Coffee came to Cuba in the mid-1700s, and soon thereafter Cuba became a large coffee producer and exporter. In fact, coffee production has had such an impact on the Cuban landscape that the first coffee plantations now have a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
As coffee production grew, the drink became part of the national identity; it's no surprise that even those of us who have never been to Cuba have probably at least once or twice heard mention of a café cubano. But of course, there's more to Cuban coffee culture than just one drink.
How Cubans Make Coffee
All Cubans have access to coffee, as they receive a monthly coffee ration, although this ration is cut with ground chicharo beans, a pea-type legume similar to garbanzo beans. If they have the means, Cubans will mix this coffee with a store-bought brand to increase the quality and flavor. The coffee is prepared in a stove-top espresso maker.
"Every home has one," says Conner Gorry, writer and founder of the Havana bookstore Cuba Libro, "Even the most humble folks offer a cup of coffee to visitors – no matter if it's their last bit of grounds and they don’t know when or where they’ll get more."
The Café Cubano
Since café cubano is such a common reference in the coffee world, I wanted to know if this drink is as popular in Cuba as it has become elsewhere, which is why I spoke with Gorry. The Cuba Libro bookstore that she runs also houses a cafe, and having spent more than a decade in Cuba, she's well-poised to speak to the subject of coffee. So I asked her about the café cubano. "Having lived here for 13 years, I didn’t know the the café cubano was a thing elsewhere. We don’t call any coffee drink a cubano here; maybe this refers to an espresso, which is the only way Cubans drink coffee" says Gorry.
Gorry is right. What we outside of Cuba call a café cubano is, in fact, the traditional Cuban espresso, and it is an integral part of local culture. In regards to this, Gorry says: "Cubans are very serious about their coffee and taking a small cup of the sweet, dark, strong stuff while having a 'visita' (dropping in on neighbors, loved ones, friends) to gossip, catch up, and vent is a tradition in Cuba very much still alive."
In Cuba, besides making coffee at home, Cubans can get their coffee at a variety of different places, from the less expensive private cafeterias to more expensive restaurants and bars.
The Social Aspect of Cuban Coffee
"What certainly distinguishes it [Cuban coffee culture] from U.S. culture, where we grab ventis and go, is the fact that in Cuba, coffee is for socializing. Sure, you might have a small cup in the morning, but it's really a matter of hospitality, brewed on the stove in an espresso pot to share with guests ... preferably over long conversations filled with neighborhood chisme (gossip)," says Julie Schwietert Collazo, bilingual writer and journalist who covers Latin America.
That social element of Cuban coffee consumption is something we often lack in the U.S., where, like Schwietert Collazo points out, our coffee intake is very often on the go; more of a need to fuel up and move on to the next task than to slow down and enjoy a moment with friends.
"This island is all about the wonderful, educated people, who love to have a good time, share good food and drink, and have solidarity to spare," says Gorry. "Also, this is a society where people make time to spend time with people they love — often over a cup of coffee."
To give us a taste what local coffee-drinking culture is really like, I asked Gorry about a favorite coffee memory in Cuba, and if her memory is indicative of anything, it's of the social ritual that coffee creates: "My favorite is probably heading across the bay on the ferry to Regla, climbing the steep streets to visit my 86-year-old friend Carmita. We always sip coffee in her small living room while we catch up and she sells loose cigarettes from her window to supplement her pension. No matter that she is never able to make ends meet — there’s always a cup of coffee ready for us to share."
Coffee as a way to bring people together and slow down, whether or not you're making coffee like a Cuban — I think that's an approach we can all appreciate.
Know Your Cuban Coffee Drinks
Café cubano or cafecito: Espresso mixed with sugar. Brew espresso, mix in a small amount of sugar in a metal cup to form a paste, add in the rest of the espresso, then pour it all into a cup.
Cortadito: Espresso topped with steamed milk.
Café con leche: Coffee and hot milk.
Colado: The typical Cuban espresso that is made in larger portions and served in a larger cup; it comes with smaller cups to share with friends.