Have you ever imagined sitting in a coffee shop in Spain? Just think about how amazing it would be to enjoy a rich, hot cup of coffee on an outdoor patio while you are surrounded by the sights and sounds of the bustling plazas and busy crowds. You may wonder, though, if cafés in Spain are really all that different from coffee shops in the U.S.
A Spanish café is unique because it is a place for enjoying the company of friends and embracing life, more a part of a ritual than a quick stop for that morning energy jolt. You won’t find large laptop-friendly tables with charging stations or high-speed Wi-Fi. Instead, you’ll find a place to sit and collect your thoughts, or, more commonly, a place to share a snack and connect with people around you.
Spanish cafés operate with a different philosophy than coffee shops found in the United States. What are some of the specific differences you’ll find when looking for that perfect brew in Spain? And, what should you know about Spanish coffee when ordering?
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Coffee Culture in Spain
Spain is a country that embraces life to the fullest. The simple pleasures of each day are celebrated, and coffee is, without question, one of life’s great pleasures. And, of course, celebrations are best when shared.
Unlike an American coffee shop where people run in, grab that cup of liquid ambition, and rush out to their next appointment, Spanish cafes are meant to be a social place. Snacks, drinks, and meals are thought of as a leisurely time to enjoy with others. And, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a meal in Spain that doesn’t include coffee.
Sharing coffee with friends is pretty much a daily occurrence in Spain. Mid-morning, late afternoon, and early evening are all traditional times for coffee. Coffee is served after each meal, and sharing coffee is a time to just relax, take it slow, and appreciate your time with someone.
And, for every coffee-drinking occasion, you’ll find the perfect variety of drinks to suit every moment.
Solo, Con Leche, and Meriendas: What to Order in a Spanish Cafe
Visitors to a Spanish café may be looking for a refreshing break from the stresses of the day and not just a quick warm drink on the run. But isn’t a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee no matter where you are?
Coffee in Spain has a much stronger flavor than we are accustomed to in the U.S. And, you aren’t likely to find your seasonal favorites at a Spanish café—no pumpkin spice or peppermint mochas. Instead, you’ll be offered the traditional Spanish specialties. Before you order, this quick overview of some popular options can help you decide.
Café con Leche: Café con leche is the standard breakfast fare in Spain. It is often paired with a pastry, a small sandwich, or, a traditional Catalonian favorite—toast with tomatoes. Half milk and half espresso, café con leche is a hearty drink and, more often than not, it is the only thing someone will have for breakfast.
Café Solo: For that midday fix, café solo is the popular go-to. It’s a small cup of dark, strong espresso. If the rich flavor is too much for your taste, you can order an Americano—a standard mug-sized version of a watered-down café solo. And, unlike your typical American coffee shop, you can also request something stronger when visiting a café in Spain. Order a carajillo, popular no matter what time of day, and your café solo will also include a shot of brandy or whiskey.
Café Cortado: Are you craving something a little richer than a café con leche but not quite as strong as a café solo? A café cortado may be just the right thing. It’s a café solo with just a bit of milk. Or, if you prefer the opposite end of the spectrum, try a café manchado—a glass of milk with just a bit of coffee.
Café Bombón: Are you missing those sweet American seasonal favorites? A café bombón, also called café caramel in some areas, is a nice treat. This brew consists of a shot of espresso combined with sweetened condensed milk.
Café Descafeinado: This may be the least popular option in Spain. And, if you don’t order carefully, you’ll probably be given a packet of instant coffee and a cup of hot milk. Some cafes do offer brewed decaf, so be sure to ask for descafeinado de máquina when ordering.
People eat dinner late in Spain, well after the sun goes down, even as late as ten p.m. This is one of the reasons snacks, or meriendas, are so popular with coffee. A sweet pastry like a churro, or rosaquilla—a deep-fried donut—would be delicious with that midmorning brew; and, that afternoon fix wouldn’t be complete without a savory treat like a bocadíllo de jamon (ham sandwich) or a small plate of olives and tasty local cheeses.
There is yet another fun fact you might like to know. You are much more likely to find a glass of wine or a mug of beer in a Spanish café than a to-go cup. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy a quiet moment along with your beverage of choice.
You’ve finally found it—the perfect place—a quiet, picturesque café where you can sit, check your messages, and knock out a few emails. Unless you are visiting a café in a large city, though, you likely won’t find many local cafés to be work friendly.
True to the philosophy of celebrating life’s simple pleasures, work and coffee do not mix. Cafes are seen as places to eat, drink, and enjoy your time. It’s not a given that a café will even offer public Wi-Fi. In fact, when Wi-Fi is available, many cafes limit the use of laptops to non-peak business hours, especially on weekends and holidays.
So, instead of catching up with work tasks, take advantage of this time to relax, take in the views, and enjoy the beautiful moment. Public areas like parks or libraries can be socially acceptable locations for opening your laptop.
Spanish cafes offer so much more than just delicious coffees and tasty treats. A visit to a Spanish café gives you the unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the local customs and culture while also taking a moment to appreciate the beauty of life happening all around you. So, order the delicious brew of your choice, take a seat on the lovely patio, and take time to simply enjoy the moment.
Torrefacto roasting is a process that became common during the Spanish Civil War. Many everyday goods were in scarce supply and preserving valuable resources became a driving force. This roasting process helps to both lengthen the shelf life of coffee beans and intensify their flavor, allowing for a greater volume of coffee from fewer beans. Sugar, which is added during the final stages of the roasting process, creates an oily coating on the beans. This coating helps slow down oxidation, keeping the beans fresh longer. It also gives the coffee a rich, bitter taste that will take some getting used to. Even though these preservation tactics are no longer needed, many people have become accustomed to this intense flavor and it is still the norm in most areas. Today, not all coffee shops in Spain still use this process. But you are sure to sample many cups made with this roast throughout your travels.
How is café con leche different from cappuccino or latte then?
The main difference between these drinks is in the ratio of espresso to milk. A café con leche packs the most punch with equal parts espresso and milk. A cappuccino, on the other hand, is made with a 1:2 espresso to milk ratio, and a latte gets its flavor with one part espresso and three parts milk. Another important difference is that café con leche is made with steamed milk; lattes and cappuccinos use foamed milk, requiring either a frother or a skilled hand with a whisk. So, in addition to the added caffeine boost, a café con leche is a much easier treat to prepare at home.
Are tapas and meriendas the same thing?
While tapas and meriendas share a similar concept, they are actually two very different things. Merendar means “to snack” and meriendas are just that—a light snack, usually in the middle of the afternoon. Traditionally, meriendas were served to children after school. However, the custom has evolved into a part of daily life for adults as well. Tapas, on the other hand, compare more closely to a pre-dinner appetizer. There are several legends about their origin, from using bread to keep flies out of a glass of sweet sherry to requiring pubs to give food to soldiers to keep them from getting drunk—the custom remains the same regardless. Tapas are savory snacks eaten before dinner, which is typically a light meal, and usually paired with wine.
My adventure in coffee began when I first launched my first coffee shop back in the early 2000s. I had to figure out so many things on my own and to make it worse within 2 years of opening two large corporate coffee chains moved in just blocks away from me!
As I saw smaller and even some larger coffee shops in the neighborhood slowly lose customers to these giant coffee chains and slowly close up shop, I knew that I had to start getting creative…or go out of business.
I (like you may be) knew the coffee industry well. I could make the best latte art around and the foam on my caps was the fluffiest you have ever seen. I even had the best state-of-the-art 2 group digital Nuova Simonelli machine money could buy. But I knew that these things alone would not be enough to lure customers away from the name brand established coffee shops.
Eventually, through lots of trial and error as well as perseverance and creativity I did find a way to not only survive but also thrive in the coffee/espresso industry even while those corporate coffee chains stayed put. During those years I learned to adapt and always faced new challenges. It was not always easy, however, in the end, I was the sole survivor independent coffee shop within a 10-mile radius of my location. Just two corporate coffee chains and I were left after that year. All told the corporate coffee chains took down over 15 small independent coffee shops and kiosks and I was the last one standing and thriving.
Along the years I meet others with the same passion for coffee and I quickly learned that it is not only “how good a barista is” that makes a coffee shop successful, but the business side of coffee as well.
Hence why I started this website you are on now. To provide the tools and resources for up and coming coffee shop owners to gain that vital insight and knowledge on how to start a coffee shop successfully.
Stick around, browse through my helpful blog and resources and enjoy your stay! With lots of LATTE LOVE!