A Cuban coffee, or cafecito, is the nation's history in a cup. Iconic trademarks associated with a cafecito — such as its slightly bitter flavor, the sweet espuma capping the dark-brown brew, and the dainty demitasse cups, or tacitas, in which it is served — mirror the history of a nation bruised by turmoil, hardship, and scarcity. They are also symbols of the resiliency and creative thinking of the Cuban people who have consistently devised clever workarounds for nearly everything they need in life ever since the Cuban Revolution upended their world in 1959.
History in a Cup
I spent ample time in Cuba's coffee shops while researching my cookbook Cuba: Recipes and Stories From the Cuban Kitchen. I learned from the baristas who expertly brewed me cups of strong black sweetened coffee that the bitterness is attributed to the toasted chickpeas that are ground up with Cuban coffee beans to stretch the short supply available. The espuma, which is sugar whipped together with a small amount of coffee to form a thick and frothy cap, is intended to mimic the crema in more expensive cups of espresso.
The tiny tacitas reflect the coffee shortages and meager rations Cubans have endured since the government imposed them in 1962 after nationalizing the nation's food supply. Every Cuban person is allotted only four ounces of coffee per month, necessitating a small cup to ensure the coffee lasts and coffee culture, so integral to the everyday life of Cubans, endures.
The Moka Pot and Coffee Solidarity
Cuban coffee is traditionally produced in a moka pot, an iconic symbol of coffee culture throughout Europe, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The simple yet ingenious stainless steel pots (that are sometimes glazed in colorful enamel) brew the coffee by pushing water up through the coffee grounds with the aid of steam pressure.
Cuban coffee is ground very finely, which contributes to its robust flavor. Besides the cafecito, it is served in various incarnations. These include the cortadito, translated as small cut in Spanish, in which a splash of steamed milk is added to the coffee shot. Café con leche is also a milk and coffee combination with an 80 to 20 milk-to-coffee ratio. It's sweetened with copious amounts of sugar and a pinch of salt. The colada is the ultimate symbol of Cuban comraderie. It contains between four to six shots of sweetened espresso served in one cup, usually styrafome, that is shared amongst friends.
The Pride and Heartache of a Nation
Coffee was first introduced to Cuba by Jose Antonio Gelabert in 1748. The French colonists who arrived in Cuba after the Haitian Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century brought with them more sophisticated coffee production techniques that endure throughout Cuba's coffee shops to this day. In its heyday in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Cuban coffee industry exported more coffee to Spain than any other country.
The arabica and robusta beans grown in the nation's coffee fields were a vital part of the Cuban economy and a symbol of national pride. Cafes were not only places to enjoy a cup of coffee, but also the epicenter of cultural life. Most Cubans still outline their day around a visit to a coffee shop or a cup of coffee brewed at home even though the shops are fewer and the coffee in short supply.
Coffee shops, also known as ventanitas, mirror the history that unfolded following the Cuban Revolution. At the height of Havana's cafe culture, over 150 cafes flourished on the city's gilded streets of vividly painted houses festooned with ornate flourishes and well-to-do, elegantly dressed Cubans strolling along the harbor street known as the Malecon.
The coffee shop's decline began in 1959 and took another hit in 1962 as a result of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuban goods. Cafes suffered yet again when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s: Cuba was reliant upon the exports it sold to other Communist nations and had few other outlets for its goods. The collapse of the USSR ushered in a dark time for Cubans, known as the Great Recession. Coffee was still available but in anemic quantities; each precious drop reflecting the hunger of Cubans whose rations had them perpetually teetering on the brink of starvation.
At its lowest point in 2007, Cuba produced only 7,000 bags of coffee, a far cry from the 440,000 bags it once exported. With the help of governmental support, the output of Cuban coffee hovers at around 120,000 bags today. Its slow but steady growth is also reflected in the independently owned coffee shops that have begun to reemerge on street corners that are shabbier than they were before the Revolution but still bustling with the optimism and energy of the indefatigable Cuban people.
How To Make Cuban Coffee
Makes 2 espresso or demitasse cups of coffee
What You Need
Cuban-style ground coffee, such as Café Bustelo
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
3-cup moka pot
2 espresso or tacita cups
- Add water to the moka pot. Fill the bottom chamber of the moka pot with enough water to reach the safety release valve.
- Add coffee to the filter. Spoon the ground coffee into the filter until they reach the top. Level them off with your finger but do not compress them.
- Attach the filter to the pot. Place the filter into the bottom chamber and screw the collection chamber onto until firmly secure.
- Heat the moka pot. Place the moka pot over medium heat. Do not heat the water up too fast because it will cause the coffee to brew too quickly and it will not be as robust as it should be.
- Fill the cups with sugar. Meanwhile, spoon 1 teaspoon of sugar into each espresso or demitasse cup.
- Boil the water. Allow the water to come to a boil. This will force the steam pressure to push the water up through the coffee grounds to collect as coffee in the top chamber.
- Mix the espuma (coffee and sugar). Remove the moka pot from the heat once the brewing process is complete. Place 1 teaspoon of coffee into 1 of the cups and stir vigorously into the sugar to create the espuma. It should be thick and slightly frothy. Repeat with the second cup.
- Add the remaining coffee. Pour the remaining coffee into the cups and serve immediately.
Sugar levels: Traditional Cuban coffee is very sweet, but, by all means, add more sugar if you prefer it on the extra-dulce side. If you are using more sugar than the recipe recommends, match each teaspoon of sugar with an equal amount of coffee to create the espuma.
Once it is topped with additional coffee, the espuma will rise to the surface, mirroring the crema of espresso.