Idiot's Guide to Spanish Coffee

Curious case of 'a coffee' in Spain

Being an absolute caffriend myself (see what I did there) there was nothing I was more excited about than jumping straight into the long-lunch-siesta-taking-coffee-sipping Spanish culture. I couldn't wait to wrap my hands around mugs of some of the best coffee around and although you could say my frequenting off all the local cafes and restaurants was about immersing myself in the culture and surrounding myself with the language… I would be lying if I said my chosen beverage didn't have a big part to play in the matter.

However, I quickly realised that what I had imagined would become my relaxing afternoon routine was in fact going to become one of the biggest challenges I had to face during my stay. Starbucks and Costa give us a wide range of choice, yes, but in general you can go in and literally say 'coffee please' and the only thing you have to think about is remembering whether you take milk or not... which for most people I imagine isn't that tricky.

As for Spain… well you can say good riddance to a quick in/out, take the coffee and run scenario. Be general with your order here at your peril. 'Un café por favor' doesn’t quite cut it. There are tons of different options and you need to know what they are and how important it is to specify. Forgetting to do so will quickly transform what you thought would be a coffee drinking paradise into a caffeine filled nightmare.

To help you avoid this from happening I'm going to be giving you a fair few (but still not all) of they key-coffee-terms you'll need to know.

Remember, if you're like me, no matter how much you love your coffee, not having it the way you like it can be the difference between a pleasant break and spending 20 minutes trying to rescue the drink with copious amounts of milk and sugar. Asking for a new/different coffee would be far too rude… I am English after all.

Café Solo

Your basic espresso. This is what you’ll get if you just ask for a ‘café’ and nothing else. Which is annoying (for me anyway).

I love a big mug of coffee and I’ve never really been one for the tiny little shot of the stuff. The idea of quickly sending unhealthy amounts of caffeine surging around my body is a tempting one, don't get me wrong, but as efficient as an espresso shot can be, I like to enjoy my coffee… something you just can’t do with 30 ml of it.

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Getting one of these when you hoped for something bigger is like seeing a massive present under the Christmas tree, but when you come to open it, it’s 99% boxes and packaging and 1% an underwhelming, disappointing pair of socks (my brother still thinks it’s a funny thing to do).

Café Cortado

Another pain in the backside, really. Despite having a completely different name, this coffee is exactly the same as the 'café solo'… but with milk.

Whose idea was it to call it something else? After finally getting over the disappointment of your first espresso-instead-of-giant-mug-of-coffee experience, you feel excited at trying something new. I was at least expecting not to be left sobbing into my tiny little mug… again.

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How about ‘café solo con leche’? Idiots.

Café Bombón

Here you have your ‘dessert in liquid form’ sort of coffee.

They use the same coffee they use for the café solo and it’s milky variation, but this time you actually get more than a mouthful of it. It’s also served with a generous helping of condensed milk, all in a fancy mug.

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It’s got a slight caramel taste to it so, as I said, it’s more of a dessert than a coffee. Some people might find it a bit too much, especially if you’re just having a quick break and want your usual fix of the good stuff, without all the teeth-rotting goodness the Bombón has to offer.

Café con Hielo

This one is not so much confusing, in fact the name translates pretty well… quite literally iced coffee.

The reason I’m putting this one down is just for you to have it in your locker. Being in Murcia, I had to try and survive the 40 degree heat whilst at the same time quench my insatiable thirst for a good ‘ole cup of coffee.

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This is the perfect choice for the Spanish summer, so don’t forget what it’s called. You don't want to be sweating into your cup of coffee.

Café con Leche

At least they’ve given us a couple of easy ones.

This is your staple coffee. Not as strong as it’s little espresso friends we met earlier, and in a bigger mug... Hallelujah!

Depending on where you are when you ask for one of these will decide how much milk you get. Some places will just slosh in any old amount, annoying for those of us who have particular preferences, and even leaving you with more milk than coffee in some cases. Other places will be more aware of your needs and ask exactly how much milk you want.

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For the fussy ones among you, I recommend finding somewhere that does the latter.

Café Carajillo

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous stay away…

Considered by some as a dying breed, your basic Carajillo will have a splash of brandy or something similar added to the mix. But even this is thought to be a pretender to the throne.

A real, authentic Carajillo which have the brandy warmed up with the coffee granules and some lemon, to which some other coffee is added. After this, the mixture is filtered to get rid of the remaining granules and lemon and what you’re left with is a traditional Carajillo fit for the Gods…

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You’re unlikely to find somewhere that still goes through the whole process, so in general, just know that a Carajillo is going to be boozy.

Café Belmonte

Here we have another type of coffee where just adding ‘con *insert extra ingredient here*’ to an existing name would have worked wonders.

But no, instead of doing that they have added another name on to the already long list of coffees we need to remember… at least you can say you’ve learnt a lot of new vocabulary.

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The Belmonte is just the Café Bombón we saw earlier but with a bit of brandy added to it. They both begin with 'B' but ordering a Belmonte when you really want a Bombón won’t be the brilliant beverage bonanza you were hoping for... overkill with the 'Bs' but who gives a *beep*.

Un Manchado

If you’re an absolute wimp and even the smell of a coffee sends you loco, then you should probably make a note of this one.

If you’re still 8 years old at heart you’ll love it as it’s basically a mug of warm milk, with just a hint of coffee running through it.

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Bedtime story not included, unfortunately.

Descafeinado de maquina/ de sobre

Again, this one might seem obvious but if you can’t handle your caffeine and you need decaf, then be extra careful which one you ask for.

They prepare it like they would an espresso… just decaffeinated, obviously. The reason the 'de maquina/de sobre' variation is important is because if it’s not an amazing bar and you’ve just stopped off for a quick drink, to avoid the disappointment of getting a sub-par coffee make sure you ask for one ‘de maquina’ as even the most inept waiter can’t get it wrong from the machine.

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The ‘de sobre’ variant requires a bit more skill and is harder to get right, so only ask for this type of decaf if you hold the establishment in high esteem or the barrista actually looks like they know what they’re doing.

Café Asiático

Just before I finish I thought I’d mention one type of coffee that is in fact the prized possession of where I stayed. The region of Murcia (Cartagena to be specific) loves its Café Asiático so I thought it would only be right to give it a mention at the end.

This coffee isn’t just rich in flavour, but in history too. It’s also one of the most intricate coffees and has to be prepared in a very specific way and is even served in a unique fancy glass. Well posh.

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First they add the coffee. After that they put in the condensed milk followed by as little or as much cognac as you want. It's finished off with a splash of Liquor 43 and a bit of cinnamon. As a little garnish you might even have it served with a few extra coffee granules and some lemon.

I don’t know about you but it seems like all a bit much just for a coffee… you’ll definitely need one after making it!

Still confused?

Don’t worry. I was there for nearly 5 months and even by the end of it waiting to see if I had ordered the right coffee was still one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life.

The funny thing is, I probably could’ve written 20 more different types of coffee, but at that point I think this article would be more of a hinderance than a help. Even if you forget all these names come the time you’re ready to order, the main thing to remember is that there are so many different options.

Spending any amount of time in Spain will turn even a coffee virgin into a proficient connoisseur. Whether by choice, or more likely by accident, you’re bound to order the wrong coffee at least once, and most of the time you won’t like what has been out in front of you. But the year abroad is about learning, isn’t it?

What better thing to do so than sitting in the Spanish sun and trying every type of coffee…well… under the sun.


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