The Curious Case of Coffee in Spain

“Coffee is real good when you drink it; it gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.”
– Gertrude Stein

Spaniards might not be as stylish as people in Vienna and they certainly haven’t invented a society around coffee, making from this a cultural experience, but they still have some interesting habits when it comes to coffee.

This article is for first time travelers to Spain and for those who believe that ordering a coffee at Starbucks can be difficult.

My coffee experience in Spain

Coffee experience in Spain

First of all, coffee in Spain is delicious and varied, but it takes some time to get used to the ritual of ordering it. Even so, if you learn how to order a coffee in Madrid, that doesn’t mean you will get the same in Andalusia or in any other region. Things are complicated, I think Spaniards are complicated, that’s why it’s almost impossible not to like them.

On my first trip to Spain, I didn’t actually understand too much about coffee, maybe because during that period I was not preoccupied about this type of entertainment, or maybe I was too busy falling in love with the beautiful country. As time passed by, many things have changed.

It’s funny in how many ways I’ve seen Spain over time, and it’s strange that I still feel so attracted to this country. As I’ve already said in a previous post, Spain is the country that discovered me, while I haven’t even had the courage to visit it all.

Anyway, I think it’s time to talk about coffee

Café Solo
Image licensed by Ingram Image

I will start with the safest option – Café Solo, which means single espresso. This is the most common type of coffee in Spain and my favorite, because I don’t like milk. Usually served in a small cup, Café Solo represents the basis for all Spanish coffees, being the strongest one. Oddly, Spaniards don’t seem to use it in order to wake up in the morning. I don’t know why, but they prefer to begin the day with Café con Leche, which is much weaker, and then have a Café Solo around 11 a.m., while I would do exactly the opposite.

If you think Café Solo is too small, you’ll have to ask for a Café Doble (double espresso). If you find it too strong, ask for an Americano (Café Solo with more water added), and finally, if you think none of these is your type, but you still don’t want milk, try a Café Suizo – café solo topped with whipped cream, or a Carajillo – the same Café Solo spiked with brandy or whiskey.

They say Café con Leche is the second most popular coffee in Spain, but if you ask me, I would say this type is the nation’s regular drink. They wake up with Café con Leche, they end the day with Café con Leche, and they even drink it after any meal. What can I say, it must be delicious, but when I think it’s half milk, half coffee, I don’t really see the point.

Latte art

It took me three trips to Spain to understand the difference between Café Cortado and Café con Leche. Actually, at the beginning, I was somehow confused about the term “cortado”, which I thought it could come from the Italian “corto”, which means short, and I first ordered it believing that the waitress will bring me a short espresso. Then, I realized that Spanish and Italian languages are not that similar as I thought, and I finally got it – Café Cortado is Café Solo with milk. Who would have thought that coffee in Spain could be named after the amount of milk added?

Café Cortado is not Café con Leche, it is Café Solo with just a bit of milk, while Café Manchada is a little coffee with a lot of milk, not to mention the variations of coffee in Malaga – so entangled and hard to remember that they will only blur your mind instead of clarifying things.

Coffee Types in Malaga
Photo via Facebook

For those who don’t tolerate caffeine, there’s always the option of asking for a descafeinado. Be aware though, you should ask for a descafeinado de maquina, unless you want to get an instant coffee poured into a cup of hot milk.

Most of the times when I visited Spain, it happened to be in the summer, so I forgot to tell you that besides Café Solo, my favorite was Café con Hielo. I liked it so much that when I came back, I started to prepare it at home and even when I was out with my friends.

Café con Hielo is not that simple as you may think, you don’t just throw a couple of ice cubes in your cup of coffee. The ritual goes pretty much like this: Ask for a cup of coffee (black or white, it doesn’t matter) and a glass filled with ice cubes. Add the sugar in your hot coffee, stir until melted, and then pour the cup over the glass of ice. Drink it fast! After 10 minutes, in a hot summer day, it will lose all the charm.

Being almost positive that I did nothing but confuse the reader, I will make a list:

Café Solo – espresso
Café Doble – double espresso
Café con Leche – coffee with milk, usually half and half proportionally, but it depends on the region
Café Cortado – espresso with a dash of milk
Café con Hielo – espresso with ice
Carajillo – espresso with a drop of brandy, whiskey, or rum
Trifásico – Carajillo with a bit of milk, a Catalan specialty
Café Bombón – Café Solo with condensed sweet milk
Café Manchado – a glass of milk flavored with a bit of coffee
Café Sombra – this is actually a Café Manchado in Andalusia
Café Americano – large black coffee or Café Solo with more water added
Café Suizo – coffee topped with whipped cream
Café Caramel – espresso with condensed milk

As you can imagine, the above list does not include all types of Spanish coffee, but I’m sure it’s a helpful guide for beginners.

Other interesting facts about coffee in Spain

Tomar un café

Despite all this madness created around Spanish coffee, there are some other interesting aspects to be considered:

  • In Spain, tomar un café is an essential part of their everyday life.
  • Beyond its quality and unrivaled variety, Spanish coffee is roasted and blended in a very unique way. It also represents more than a drink, actually it’s a way to relax and celebrate life.
  • As a tourist in Spain, it doesn’t really matter where you will drink your coffee, you’ll even have the opportunity to choose each time another place, as the country is filled with cafes, terraces, restaurants, bars, clubs, pubs, etc. If you happen to be in Malaga, you should know that this lively Andalusian city on Costa del Sol boasts the highest number of cafes and bars per square meter in the world.
  • I’ve always appreciated the Spaniards’ ability to detach from their daily problems, as well as their characteristic naturalness and the simple joy of living. The coffee plays a very important role in all these, being a sort of tiny pleasure that anyone affords, and once with the pleasure of taste, which is very important for Spanish people, comes the delight of conversation and that sweet recreational mood the country is known for.
  • During my travels, I’ve learned that the way people drink their coffee tells a lot about their personality, and I’m not talking about a specific person, I’m talking about an entire nation seen as an individual. The same thing happens with the food, the way it’s prepared, cooked, and served, and that is why I am particularly interested in such things.
  • Visiting a destination’s top attractions isn’t enough. True knowledge comes with the understanding of the most subtle aspects of daily life – the way locals eat, drink, dress, party…. Of course, it’s very important to know their history, culture, and traditions, but there will always be books illustrating such things. In the meantime, your genuine personal experience will not be written anywhere, unless you decide to publish it.
  1. Sirri Braga Sirri Braga says:

    Thanks for the very best explanation on coffee in Spain!
    Sirri Braga

  2. Hi Miguel,
    Thanks a lot for your comment and for the useful tips. Honestly, I’ve never known that you always have to use M before B in Spanish, although in Romanian is pretty much alike. As for “cortado”, that’s exactly what I said, it’s not like “corto”(short) in Italy. In fact that’s why I was so confused in the first place.
    Regarding my love for Spain, don’t thank me, thank your wonderful country for being so addictive:)!

    1. I loved your article, it’s quite complete, and you said things I’ve never thought about before (Even being Spanish). Besides Miguel said, there exists, at least in northern spain the “Leche manchada”. It’s a cup of warm milk with a bit of coffee.
      About the cortado thing, it’s right what Miguel said. But you said Italian language have nothing to do with spanish; which is quite wrong.
      Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and catalan, have the same mother language: latin. The gramar, in all it’s ways are so similar that in much cases you only have to learn new words for learning that language. And actually that’s another point; having the same root, most of the words in all those languages are almost the same. Actually corto in italian, and corto in spanish means the same. Cortado is about “cut the coffee” with some milk.

      Regards from spain.

  3. Haha, being from Málaga, I’ve never been able to learn all the names for coffee there. I guess it must be so difficult for foreigners.
    As to cafe manchada, I never heard it but manchado (it’s EL café: un manchado, please) but as you say, it may be different from one region to another.
    Bonbon should be BOMBON (always M before B in Spanish)
    And cortado as you say is not for short but for cut.
    (Hope you don’t find me too picky, just trying to help, haha)
    Thanks for loving Spain.

    1. Phil de Canillas Phil de Canillas says:

      The Machado is more commonly known as a nube in Málaga ,it is a glass of warm milk with a drop of coffee.
      I tasted my brother’s nube once, never again! I usually drink solo doble.

      Saludos de La Axarquía.

  4. nicolette nicolette says:

    We’ve been home from a visit to Spain for a month now and STILL miss the cafe con leche!

  5. Elanabell Elanabell says:

    I’m thinking about traveling to Spain, but is there anyway to order coffee with cream instead of milk? I’m a major coffee drinker and can’t think without at least a cup in the morning, but milk with my coffee does suit my taste (a little too watery).

    1. Of course, you can simply ask for “cafe con crema” :). Have fun in Spain!

  6. Thank you for your list of Spanish coffee. My wife likes cafe americano with a little bit of cold milk added, is there another name for this?

    We always ask for cafe americano con un poco leche fria aparte and we get what we want.

    1. I don’t know Jeff, but as long as you get what you want, I think the problem is already fixed.

    2. It’s a “café con leche corto de café” 😉

    3. How about ‘un americano cortado, la leche fria”? 🙂

  7. Love your novella style of describing your relationship with Spain, the people, and their food. I agree that the way that someone enjoys their food (including coffee) says a lot about them. It is sad that in the U.S., most of our coffee is consumed on the go, and few enjoy to take the time to relax, and enjoy the moment. I fell in love with the relaxation of the cafe while living years ago in Munich and travelling about Austria and Italy. Thank you for sharing to generously of your adventures.

    1. Thanks Robert! I’m glad you enjoyed it:)
      As for the coffee culture in Europe, you’re right, we love to savor our coffee for as long as it takes.

  8. no such thing as crema here in spain. crema is a colour. the word for cream is nata, therefore it would be cafe con nata. here in malaga, cafe con leche is three quarters coffee and a quarter milk. cafe sombra (shade) is half and half, whilst cafe nubes (clouds) is quarter coffee and three quarters milk

  9. Hi! I visited Spain recently and loved the coffee there. In my opinion it was better than the stuff I’ve tired in Italy. I never got to know the brand of the coffee being served. Do you know what are the brands popular in Spain? Thanks.

    1. Hello Aamir,
      Coincidentally, the best coffee I’ve ever had was at a shopping mall in Palma de Mallorca, so I really understand what you mean. I don’t share your opinion about Italian coffee though. However, I have no idea what coffee brands do they have or consume in Spain, but please let me know if you find out:).

    2. There are many brands or coffee in Spain. Café Valiente, Marcilla, Segafredo, Dromedario, Bay… Each cafe has its supplier.

  10. It doesn’t matter if you drink a cafe solo first then a cafe con leche later or vice versa because it doesn’t matter how much milk you add the amount of caffeine remains the same

  11. Hello! Great article 😉 I am spanish and living in Madrid and I could not explain it better than you did ;). Just one small comment: We also have “Café Solo Largo” which is the most common way to order a double expresso rather than Café Doble.
    Regarding brands we have Bonka, Marcilla, Saimaza, La estrella….an we also enjoy Italian brands like Segafreddo, but with the Spanish touch 😉
    Hope it helps!!
    Best Regards,

    1. Yes, “café solo largo” is more usual than “café doble”.

  12. In Mallorca we also have our own names for coffees. Here we don’t say “carajillo”, we say “reventat”

  13. Although I did enjoy coffee during my only trip to Spain (Valencia), I found another famous drink known as Horchata to be simply delectable! The difference with Spanish Horchata is that it’s made from Chufa nuts as opposed to Mexican Horchata which is made from rice. As someone who loves coffee, I would like to try the Gran Canaria variety since I never knew it was grown in Europe.

  14. Coffee serving styles vary so much from place to place!
    Here in the Basque country a Cortado is usually served in a special sized cup for the purpose, but in Cantabria it is always in a glass.

    In Bilbao you order a “Cafe con Leche en Vaso” (in a glass) to get extra large coffee – more milk – at breakfast and it come in a large solid glass, so good for warming your hands while you drink it (in winter).
    In Cantabría you get that extra sized “Cafe con leche de desayuno” in a giant-sized ceramic cup – again special for the purpose.

    Then many people here order things like Cafe con leche, or cortado “corto de cafE” (short on coffee) or “largo de café” (long on coffee), to customise the amount of coffee in the drink.

    Hope these are useful additions!

  15. Damn, I’m a Spaniard and I didn’t even know we had so many coffees. I knew the normal ones: Solo, cortado, con leche, carajillo and trifasico. Besides, I come from the Catalan region, which makes it all so much confusing because they are not always called the same!

  16. The moment I’m homeward-bound on the plane, I start missing Cafe con Leche.

  17. Cafe con leche provides the fuel for the camino! Could not have walked it without the stops at a cafe along the way. The friendliness and espresso were both sustaining.

  18. I must disagree! Spanish coffee is perhaps the worst in Europe and probably in the world. First of all, many Spanish cafeterias, restaurants, cafes use “torrefacto” which is roasted coffee, normally of the Robusta type, covered with burnt sugar… coffee which has a bitter burnt taste can be good, and that’s why everyone adds ALOT of sugar to their coffee. Secondly, 70% of the coffee used in the Spanish market is Robusta, mainly imported from Vietnam, the other 30% is Arabica. These proportions, are the inverse of what the rest of the world consumes (70% Arabica, which is the best type of coffee and 30% Robusta). In Spain having an Espresso, is something you don’t see normally and if you do you normally see people add 14g + of sugar to a cup that should have 25ml of extracted coffee. Why sugar? Because in Spain we do not know what good coffee tastes like. Now, to cover up this bad coffee, we came up with Cafe con Leche. The problem here, is that most places use BAD quality milk, and on top of using bad milk, they boil it over and over again, compensating the extremely hot milk with cold milk. Why not prepare the milk from the beginning at the correct temperature! so you can enjoy your coffee and not deteriorate further the taste of the already bad coffee. Well, I could continue with this for a while, but I’m going to stop..The only message I want to give here, to anyone that consumes coffee in Spain is to DEMAND A GOOD COFFEE, don’t accept anything they give you and the probability of having a bad coffee is extremely high.


      I have to agree with Juan. I am an American and have lived in Madrid for 20 years and though I agree with Spain being a fantastic place in the world, the coffee here for the most part is crap. Juan hits the main reasons for this -low quality, over-roasted and often, sugar-roasted beans with milk from a tetrabrik.

      I started a specialty coffee business to provide an option to the predominant low quality coffee offerings here. Many Spanish consider café americano “aguachirri” -a low quality cup of coffee with little substance. This is correct if we’re talking watered down Spanish coffee, but incorrect if we’re talking a cup of coffee made from optimally roasted high quality, Arabica beans. My coffee will be lighter in color than the Spanish counterpart but it will have full delicious flavor, be caffeinated and will leave you with a smile on your face without all the char and added sugar.

      1. Steve, Where do you sell your coffee?

    2. I would have agreed with you until I moved to Barcelona. Boy, do they know how to make a GOOD coffee here!

    3. I’m going to try torrefacto coffee myself to see what it’s really like. I’ll order a bag sent to Los Angeles. I’m an adventurous person so I will probably like it, since I like vietnamese coffee and robusta . I was in Spain in the 70s and found out the food can be hit and miss so I can see how this can happen to the coffee too. Thanks Juan for telling us the real facts about this.

    4. 100% agree with Juan. Coffee in Spain is just awful, the worst I’ve tried in Europe.That horrible torrefacto makes you run to the toilet in seconds.

      I’m spanish, soy español. Also it’s the horrible way people drink coffee in Spain, no enjoyment, no care, no ritual, no beauty in it, no beautiful cups, no cookie, no nothing, just a disgusting basic cup, noise and cheapness and rush in every sense. Spanish people don¡t enjoy coffee at all as they do in the rest of Europe or America, just like wine or beer, there is zero enjoyment and beauty around drinking them. I honestly don’t understand what some tourists see in Spain because we just hate this disgusting side of Spain, nothing is well looked after, no possible comparison with the coffees and bars in Europe. Spain is primitive and has been very poor for centuries, there is misery in every corner and everything.

    5. I’ll have to agree with Juan, Stephen, and Daniel! I am not sure about the rest of Spain, but I can tell you for sure that coffee in Andalusia pretty much….sucks! Big time! The coffee, the service, the lack of coffee culture, …. don’t even get me started! Good luck finding a decent espresso in Andalusia! I am not saying there aren’t any decent cafes, but I just haven’t found one yet, and I have traveled a lot in this part of Spain for the past years.

      Enjeru is right, Barcelona has lots of fancy cafes where you can find really good coffee.

      1. The only exception in Spain is Bilbao. You will only find acceptable coffee at European standard levels there. Slightly roasted (tueste natural) arabica coffee is the norm. I mean, you can find nice coffee in any city of Spain, if you know where to go. Bilbao is the only place in which you do not need to know, and you can drink a good coffee in any place.

        1. Thanks for the tip! This is yet another good reason for me to visit Bilbao soon!

  19. Melinda Pa Melinda Pa says:

    I love your article, I have visited Spain 4 times so far. I am in love with the country my husband is from there to be more specific the basque country. When I go I always get a café con crema and it is amazing, actually the first thing we do getting off the plane is go and get one. I have been to the south and they don’t know anything about it. Coffee con crema all the way.

  20. I came across this article and I AM IN LOVE!
    I just came from a 2 week trip to Spain and I can say this is the best I have seen.
    I lived in Spain for 5 months back in 2012 so visiting again was life giving, and having coffee was EVERYTHING! Love your writing, can’t wait to read more!

  21. Stumbled across this and couldn’t help but giggle.

    Yes, cortado in Spanish means “cut”, as in coffee cut with a dash of milk – which, as my travels have shown me, is a caffe machiatto not just in Italy, but also in English-speaking countries, meaning Spain is hardly the only place where coffee is “named after the amount of milk added”: café con leche is a latte elsewhere, and a leche manchada is the smaller version of a latte machiatto.

    Corto (a word that does exist is Spanish, btw) does in fact mean a short (solo) coffee, so you’re not exactly off: it’s the same word in Italian and in Spanish, you just made the wrong word association with cortado.

  22. Thanks for the lovely article! Just to clarify, is a “Café Bombon” the same as a “Café Caramel”? ie. an espresso with condensed milk?

    1. It looks like the difference is the Bombon uses sweetened condensed milk and the Caramel uses plain condensed milk. That should be possible.

  23. Roberto Marozini Roberto Marozini says:

    Never ever order a Cappuccino in Spain. It is just 2 espresso shots with two spoons of airy milk froth on top. Somehow Spaniards think that Cappuccino is all about that airy bubbly milk froth floating on two espresso shots, which is totally wrong.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *