Coffee: The Heartbeat of Spain

Don Harris | January 2015

Dear friends,

It is rare that I have the opportunity to return the gracious hospitality of the many friends we’ve visited in Spain. But that is exactly what happened this holiday season when our good friends Jaime and Silvia Borrás traveled from Sevilla to be with our family for Thanksgiving dinner in Williamsburg!

We welcomed them with open arms and embraced them as part of our family as we all enjoyed an old fashioned Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings: turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce, butternut squash, pumpkin pie. It was a warm time of friendship and laughter: Jaime invented a new culinary creation – a blend of gravy, squash and mashed potatoes!

Professionally we have visited our friends at Catunambú several times – the Borrás family’s amazing coffee roasting plant in Sevilla. We particularly enjoyed walking amongst the hundreds of bags of fresh coffee beans from the four corners of the earth. Over the past few years the demand for their unique rich and mellow coffee has grown substantially: first throughout Spain, and now Asia, where it has been enthusiastically received by people in Thailand, Myanmar and China. In honor of the visit by Jaime and Silvia, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite essays about coffee in Spain.

Tu amigo,

Coffee is at the center of virtually all social interaction in Spain. It is as essential to understanding the country as jamón, Spain's iconic ham. Drinking coffee is the event around which the Spaniard organizes his day. It is consumed upon arising; during mid morning break at the office or while shopping. It accompanies the noon meal and at the conclusion of the business day, when people are making a paseo, strolling by cafes in the late afternoon. It is the entrada into tapas time and the focus for impromptu meetings. Your local bartender knows you by name – and your children too!

There is something reassuring about the morning ritual in neighborhood bars across Spain. The bartender presides behind the marble counter as his customers in the neighborhood filter in to begin a new day. He may offer freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh bread and croissants from the local bakery, even thick hot chocolate a la taza (and on Sundays there may be some churros). But the star of the show is clearly his coffee, the preparation of which he executes with pride. It is not from some automatic machine or, even more distressing, from a pot of coffee warming on a hot plate. 

The production is serious business and it is served in special ceramic cups as it has been for over a hundred years. If you get to the bar early enough, maybe 9 am or so, you may see that he has lined up a parade of espresso cups, each with its saucer, envelope of cane sugar and a little spoon to stir it. He is ready to greet the day – performing his vital contribution to the community. 

A historical note - when Andalucía experienced deep poverty in the aftermath of the Civil War in the early 1940s, many bartenders could not afford ceramic cups, so they served coffee in clear glasses or tumblers. Even today, when cost is no longer such a consideration, many cafés still follow that routine (at the expense of my burnt fingers).

As with any work of art, preparation of espresso coffee is 90% of the story. The bartender addresses his stainless coffee making console as a maestro - with its shiny chrome fittings, clamps and presses, and of course the steam valves, which make the most delicious noise as he turns beans into espresso, and milk into foam. The escaping steam does not create the same level of drama exhibited by the great old train steam engines, but it bravely proclaims "tradition!" in this automated and impersonal age.

He begins with the familiar “clack, clack, clack” as he relentlessly bangs a container against the side of the console to rid it of old coffee grounds. With the whirr of the grinder, he prepares fresh roasted beans, tamps down the fresh ground coffee and clamps it into one of the receptacles of this amazing machine. Finally, with a flick of the switch, the bartender activates the reservoir of steam, and a little stream of rich espresso quietly dribbles into your cup.

You might order café solo – a no nonsense rich coffee - or you may prefer a cortado, where it is cut with a small amount of milk. In the morning, many prefer café con leche, where the concentrated coffee is diluted with freshly foamed milk. As a special jet of steam transforms the milk, I suspect the bartender relishes preparing this as his grand finale.

This is a venerable process and each step of the ritual is essential. It is not to be hurried, for then you destroy the comforting rhythm. You might as well dash out to get a semi-automatically made foolproof latté served in a paper cup (!) as you might do at home.

To get to the root of this daily ritual I paid a call on my friend Jaime Borrás, an enthusiastic owner of Catunambú, a coffee roasting company in Sevilla. He is an energetic man whom I first met in the nearby Parador in Carmona (after a 9 hour flight from Dulles) where he regaled me with an immense amount of information about his favorite topic: coffee. 

A few days later Ruth, my son Tim, his wife Amy and I met Jaime among piles of cloth and burlap bags of coffee beans in the warehouse of Catunambú, a famous old firm from Sevilla, founded in 1897. 

It was an amazing experience to stroll around this fascinating warehouse with Jaime. I saw bags from up to 20 different countries including New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and of course South America and Africa. They contribute to an array of complex blends that are varied upon request. For example, the house coffee of El Corte Inglés is blended and then roasted by Catunambú, as are the coffees served at the Paradores – the national rural inns.

Catunambú coffees are made of unique blends whose secret is held within the family. Every few days the composition of the blend is adjusted to reflect the current availability of the coffee beans. There are five people present at that meeting: the master roaster and four members of the Borrás family: my friend Jaime, his brother José María, his sister Concha, and of course their father José Manuel. They spend several hours comparing samples of the roasts and adjusting it to maintain its reputation for quality and consistency. They may select up to 16 different varieties of beans for the blend, far more than I can get at my local beanery!

The reason the coffee blends need constant attention, Jaime explained to me, is that at various times of the year the coffee beans grow differently. This is especially so with beans grown in Vietnam and Africa, where there is a considerable amount of humidity, which varies widely during the course of a given year. 

Another factor which determines an artisan quality of coffee is how the coffee beans are harvested. On the same plant you will find flowers and unripe beans along with the beans ready for harvest. If only the perfectly ripe berries are plucked from the bush, the coffee beans are superior, but they cost more because the harvesting is labor intensive. As a money saving policy, some plantations strip all of the beans at once even if they are not ripe.

Of course the type of beans are the most important factor is blending a fine coffee. The beans that make up the majority of coffees that Catunambú blends are Arabica. They come from a more delicate plant that is harder to grow, but the quality is far superior. Roasted Arabica beans produce an aromatic, rich coffee with an intense flavor. 

Another kind of coffee is called robusto. Although mostly a less expensive bean, there are also high quality robusto beans in the world. It has a full body but very little aroma and is not at all bitter. Catunambú includes quality robusto beans from Papua New Guinea and Java in their blend, adjusting the percentage from either country because the quality is variable.

For acidity, the Borrás family selects coffee from Kenya and Colombia; for aroma, they mix the Colombian coffee with Guatemalan coffee about 50-50; Mexico pluma is very acidic almost like lemon juice; the body comes from Java and Papua New Guinea and the Colombian coffee, which is somewhat weak, fills in the corners. If you look in a bag, you will see some beans, such as Arabica, which have been washed, while the Robusta beans are strip dried.

To fix the base aroma, the Borrás family uses three different coffees from Brazil, because they offer a balance between aroma, taste and body. One coffee bean is Cerrado, which is smooth; another is Minajenais, which has double the flavor; and the third is Santos, which is two times as tasty as Cerrado and has two times the body of Minajenais.

A special blend of coffee rarely found outside of Spain that we offer is called Torrefacto. It is most likely the kind you would savor sitting outdoors at a local café in Spain. Often times our customers want to recreate their experience in Spain with exactitude – and this is the way you can enjoy café con leche as they serve in Granada, Barcelona or Sevilla. The secret is this: they lightly mist a percentage of beans with a sugar solution before roasting them which makes them exceptionally dark and full flavored though not sweet, as the sugar is mostly roasted away. 

In the late 15th century, the Borrás family, originally from Mallorca, migrated to Valencia and Alicante and then along the eastern coast of Spain, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea. At first, the family was involved in chocolate production around the city of Tarragona - in the 18th century Spain drank chocolate as the beverage of choice, not coffee.

Later the family migrated to the port of Ceuta, to serve the needs of the Spanish military, which was based in this Spanish enclave in Africa, across from Gibraltar. Their original business remains there to this day. Merchant ships from South America would refuel in the port of Ceuta, and in their holds were bags of coffee beans. The Borrás family recognized the opportunity and was soon roasting coffee as well as chocolate since the same roaster can be used for both.

In the early 20th century, Jaime's father, José Manuel, was sent as a young man to Barcelona in order to learn about chocolate production. The company he visited was Tupinamba. As he learned more about chocolate production and the Borrás family became familiar with the operation of the company, they saw a good business opportunity and purchased Tupinamba – the sister company of Catunambú. 

During the subsequent economic realignment of Spain in the mid-1970s after the death of Francisco Franco, the Borrás family had the opportunity to purchase the venerable Catunambú company, a famous old firm from Sevilla founded in 1897. Drawing from their years of experience in Tarragona, Africa and Barcelona they were able to restore Catunambú to its former glory, now known as "El Café de Andalucía!"

In Spain, coffee blends are very regional - there is no national brand of Spanish coffee. Catunambú is mellow and smooth to match the temperament of life in Andalucía. The people in the north of Spain, such as in Barcelona, prefer a coffee such as Tubinamba – it has a more intense flavor, though it is not stronger - it's just more acidic and dark. The Borrás family owns both companies - and each is named after a tribe of Amazonian Indians. Each has a distinct flavor - it is all a matter of taste!