fascinating Andalusian idiosyncrasy. The story goes that the camarero, D. José Prado Crespo, or Pepe for short, was fed up of dealing with crazy customers requests, "Pepe ponme un poquito más" "a little more coffee/milk" or "¡ya está! suficiente leche ya" "OK, that's enough milk." He developed a ten level café system to simplify his work life as well as the lives of his coworkers.

Ordering a coffee in Málaga, Spain requires a bit of practice. Or point and smile : )

Since its conception, the system has been adopted by the majority of the baristas and servers around Málaga. It goes like this: nube, sombra, corto, entrecorto, mitad, solo corto, semi-largo, largo, and the solo. The nube, or cloud, contains a splash of coffee, the mitad is equal parts 1:1 coffee and milk, and the solo is the same as in the rest of Spain, all black. However nowadays we give the servers even more work, non-fat milk, soy requests, or even the size of the glass is ultimately "your wish is my command."

If the above is altogether too complicated, ordering "un cappuccino, por favor," will be internationally understood. Just keep your standards in check, this won't be Italy -- which according to the INEI consists of: "traditional cappuccinos are made up of 25ml of espresso and 125ml of steam-whipped milk, starting with cold milk (3-5°C) and brought to a temperature of about 55°C and then poured over Italian certified espresso in a cup the size of 150-160ml. The milk must be fresh bovine with a minimum of 3.2% proteins and 3.5% fat, and steam-whipped in a specific way." Precise isn't it? Maybe a café con leche in Spain is the way to go after all! 

Enjoy your food travels through Spain! If this article has been helpful, as a coffee lover if you'd like to pay it forward to a stranger, learn more how you can make an impact here.  

Gotten this far? Here are some great coffee shops in Spain: 

Hanso Cafe (Hanso Café on maps)
Toma Cafe (Café in Spanish)
Bianchi Kiosko Cafe (Café in Spanish)

Coffee Lab (Workshops / Barista Training) 

San Sebastian:


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