A cafecito is a Cuban-style coffee beverage that truly exemplifies the historical culture of Cuba. Cafecitos are iconic; they are distinctively bitter, topped with a dark foam known as espuma, and served in demitasse cups– a.k.a. tacitas.
All three of these characteristics of the cafecito are representative of the nation’s rich history– and the hardships, scarcity, and turmoil that the Cuban people had to endure. The drink also highlights the resourcefulness of Cubans, who by necessity have needed to devise smart workarounds needed to survive ever since their world was upended during the Cuban Revolution.
Cuban Coffee: What Is It?
A café Cubano (a.k.a. Cuban shot, Cuban pull, Cafecito, Cuban coffee, or a Cuban espresso) is a variant of espresso that originated in Cuba. Specifically, it is a form of espresso sweetened by being whipped with brown sugar. The name itself refers to drinks that have Cuban espresso as its main ingredient (such as a café con leche)
Drinking café Cubanos is a popular social activity throughout Cuba as well as in American communities with a heavy Cuban–American population, such as in Tampa, the Florida Keys, and especially Miami.
Conventional Cuban coffee is generally produced with darker roasts- generally Spanish or Italian- and brands like Café Pilon and Café Bustelo are quite popular. It can be made using either an electric espresso machine or traditionally with the Moka pot.
Cuban coffee is often served with espuma– the name given to sugar whipped with a moderate portion of espresso in order to produce a frothy, thick cap – and it is supposed to imitate the crema found in costlier espresso drinks. The heat emitted from this process will end up hydrolyzing a portion of the sugar, producing a sweet-but-viscous result. However, even though espuma originated from Cuba, espuma is instead today primarily found in areas of the Cuban diaspora like Miami.
A Nation’s Heartache and Pride
Coffee was initially introduced to Cuba in 1748 by a man named Jose Antonio Gelabert. French colonists that came to Cuba at the close of the 18th century- after the Haitian Revolution- introduced more intricate brewing methods, some of which are still being used in Cuban cafes to this very day. During its heyday in the 19th and 20th century, Cuba was the chief exporter of coffee to Spain.
The Robusta and Arabica beans of Cuba’s coffee fields developed into an integral part of the country’s economy, eventually becoming a symbol of national pride. People not only enjoyed coffee in cafes, but these places served as a place of meeting and of cultural significance. These coffee shops, or Ventanitas, spread throughout the country. During the peak of café culture in Havana, the city’s streets were home to more than 150 cafes.
The decline of Cuba’s cafés started in 1959. Three years later, they took another hit from the US embargo on traded goods from Cuba. Cafes endured yet another setback during the late 1980s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba was dependent on exports sold to communist nations, with limited alternative outlets to export their goods. The USSR’s collapse brought on a dark period for Cubans, eventually leading to the country’s Great Recession.
The small cups- known as tacitas– are reflective of the meager rations and coffee shortages endured by Cubans when the government strictly rationed food supplies. When the rationing occurred, each individual Cuban was allocated just four coffee ounces every 30 days. This necessitated consumption in small cups with strong brewing methods to make the coffee go farther. This preservation remains a natural approach to enjoying the beverage in Cuba today.
Things became bleaker than ever in 2007, when the country produced a mere 7,000 bags of coffee – quite a difference from the 444,000 it used to export. However, with some government assistance, the country’s output is now back to 120,000 bags of coffee. Growth is steady, as reflected by the independently owned cafés which have started to appear again on various street corners. As shabby as the setting may currently be, the energy and optimism of the Cuban people are, without question, indefatigable.
Coffee Solidarity and a Moka Pot
The process of grinding Cuban coffee finely contributes to the robust flavor it’s known for.
Traditionally, Cuban coffee tends to be brewed in Moka pots. This is an iconic coffee practice seen all over South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Europe. These basic-but-ingenious pots are made of stainless steel (which sometimes contain a vibrant enamel coating) and brew coffee by having water pushed through coffee grounds (via steam).
Cuban Coffee Variations
In addition to the Cafecito, Cuban coffee is served in a number of different incarnations. One of them is a cortadito, which means “small cut” when translated from Spanish, where a little bit of milk (steamed) is poured into a coffee shot. It closely resembles cortados that are often served in Latin nations, but comes pre-sweetened.
Coffee and milk (a.k.a. a café con leche) is a sugar-free espresso served aside a cup of either steamed or hot milk. It is conventionally served separately from coffee. An espresso of a desired darkness gets poured into a cup of hot milk before being stirred, sometimes adding a little salt. This is a beverage traditionally consumed during breakfast, and usually served with a couple of bread slices (toasted and buttered).
A Colada is comprised of three to six (usually sweetened) espresso shots (Cuban-style) served inside of a cup (Styrofoam) and a plastic demitasse (small). It is intended for sharing and to be drank on the go. You’ll often see people enjoying one in the workplace in Cuban communities, when people are taking their break.
Making Cuban Coffee
- 2 demitasse or espresso coffee cups
- Ground coffee (Cuban style), like Café Bustelo
- Granulated sugar (two tablespoons)
- Mixing spoon
- 2 Tacita or espresso cups
- Moka pot (three cups)
- Pour water into a Moka pot: the pot’s bottom chamber should be filled with sufficient water to the point where it reaches the safety release valve.
- Coffee should be added to a filter: scoop the ground coffee into a filter until it reaches the top. From there, level the coffee off using your finger without compressing it.
- The filter should be attached to the Moka pot and placed into the pot’s bottom chamber. Its collection chamber should be screwed on until it is firmly secured.
- Keep the pot up: the pot should be placed over medium heat. Don’t allow the water to heat up too quickly, as doing so could make the coffee brew too fast, not giving it the robustness that it should have.
- Filling the cups up with sugar: add sugar (one teaspoon) into each demitasse or espresso cup.
- Boil water: let the water reach a boil. Doing so will push the water up from the steam pressure and through the coffee grounds, allowing you to collect coffee from the top chamber.
- Mixing the sugar and coffee (espuma): the pot should be removed from heat after completing the brewing process. Place the coffee into a cup, vigorously stirring the sugar, which will produce an espuma. It will come out slightly frothy and thick. Do the same thing with the other cup.
- Add remaining coffee: any remaining coffee should be immediately poured into cups before being served.