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Coffee: The Heartbeat of Spain

Written by: Don Harris

cup of café con lecheCoffee 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 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.
café con leche in a glass
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.
packages of Catunambú 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!

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"It would be very interesting to know what an exclusive blend of decaf would be like from this most imperial company! "
June 2012

"You can try some. We have it ready for you. Don"

"I am homesick, I was raised in Andalucia for almost 20 years most in Sevilla and the last 6 in a town called Alcala De Guadaira. The story teller is telling the truth, early in the morning you are awakened by the aromas of coffee, thick chocolate, and two types of churros - long ones and churros de papa. On my way to school with my neighbors and classmates my mother would give me 25 pts pesetas and we would have our breakfast at the local family bars - churros, or tostadas con chorizo con chocolate y cafe, they do not have a age limit on who could drink their coffee. The bartender took great pride on how they made their coffee I believe it was an art form. When I returned back to the U.S.A in 1981 I had withdrawal attacks because I missed my Spanish coffee. I even stopped drinking coffee for almost 5 years until I moved to another state and was able to buy coffee beans and grind them myself and buy an espresso maker to make the coffee. Thanks for writing this story this takes me back.
Dawn Pickett (Aurora)"
June 2012

"Dear Dawn, you are quite the storyteller too! Your images of childhood in Sevilla with coffee, churros, and chocolate made me want to go find some churros myself (I have some frozen ones). I am very pleased to have as a friend Jaime Borás whose family owns Catunambu - you probably tried some of their coffee long ago. I particularly like their torrefacto, that you probably drank in a bar in Sevilla. Thanks again for sharing your experience. Don"

"Love the cafe con leche when we are in Spain. Manolo, on the corner of Maria auxiliadora and avenida san fernando in Rota is our favorite. We generally get pan tostada to go along with our cafe con leche."
June 2012

"Dear Daniel, I know exactly where you are referring to. Rota is still a warm and lively town -- it is heartening to see how they are pulling together during this current financial crisis. I am going to write about it next month. Don"

"I often say I would travel to Spain just for the coffee, the experience is so enjoyable. Since returning from a family vacation there in July of 2010 I have tried to duplicate the experience and come very close but most often fall short. I am very excited to order the Catunambu coffee. The fact that it is made in Sevilla is icing on the cake. I studied in Sevilla for a year during 1976-77 and the city will remain ever close to my heart. "
June 2012

"Hola Laura, Thanks for the note. We also are delighted to be carrying Catunambu coffee from Sevilla. It is truly superb -- and in the process, we have become good friends with the Borras family who own the company. They are quality people. Don't forget to try the torrefacto blend. It will remind you of the cafes in Sevilla."

"With all due respect this is my 4th email and have also called your 800 #, Cafe Baque in the Pais Vasco has far superior coffee and has been privately held by the same family for a much longer time.....one owner, same consistent quality. Please refer to website and let me know what you think. I am sure you would not be disappointed!!! :http://www.baque.com/index.php/idioma/en"
June 2012

"Thanks for your recommendation. We will try out your favorite coffee. Our purchasing office is in the Basque Country and I will ask Jamie to enjoy a cup at the local café. Saludos, Don"

"That's an excellent treatise on Spanish coffee, which we remember fondly. Cafe solo (good photo in your essay) will always be my favorite. Better than Italian! We've enjoyed the coffees you offer, but I wonder what became of Saimaza, the brand that was so dominant in Andalucia (or so I thought) in the early 1970s. I still remember the jingle that we would hear day in, day out, from the radio stations around El Puerto, Rota, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz: "Yo tengo fe en mi cafe, en mi cafe----Saima-za." With a cha-cha beat."
June 2012

"Hi Bob, I remember Saimaza too - in the black bag - it cost a little more for the best... But then I heard from a good source that during those days under Franco's regime all the coffee was government controlled and came from the same source! I was told the difference was all marketing!! That of course is not so today. The competition for the local roasters are the multi-national companies such as Nestlé. I am pleased we have found artisan roasters who have not industrialized their products. Once again, it is so important to personally know the producers -- and to help them continue the tradition. Tu amigo, Don"

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Café: El Latido del Corazón de España

cup of café con lecheEl café es el hilo conductor de prácticamente cualquier interacción social en España. Es tan intrínseco a la sociedad española como el buen jamón. El día del español gira en torno al café. Lo consume nada más levantarse, a media mañana en la pausa del trabajo y mientras se va de compras. El café acompaña también la comida del mediodía, así como el final de la jornada laboral cuando se da un paseo por la noche. Es la puerta al tapeo y el centro de reuniones improvisadas. El dueño del bar al que se acude con frecuencia sabe el nombre de uno e incluso el de sus hijos .

Hay algo de tranquilizador en el ritual mañanero de los bares de barrio de toda España. Detrás de la barra, el camarero ejerce de anfitrión a medida que sus clientes van llegando para dar comienzo a su nuevo día. La oferta es amplia: zumo de naranja natural, pan y bollería recién hechos en la panadería de la esquina, chocolate a la taza ,que puede ir acompañado de churros, sobre todo los domingos. Pero la estrella de toda esta puesta en escena es, sin duda, el café, cuya elaboración nuestro camarero ejecuta con orgullo. No se trata aquí de una máquina automática, o aun peor, de un recipiente con café recalentado.

Su elaboración es una asunto de gran importancia y se sirve en una taza de cerámica tal y como se ha ido haciendo durante más de un siglo. Si uno llega al bar lo suficientemente temprano, digamos a eso de las nueve, puede ver como nuestro camarero ha alineado un buen número de tazas, con su correspondientes platillos, sobres de azúcar y cucharillas para removerlo todo. Ya lo tiene todo listo para su vital contribución diaria a la comunidad.

Un apunte histórico: cuando Andalucía estaba sumida en la pobreza como consecuencia de la guerra civil del 36, los taberneros no podían permitirse loza de ninguna clase, así que servían el café en vasos de cristal de diferente tamaño. Incluso hoy en día, cuando el coste de la vajilla no supone mayor importancia, algunos locales continúan con esta tradición nacida de la necesidad a expensas de abrasar los dedos de sus clientes, como los de este su redactor.

Como ocurre con cualquier obra de arte, la preparación del café espresso supone el 90% de la historia que nos ocupa. El camarero se dirige a su cafetera impoluta como un verdadero maestro. Se trata de un aparato de enormes proporciones de accesorios cromados (brazos y pistones, y por supuesto, lancetas de vapor) que produce el estruendo más delicioso al convertir granos de café en espresso y leche en espuma. El vapor que suelta no tiene el nivel dramático que exhiben los grandes motores de vapor pero proclama tradición a los cuatro vientos en está era automatizada e impersonal.

Nuestro camarero empieza con el implacable “clack, clack, clack” que se produce al golpear una de las piezas de su cafetera contra la encimera de la misma para retirar el café sobrante. Después viene el zumbido del molinillo que muele los granos de café. A continuación nuestro hombreintroduce el café ya molido y prensado en su asombrosa cafetera. Finalmente, girando un botón, activa la caldera del vapor y un chorrito de delicioso espresso se desliza goteando poco a poco en la taza.

A uno le puedo apetecer un café solo, es decir, un café una café de verdad, o un cortado, que como su nombre propiamente indica, está cortado con leche. Llegados aquí, uno puedo preferir un café con leche, donde se diluye un café concentrado con espuma de leche. Cuando el camarerotransforma la leche en espuma, tengo la impresión de que éste ve este último paso como el punto álgido de su obra.

Este es un proceso venerable en el que todos y cada uno de los pasos son esenciales. No debe hacerse apresuradamente porque entonces se acabaría con eseritmo reconfortante del que si no se está dispuesto a disfrutar, tiene más cuenta salir a tomarse un café latte de esos que sirven en envases de cartón ohacérselo en casa.
café con leche in a glass
Para llegar a la raíz de este ritual, que es tan genuinamente español como las lonchas de jamón, hice una llamada a mi amigoJaime Borras. Jaime esel orgulloso propietario de Catunambú, una respetable empresa tostadora de café ubicada en Sevilla. Se trata de un joven enérgico y entusiasta al que conocí en el cercano parador de Carmona (después de un vuelo de 9 horas desde Dulles). Allí me agasajó con su impresionante conocimiento sobre su tema favorito: el café

Poco tiempo después, ya me encontraba paseando con Jaime, mi esposa Ruth y mi hijo Jonathan, entre innumerables sacos de granos de café en los almacenes de Catunambú, una antigua compañía Sevillana de renombre fundada en 1897.

Caminar por esos almacenes acompañado de Jaime fue una experiencia maravillosa. Vi sacos procedentes de más de una veintena depaíses incluidos Nueva Zelanda, Papua Nueava Guinea y por supuesto América del Sur y África. Contribuyen a un despliegue de complejas mezclas que varían según la demanda. Por ejemplo, el café de uso doméstico comercializado por El Corte Inglés se mezcla y tuesta en Catunambú, al igual que los cafés que se sirven en los paradores.

Los cafés de Catunambú son productos de mezclas exclusivas;mezclas cuyos secretos se mantienen en el seno familiar. Cada pocos días la composición de la mezcla se verifica para comprobar el perfecto estado de los granos de café. En las reuniones familiares podemos encontrarnos con cinco personas: xxxx, maestro tostador y gerente, y cuatro miembros de la familia Borrás: mi amigo Jaime, su hermano José María, su hermana Concha, y por supuesto el padre de todos ellos, José Manuel. Estas personas pasan muchas horas comparando muestras de tueste y ajustándolas para mantener la reputación en calidad y consistencia de su café. Pueden llegar a seleccionar más de 16 variedades distintas (muchas más de las que yo puedo encontrar en mi cafetería local).

Jaime me explicó que la razón por la cual la mezcla de café necesita una atención tan constante es porque los granos de café crecen a ritmos diferentes dependiendo de la época del año. Esto se nota especialmente en granos cultivados en Vietnam y África, donde la abundante humedad fluctúa enormemente a lo largo del año. Además, quieren cerciorarse de que los granos utilizados en la mezcla tengan el tamaño adecuado.

Otro factor que determina la calidad artesanal del café es la manera en la que se cosechan los granos. En la misma planta uno se puede encontrar a la vez con flores y granos que todavía no han madurado y con granos que ya están listos para ser recolectados. Si solamente se recogen los frutos que están en supunto exacto de maduración, nos encontramos entonces con unos granos de café óptimos pero que son más caros, porque la labor de recolección es mucho más precisa. En algunas plantaciones se recogen todos los granos a la vez, estén o no maduros.

Ni que decir tiene, que el tipo de grano es el factor decisivo a la hora de elaborar un café de calidad. Los granos que componen la mayoría de los cafés que Catunambúelabora son Arábica. Estos granos proceden de una planta más delicada que es más difícil de cultivar, pero la calidad de sus frutos es muy superior. Los granos de café Arábica produce un café aromático y de intensosabor.

Hay otra clase de café llamado Robusta. Aunque se trate de una variedad menos costosa que la anterior, se pueden encontrar en el mundo granos de esta variedad de una gran calidad. Presenta este tipo de café un cuerpo denso y poco aroma, no siendo para nada amargo. En sus mezclas, Catunambúincluye granos de esta gama procedentes de Papua Nueva Guinea y de Java, ajustando el porcentaje procedente de cada país debido a su calidad variable.

Para la acidez, la familia Borras selecciona cafés procedente de Kenia y Colombia. Para el aroma, mezclan café colombiano con café guatemalteco al cincuenta por ciento. El café pluma mejicano es muy ácido, casi como un limón, el cuerpo se obtiene del café proveniente de Java y Papua Nueva Guinea, y para terminar, el café de Colombia, que es algo débil. Si se le echa un vistazo a un saco de café, se pueden ver granos Arábica que han sido lavados, mientras que los granos Robusta se recogen secos.

Para alcanzar el aroma básico la familia Borrás usa tres cafés de diferentes tipos originarios de Brasil, ya que éstos ofrecen un balance entre aroma, sabor y cuerpo. Uno de estos granos se denomina Cerrado ,que es suave, otro Minajenais, que tiene el doble de sabor y el tercero Santos, que es dos veces más sabroso que el Cerrado y tiene dos veces más cuerpo que el Minajenais.

Una mezcla de café que rara vez se encuentra fuera de España pero que hemos logrado traer a La Tienda se llama Torrefacto. Es el tipo de café que se saborea sentado al sol en una terraza y con el que muy a menudo nuestros clientes quieren volver a revivir su experiencia en España tomándose un café con leche como se haría en Granada. El secreto es el siguiente: rociar ligeramente una cantidad de granos con una solución azucarada antes de tostarlos, lo que les da un colorextremadamente oscuro y un gran sabor.

A finales del siglo XV, la familia Borrás, originaria de Mallorca, emigró hacia Valencia y a Alicante y se asentó a lo largo de toda la costa mediterránea. Al principio, la familia se dedicaba a la producción de chocolate en los alrededores de la ciudad de Tarragona. En la España del siglo XVIII el chocolate era la bebida de uso corriente, y no el café.
packages of Catunambú coffee
Más tarde se asentaron también en el Puerto de Ceuta para abastecer así a los militares españoles desplegados en los enclaves africanos frente a Gibraltar. Su negocio ha permanecido en esa zona hasta la actualidad. Barcos mercantes procedentes de Sudamérica repostaban en el Puerto de Ceuta y entre sus pertenencias se encontraban sacos de café. La familia Borrás vio su oportunidad y pronto empezaron a tostar tanto café como chocolate ya que para ello se precisa de la misma maquinaria.

Siendo muy joven, a principios del siglo veinte, el padre de Jaime fue enviado por su familia a aprender el negocio del chocolate a Barcelona. La compañía que visitó fue Tupinamba. A medida que fue aprendiendo el oficio y que la familia Borrás se hacía con el manejo de la compañía, vieron de nuevo una buena oportunidad comercial y adquirieron Tupinamba.

Tras la muerte de Franciso Franco y con los consiguientes cambios y reajustes en la economía española de mediados de los setenta, la familia Borrás tuvo la posibilidad de adquirir la famosa compañía Catunambú, una antigua compañía Sevillana de gran reputación fundada en 1897. Gracias a sus muchos años de experiencia en Tarragona, África y Barcelona, fueron capaces de devolverle a Catunambú su antigua Gloria.

En España el café presenta variedades regionales. No hay una marca nacional de Café.Catunambú es un exquisito intento de reflejar el temperamento de la vida andaluza. La gente del norte de España, como en Barcelona, por ejemplo, prefiere el café Tupinamba, una mezcla más ruda pero no por ello más fuerte. Presenta más acidez y un color más oscuro. Este marca de café también es propiedad de la familia Borrás. Ambas marcas llevan el nombre de una tribu indigena del Amazonas. Todo es una cuestion de sabor.

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