Though I've been speaking Spanish for 20 years, have lived in two Spanish-speaking countries and traveled extensively through many more, am married to a Cuban, and consider myself a coffee connoisseur, I am always seized with anxiety whenever I step to the counter of a Latin American coffee shop and place my order. In addition to all the usual coffeehouse cuppas – espresso, cappuccino, mocha, latte, macchiato, cafe con leche, etc. – Latin America challenges coffee drinkers to keep a mental cue card for a seemingly endless number of variations, among them: pocillo, tinto/tintico, cortado/cortadito, and bombón. How to keep them all straight, much less decide which one to actually order?
That was the question I put to Erica Reyes, owner of Café Cola'o and founder/director of the island's Escuela de Cafe y Baristas de Puerto Rico (School of Coffee and and Baristas of Puerto Rico), during a recent visit to her incredibly popular coffee shop in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was in good hands with Reyes, who knows a little something about coffee. She grew up watching her father harvest and process the island's coffee in Orocovis; now, she and her baristas hand-pull as many as 500 espresso-based drinks per day at Cafe Cola'o.
Reyes explained that the various coffees and their respective names depend, for the most part, on two important factors: the ratio of espresso or coffee to milk, and the size or type of cup in which it is served. Personally, I felt as dizzy as I used to feel in algebra class when Reyes started rattling off the names that match coffee-milk ratios and cup sizes. Sensing I wasn't quite keeping up, she brought me to the bar for a tutorial so we could work it out together. Behold, an illustrated guide on how to order coffee in Latin America.
The base of most barista-prepared drinks, espresso (referred to as un exprés or un expreso in some Spanish-speaking countries) is also a stand-alone drink. A small amount of extremely hot water is forced through a compact disc of coffee fine-ground expressly for an espresso machine, producing a shot glass-sized stream of strong coffee. In fact, it's often served in a glass resembling a shot. The foam you'll likely see capping the espresso isn't milk-based; it's created by the pressure exerted on the coffee during the process. If you're looking for a long, lazy cup of coffee that will accompany you through the morning, suffering reheats this isn't it (try cafe americano instead). Espresso is typically consumed in just a few sips. Though you can add sweetener, Reyes of Cafe Cola'o and the barista school encourages sugar-hooked customers to practice scaling back so they can experience the natural flavor of the coffee bean.
In some parts of Latin America, including Colombia and Cuba, tinto (or, in its diminutive form, tintico) and oscuro (or oscurito) is often confused with espresso because it is black coffee typically sold in a small cup. But tinto is not espresso because it's not subjected to the heat and pressure needed for the latter; rather, it's typically brewed in a regular coffee pot, and sugar–lots of it–is usually added before it is served to the customer.
Café con Leche
The literal translation, of course, is “coffee with milk,” but that begs the question: how much coffee and how much milk? The answer isn't an easy one: café con leche is a lot like meatloaf or potato salad. In other words, everyone thinks his or her mother makes it best and that her recipe is the definitive, “right” one. Generally, though, café con leche has more milk than coffee. The milk has been heated or steamed, even scalded in some recipes, and it's frothed and mixed into the coffee. Some spots serve their café con leche with sugar added, too; if you want yours without sweetener, or if you want the coffee-milk ratio adjusted, just let your barista know your preferences.
Its name hints at its composition and preparation: the cortado (also referred to by its diminutive cortadito) is espresso “cut” with a splash of steamed milk; again, specific ratios differ, but 2/3 coffee to 1/3 milk is the general rule of thumb. The preparation here is important, and distinguishes it from other drinks with which it is often confused, especially the macchiato. For a cortado, the steamed milk is added after the espresso, and the drink is served in a 5-7-ounce glass that resembles a juice glass or a small coffee cup that has a metal handle.
Though served in Spain, the bonbón (also pronounced bombón) seems to be a particular favorite among Cubans who have a dual jonesing for caffeine and sugar. Similar to a cortado in ratio, the bonbón is prepared with sticky sweet condensed milk. Often, the condensed milk is poured first (into the same type and size of glass as used for a cortado), with the espresso sitting on top, creating a visual effect not unlike a liquid layer cake. Other preparations see a smaller amount of condensed milk poured like a thin coating around the inside of the glass, again, with espresso poured on top. As you might guess, this coffee is often served along with, or as a substitute for, dessert.
I always thought un pocillo was a specific type of coffee, and the Puerto Rican fast food chain, El Meson, sells it as such (“4 ounce cafe con leche,” according to its menu). But the consensus among coffee experts and drinkers I've talked to is that un pocillo isn't a special preparation; it's just a term used, especially in Puerto Rico, to refer to a “little bit of coffee.” If someone invites you to un pocillo, they're asking if you want to share a cup of joe. It might be an espresso, or it might be–more likely–a home-brewed coffee served from a Thermos.
Maybe you won't find a pumpkin spice latte or a peppermint mocha, but Latin American cafes are just as prone to whip up specialty seasonal drinks as your local Starbucks. At Cafe Cola'o, Reyes and her baristas feature an espresso drink primed with coquito, often referred to as Puerto Rican eggnog, during the Christmas season. If you're keen to try a specialty drink, ask the barista about seasonal favorites or flavorings that can be added to give you a taste of local culture.