How to Order a Coffee in Spain

Coffee. It’s one of the fundamental steps in waking up – and for many – the only way to truly click in and start the day.

Yes, coffee is important, it’s necessary, and beloved to the point of being sacred. Having a coffee should be preserved like an endangered species, and respected like a “Do Not Disturb” sign. So when something is so mind-blowingly difficult or confused about the simple system where one pays the other and receives a cup of coffee – we have ourselves a situation. Enter Spain.

When you first wake up, your head may be pounding, contacts swirling around in your eyes – you’ve got no desire to fight for a bar stool, to wave and holler at a bartender, or to make small talk with anyone in your way. No, this process is all about warming up the engines (uttering a sentence is tough, much less spitting out an eloquent thesis all in the name of a cup of joe). You just woke up and you’ve got the slight taste of toothpaste in your mouth and are wiping OJ from your lips. This is not a time for questions and confusion. Just give me a cup of coffee, please, oh pretty please?

But in Spain, like bureaucratic paperwork and buying socks, nothing about this process is easy.

I’ve been left embarrassed, dumbfounded, and coffee-less as waiters swirl about, glance your way, then move on to the next as their eyebrows clearly mouth, “Fuck off”. You don’t want that to happen to you.

So here then, are a few local tips to make sure you never experience the awkward, uncomfortable order where everyone at the bar looks at your like you’re an alien from “Men in Black” and the waiter leaves you and never comes back.

Lose the por favor: Saying please in the United States is polite, normal, and expected. What’s more, add a smile and you usually can get whatever you like. These are the little niceties that can take you so far. Not true in Spain. Adding a por favor to the beginning or end of your order is the ultimate mistake. Waiters in Spain don’t like you, they’re not your friend, and they aint doin’ this for tips. So trying to befriend them, or warm their hearts with a little kindness….that won’t work. Instead it sends the message that you, my friend, are a real nancy. A fluttering butterfly in the wind. Ooooh por favor. How to put it? It’s as if all of a sudden the cafe door opened, letting in a strong breeze to blow your frilly flower skirt up into the air and offering a quick peak at your “Winnie-the-Pooh” panties to all. No, instead, if you want to be nice, add a quick gracias once they’ve quickly brought you a coffee.

Hot or Cold: Nothing can throw you off and make you look like a bewildered bewildabeast faster than an unexpected question. Huuugggh? So be warned: in most cafes and restaurants across Spain if you order a coffee you will be asked at somepoint do you want the milk hot? Or medium? Or cold? Caliente o templada? The difference of course being preference and timing. If you’ve got to pound the coffee and get to work in 10 mins, ask for templada, got a book and 2 hours to kill? Caliente….porque no?

Cup or Glass: Another confusing question that may come your way is the ‘ole cup or glass (tasa o vaso) question. Now first of all it’s a dumb question (unless you speak spanish then it’s a common courtesy and not asking is rude, or at least assumptive). Just pour somebody a coffee and move on. It’s sort of like in a 007 James Bond movie when the bartender asks, “Would you like that martini shaken or stirred”? To which Bond retorts, “Do I look like I give a damn”.

Check, please: Ok so now you’ve miraculously received your coffee, enjoyed its contents, and the caffeine is starting to crank the poorly oiled, gears and chains inside your head. Now all you’ve got to do is pay up and be off to work or to visit the loo for a little number 2. Here are a couple of ways to order. An informal way to ask: que te debo? Simple, respectful. In English, what do I owe you? If you’re in a group of friends or colleagues, go with: nos cobra. In English, cover us (but it sounds good in Spanish).

A guide to the most common coffee orders you’ll find throughout Spain. Note in various parts of Spain, the name changes.

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

trifasico – carajillo with a bit of milk, a Catalan specialty

café bombon – café solo with condensed sweet milk.

leche y leche – a bombon in the Canary Islands. Coffee with condensed sweet milk.

café sombra – is actually a café manchada in Andalucía

café manchada – a glass of milk flavored with a bit of coffee

café americano – large black coffee or café solo with more water

café suizo – coffee topped with whipped cream

café caramel – espresso with condensed milk, caramel

The Curious Case of Coffee in Spain

cafe-con-leche

All the ranting and complaining aside, once you understand these little tricks you’ll soon come to admire the bliss of perfect coffee – ordered to any specification you may have. Enjoy!

Got a comment or another favorite Spanish coffee? Post below or tell us over on Twitter @TakeYaThere

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