Cuban coffee, what it is and where to find it in Miami
“I’ll have a decaf coffee”
“I’ll have a decaf espresso”
“ I’ll have double decaf cappuccino”
“ Do you have any decaffeinated coffee ice cream?”
“ I’ll have the half double decaffeinated half caf with a twist of lemon”
While the above is actual dialogue from a scene that pokes humor at ordering coffee in a hipster world in the very funny 1991 Steve Martin film LA Story, things have only gotten more complicated in the 21st century. Cold brew, nitro brew, flat white, caramel macchiato and dozens more coffee concoctions offered today are enough to make your head spin. You best order something caffeinated, because at least it will help with the migraine you are most likely to incur from all the confusing and copious amount of coffee choices.
Fortunately in Miami, there is an alternative coffee world that keeps things nice and simple. With only about four picks for a cup of joe, when you choose Cuban coffee you not only get a jolting shot-in-the-arm, but the hot liquid comes with a generous helping of deep history and culture, crucial for understanding this daily Miami ritual.
Sure, you could get a cafe cubano at a Starbucks anywhere in Miami, but it’s a promise that it simply won’t be the same rich experience as indulging your caffeine obsession at an authentic Cuban cafe. So come on down to a ventanita ( small window) at any charming Little Havana establishment, take a sip from your demitasse cup and listen in to all about the dark brew.
It was by the mid-18th century that coffee plants were introduced to Cuba and by the late 1790’s, production was in full swing. The industry really flourished when French coffee farmers fled the Haitian Revolution and began farming in Cuba. Coffee sales eventually outpaced sugar sales ( of which already there was a tremendous amount of sugar produced) by the 1820’s and by the early 1950’s about 20,000 metric tons were being exported from the island. Once the Cuban revolution came in the late 1950’s, coffee farms were nationalized and production faltered. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, production languished and it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the principle benefactor, the Soviet Union, pushed the coffee production high again. But sadly with the fall of that region in 1990, production again declined.
But with the massive amounts of cafe cubanos served in Miami everyday, are the beans from Cuba? You can rightly say the coffee in area code 305 is Cuban-style. Because of the ongoing embargo between the US and Cuba, it would be extremely difficult to get actual Cuban coffee beans to America’s shore. In fact, because of foodstuff rationing in Cuba, it does seem odd that we here in the US can enjoy something that was originated by a people who can’t enjoy it the way we can. In Cuba, to stretch out the meager amount of coffee doled out to the citizens, ground chickpeas and lentils are often added and milk is scarce.
Nonetheless, it is very ok that the coffee beans we can obtain here are sourced from other countries, but from the brewing to the serving, it’s all treated like the real deal. As you enter downtown Miami from I 95S, you can’t help but notice huge billboard advertisements for Cafe Bustelo, one of the most beloved brands of coffee that has been serving the Miami Cuban community for many years. Cubans say it’s red and yellow tin cans are what Heinz ketchup bottles are to American culture- something deeply embedded and easily recognizable. Despite its association with Cuba, Cafe Bustelo was created by a Spaniard. Gregorio Bustelo brought the coffee to East Harlem to serve Latino immigrant communities in the 1920’s. By the 1950’s, the brand had attracted so much attention, it was bought out by the Tetley corporation in 1963. By the year 2000, Tetley decided to sell off its US espresso division to Rowland Roasters, a Miami-based company whose Cuban owners had been in the coffee business for centuries. Other smaller coffee brands such as Pilon became part of Rowland Roasters as well. Eventually they sold off the brand to the JM Smuckers conglomerate for 360 million dollars and Smuckers took ownership of almost every Latin coffee brand. Interestingly enough, Smuckers also owns the struggling coffee brand Folgers, which cost the company a mere 3 billion dollars!
What you will first notice that separates cafe cubano from the rest of the coffee bean pack, is that the inky roast is very fine ground. Every cafe will use the strong and superior Arabica beans ( versus the inferior Robusta beans that produces a rather wimpy infusion)from Cafe Bustelo, Pilon, or a very local brand such as Gran Havana. Once you get a whiff of the rapturous scent, the magic really begins.
As aforementioned, there are quartet of choices: cafe cubano or commonly referred to as cafecito; colada, which is to share; cafe con leche; and cortadito. All the coffee selections start out as cafe cubano or cafecito. Whatever variety you wish to enjoy, please don’t make the cardinal mistake and ask for a decaffeinated version unless you want to incur the wrath of some serious, searing side-eye. The ladies that man the ventanitas are the most highly respected workers in Miami, maybe more than any other profession, so our advice- don’t mess with the hand that makes your coffee.
You’ll be enjoying an espresso-like mixture, but this isn’t exactly the Italian favorite. The fine grounds are mixed with demerara sugar that is worked through during the brewing process, a unique practice that leaves the coffee with a syrupy texture, sweet taste, and smooth finish. Once the coffee has brewed in either an espresso maker or a Moka pot ( a small stovetop pot if you wish to make it at home), then sugar is placed in the bottom of small metal pitcher and the first few drops of the coffee are poured over the sugar and then whipped vigorously to create some thing called espuma, a sort of crema but without the cream. The remaining coffee is poured on top so that the espuma rises to the top of the pitcher. Then, it’s all poured into small cups, either styrofoam for take-away or demitasse cups if you are planning on dawdling ( we highly recommend you treat yourself to a set of authentic demitasse cups while you are visiting Little Havana).
Despite the diminutive serving size, cafecito is infinitely more satisfying than a big mug of bland Americano coffee because the hydrolysis of the sucrose in the sugar during the brewing makes the coffee thicker causing the coffee taste to linger longer on the palate. Don’t want the sugar in your cup? Well, that’s just too bad. Sugar, like coffee is part of the Cuban way of life and if you want to immerse yourself in this world, put on your patriotic pants and live a little. It’s not the time to get all Keto on us. Have some faith, it’s much better with the sugar.
Once you get the hang of cafecito ordering, now it’s time to share it with everyone you know or perhaps better yet, with those you don’t. A colada is simply cafecito to share. The cafecito is poured to the top of a small styrofoam vessel with 5-6 thimble-sized cups placed on top of the closed lid that is then ready to share with anyone. A familiar sight on the streets of Little Havana is a friendly native offering you some coffee even if they have never met you before. It’s a way to break the ice, a welcome to Little Havana and Miami if you will. Taking them up on their offer might just be the highlight of your day.
If milk is your mojo then consider a cortadito or cafe con leche. Stemming from the Spanish verb corta, which means to cut, a cortadito is simply a cafecito cut with milk, either regular or evaporated. Just a splash of milk is added, making the coffee a bit less potent. A cafe con leche is a cafecito with even more milk than a cortadito and is similar to a cafe latte.
We have a corny little joke in Little Havana that goes like this: “What’s the difference between a cafe con leche and a cafe latte?” Guesses from our out-of-towners range from the type of milk used to the quantity of sugar added. But the answer is: “The difference between a cafe con leche and a cafe latte is 3 dollars!”;( Ba-da-bum, we’ll be here all week….). Silly pun, but it’s the truth. Having any version of a cafe cubano at a Little Havana outpost will cost you no more than around two dollars versus almost the five dollars charged at fancy coffee places. And that’s how it should be. Joining in on the cafe cubano scene embraces reassuring routine and astute frugality, both very Cuban traits. And frankly, you’ll never have anything that tastes quite this good, because while you may come for the coffee, you’ll stay for the compelling Cuban coffee stories told by the locals as no one else can tell.