How to Order the Right Coffee in Spain

🕔 4 mins (total)
Is this you in the morning?
Is this you in the morning?

Have you ever ordered a coffee here in Catalunya, or anywhere in Spain for that matter, only to be served something other than what you thought you were ordering? It has happened to plenty of us foreign types, especially those on vacation or still new to the country and a bit unsure of the language.

This blog will hopefully arm you with the knowledge and vocabulary you need to order the coffee you really want with confidence in either Spanish or Catalan. For the purposes of clarity, the Spanish version will be in italics with the Catalan equivalent right afterwards in brackets and bold – except where the words are identical in both languages. By the way, it’s café in Castellano and cafè in Catalan – the pronunciation is the same, but the accent goes in the opposite direction when written.

How to order your coffee

The most basic coffee is the café solo (cafè sol) and if you request simply “un café” without specifying further, this is probably what you will be given. This is identical to “espresso” and, amazingly, a café doble is a double espresso! If these are a bit too strong for you, you might want to try a café americano (cafè americà) instead, which is basically the same dash of coffee but in a larger cup or glass and diluted with more water.

A common mistake made by tourists in Spain is to ask for a café americano because they can recognize and pronounce the name and it seems easier or somehow more familiar – only to have to then try and ask for milk. Just to be clear, a café americano is a large black coffee made only with water. Of course, you can ask for milk separately if you like a drop of milk but prefer to add it yourself.

If you prefer milky coffee, you can ask for a cortado (tallat), which is simply a café solo in a slightly larger cup with hot milk added. The larger version of this in a full-sized cup or mug is the café con leche (cafè amb llet). Again, it’s the same amount of coffee but in a larger cup and with more milk.

Some of the different types of cafés typical in Spain
Some of the different types of cafés typical in Spain

A popular variation of any of the above in summertime is your café con hielo (cafè amb gel). If you order any of the above with ice, you will be served the coffee in the normal fashion but with a glass of ice on the side. The idea is to prepare your café to your liking (with or without sugar/sweeteners etc.) and then pour the lot into the glass with the ice cubes and drink it quickly before the ice melts completely and dilutes it too much.

If decaf is what you’re after, then you need to order a descafeinado (descafeïnat), or better again, a descafeinado de maquina (descafeïnat de màquina), a decaf made using the coffee machine. In many establishments, if you fail to mention “de maquina” you will be given an instant decaf or, in some cases, a cup of hot water or milk and a sachet of powdered instant coffee on the side. On balance, probably best to practice saying “de maquina”! Having said that, some people actually prefer the powdered sachet stuff and so will ask for a cafè de sobre or descafeïnat de sobre – but that’s their business!

In fact, if you sit in a café or a bar long enough, you’ll hear people order coffee in all sorts of ways, with some people being very particular indeed as to how they like theirs. If you manage to get your head around the above vocabulary, you’ll do fine.

Coffee with a little oomph!

If you’d like to add a little oomph to your café, you can ask for a carajillo, which is an espresso with a dash of whatever liquor you like added. For example, a “carajillo de whiskey” is a café solo with a dash of whiskey. The most common carajillos are with rum, whiskey, brandy, or Bailey’s, but you can ask for pretty much whatever you like.

The story goes that the carajillo apparently originated during the time of the Spanish occupation of Cuba when soldiers used to add rum to their coffee for “coraje” (courage) and started calling it a “corajillo” – a “little courage”. Over the years, this eventually evolved to become “carajillo” as we know it today. That’s one of the stories anyway, but there are others. By the way, in Catalan, a carajillo is called a cigaló. A Catalan variation on the classic carajillo or cigaló is a trifásico, which is a regular carajillo with a little milk added – probably not exactly necessary in the case of a carajillo de Bailey’s!

Of course, if you don’t feel any need to “hide” your dash of alcohol, you could go all in and just ask for a café irlandés, an Irish coffee. When made correctly, this consists of heated coffee mixed with Irish whiskey and brown sugar. This is then topped with cream that has been whipped until it is thick.

The emphasis here is on the phrase “when correctly made” though, so if you’re a perfectionist, you might be better off waiting till you go to a genuine Irish pub to try one of these. We have seen some abominations! In some places, they insist that an Irish coffee, just as the Irish flag, should have three distinct layers of colour: the coffee, the whiskey, and the cream. If you come across one of these, you’re better off ordering something else, as that’s one of the abominations we’re talking about!

There are, of course, other internationally popular variations like the cappuccino and macchiato (amongst many others), but don’t forget that these are really Italian variations, and if you order them in Spain, you may not be served exactly what you were expecting. A good rule of thumb could be that unless you see these specifically named on the menu, it may be best to stick to the more typical Spanish coffees in order to avoid disappointment!

So, what type of café would you like?

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