If there's one way to instantly transport yourself to the colorful streets and beaches of Havana or Miami, it's by learning how to make Cuban coffee.
If there’s one way to instantly transport yourself to the colorful streets and beaches of Havana or Miami, it’s by learning how to make Cuban coffee.
Bold and full of flavor, traditional Cuban coffee, like the island, is an unforgettable experience. Every sip of this moka pot coffee tells an intriguing story of the Cubans’ resilience and unwavering zest for life.
I love Cuban coffee and enjoy it regularly as a part of my drinks menu. Today, I’m making it your mission (should you wish to accept it) to learn the secrets of making traditional Cuban coffee.
So, don your fedora and guayabera, grab some dark roast espresso beans and let’s get to making the perfect Cuban coffee.
What Is Cuban Coffee?
Cuban coffee is strong and smoky espresso-style coffee with a slight bitter flavor. It was traditionally made with dark roast Arabica and Robusta coffee blends. However, nowadays, most people use better-quality 100% Arabica espresso beans.
This amazing coffee was born out of necessity; a way to make the most of the socialist republic’s government restrictions. After the Cuban revolution, the socialist government rationed out only 4 ounces (113 grams) of coffee per citizen, per month.
Naturally, Cubans came up with creative ways to enjoy their caffeine fix, and making café cubano was one of them.
Cubans take their coffee seriously. Coffee is a daily ritual, integral to Cuban culture. Brewing coffee manually using a stovetop espresso coffee maker (moka pot) instead of an espresso machine is way more economical in a harsh economy.
In addition, because of sugar rationing, Cubans use light-processed demerara sugar instead of regular sugar. This helps make the creamy, sweet sugar foam (espuma) that mimics crema from an espresso maker.
The result? A delicious and addictive coffee. We have Cuban émigrés to thank for bringing this unique moka pot brewing technique and coffee culture to the US.
How Café Cubano Fits into Cuban Culture: A Brief History
Most people immediately think of the finest cigars, mojitos, máquinas and lazing about on pristine beaches when they picture life in Cuba.
What’s not common knowledge is that Cuba is big on coffee. Coffee plantations have thrived on this island since the 17th Century. The coffee culture survived right through independence from Spain in 1902, the 1950s Cuban revolution and the US embargo in 1962.
Coffee production peaked in the 1950s, with the country exporting over 20,000 metric tons, mainly to Europe. However, production declined after the communist revolution and the US embargo.
With the fall of the USSR in 1990 – a country that had subsidized Cuba’s frail economy – coffee production was virtually wiped out.
Today, Cuba exports approximately 7,000-10,000 metric tons of Arabica and Robusta coffee from the Escambray, Sierra Maestra and Pinar del Rio regions. Only wealthy countries like Japan, France, Germany and the UK can afford to buy these premium beans.
However, despite the demand for Cuban coffee on world markets, the island’s government pays growers and processors a fixed price. The coffee industry still has a long way to go, but it’s slowly regaining its glory.
Cuban Coffee Variations
The following are Cuban coffee recipes or variations made with strong espresso coffee:
Café Cubano / Cafecito
A café cubano or cafecito is the essence of Cuban coffee. It consists of a strong, dark roast espresso shot sweetened with a thickened demerara sugar foam. Traditionally, you should use fine coffee grounds and make this coffee using a moka pot.
A café colada is a larger version of a cubano. It has an espresso base and a top “crema” layer of espuma (sugar foam), much like the cubano. This coffee drink typically comes in a Styrofoam cup. Pour the coffee into small espresso cups to make minute Cuban servings for sharing.
Café con Leche
This beverage contains strong Cuban espresso combined with an equal amount of scalded milk. The difference between this drink and other milky espresso coffees is that the milk is scalded (heated to just under boiling point), not steamed or gently heated. You may sweeten this drink with demerara, white or brown granulated sugar to your liking.
How to Make Cuban Coffee
Cuban coffee may seem like an easy recipe; after all, it contains only espresso and sugar. But you’d be wrong.
This coffee requires technique and an understanding of coffee principles. You’ll need to use the right amounts of coffee grounds and filtered water ratios, brew at the proper temperature and use the correct equipment.
Before we explore how to make Cuban coffee, let’s take a brief look at the ingredients and equipment you’ll need:
Dark roast espresso ground coffeeor beans (you can use Cafe La Llave, Pilon or Café Bustelo but any good dark roast espresso beans will do)
2 tablespoons of demerara, brown or white sugar
Now that you have everything assembled, let’s make some Cuban coffee!
How to Brew Espresso for Cuban Coffee
Unscrew the lower chamber of a moka pot and fill it with filtered water to just below the safety valve.
Place the filter on top of the lower chamber, and using a measuring cup, fill the upper chamber with finely ground coffee. The coffee should fill the moka pot chamber for the best results.
Gently level off your coffee at the top rather than tamping it as you would when making regular espresso.
Screw the top of the moka pot onto the base, ensuring the gasket and filter are on and the fit is tight.
Place the pot on the stovetop and turn the gas on. Use low-to-medium heat to brew this coffee.
Remember, never brew coffee using a moka pot with the lid open, and always have the handle facing away from the flame.
Turn off the gas once the coffee has finished brewing to avoid over-spills. Brewing is complete when the espresso maker is three-quarters full.
How to Make Espuma for a Cubano
The hallmark of an authentic café cubano is the creamy, caramel-colored espuma; coffee mixed with brown or demerara sugar to form a thick sugar foam.
To make this sugar foam:
Pour the sugar into a glass measuring cup, bowl or creamer cup.
Carefully eye your moka pot as it brews. Once your stovetop espresso maker begins brewing coffee, remove it from the flame briefly.
Take one tablespoon of the first few drops of brewed espresso coffee from your stovetop espresso maker.
Combine it with the sugar in the creamer cup to form a coffee sludge. This is the best espresso to use as it’s the most flavorful and concentrated.
Place the moka pot back onto the flame to continue brewing coffee.
Whisk the coffee and sugar in the creamer cup vigorously for a few minutes to make the espuma. It’ll take some elbow grease, so give it your all.
The espuma is ready when it’s thick and foamy and has a beautiful light caramel color.
Cuban Coffee Recipe
Once you’ve finished brewing, all that’s left to do is to assemble your drink.
Combine one shot of the brewed coffee with about two tablespoons of the espuma per serving.
Pour the espresso onto the espuma in the creamer cup and stir gently to combine. You should see the espuma bloom.
Serve in small cups; demitasse or espresso cups will do. You may add more sugar and milk foam if you wish.
Brew just enough coffee to serve and drink immediately.
You can’t store any of this leftover coffee in coffee makers as it’ll turn too bitter. Alternatively, you may freeze any leftover coffee to make iced coffee later.
How to Drink Cuban Coffee
Good Cuban coffee is mind-blowingly strong. Typically, Cuban restaurants serve it in a small cup. If ordering to-go at a Miami or Havana ventanita (small window shack), you can expect to get this coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
Most Cubans use a small amount of demerara sugar to sweeten their café cubano. You could use white or brown granulated sugar instead but this isn’t traditional.
For the sweet tooth folks out there, ask your barista to serve your coffee más azúcar (with extra sugar). Alternatively, order your coffee “Miami sweet” if you’re in Florida. This Cuban-style sweetened espresso with extra sugar is unique to Miami.
If a plain Cuban espresso packs too much of a punch, ask for a cortadito or café con leche, espresso with small amounts of milk. Take flavors to the next level with leche evaporada (evaporated milk) or leche condensada (condensed milk).
Café cubano is a popular dessert coffee and pairs well with traditional desserts and pastries like cinnamon flan, churros, sugar cookies and capuchinos (traditional cone-shaped cakes).
Still, there’s nothing to say you can’t have this coffee at any time of the day.
For breakfast, Cubans love to dip buttered toast into their brew, made with pan cubano, a traditional lard bread.
Later in the day, have your coffee as a Miami and Havana native does – with light bites like empanadas, cubanos (roast pork, ham and cheese sandwiches) or croquetas de pollo o jamón (chicken or ham croquettes).
For an afternoon pick-me-up, drinking Cuban coffee with pastelito is the way to go! The savory pastelitos de carne (beef pastries) and sweet pastelitos de guayaba (guava pastries) are the most popular.
What Are the Best Coffee Beans for Café Cubano?
You’ve now learned how to make Cuban coffee and how to enjoy it. I’d also urge you to give a thought to the type of espresso coffee beans you choose to buy.
This is a big deal. Different coffee beans have different flavor profiles, which determine the coffees you can make with them.
Cuban coffee is a dark, strong and rich black coffee with a slight bitter taste. As such, only Arabica or Arabica/Robusta blends with a specific flavor profile will best suit this style of coffee.
Look out for coffee beans with a dark chocolate taste, nutty aroma, smooth finish and notes of honey, caramel or brown sugar. Also, try to pick coffees with low to medium acidity.
Coffee from countries such as Peru, Nicaragua, Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia are ideal. These coffee giants produce excellent espresso beans, perfect for Cuban coffee.
When it comes to the roast profile, only a darker espresso roast, typical of Italian and Spanish coffees, will do. This is not the coffee drink for a light or medium roast.
And remember to use finely ground espresso beans. This grind size works well with a stovetop espresso maker or espresso machine and makes perfect Cuban coffee! There are several brands of Cuban-style ground coffee available in the market.
Making Cuban coffee is not just about brewing a coffee beverage. It’s about partaking of a unique coffee culture, preserving a legacy and sharing a piece of Cuba’s soul with the world.
In a land known for cigars, each sip of this coffee replicates the bold flavors and richness of Cuba. That’s why learning how to make Cuban coffee will not only expand your coffee knowledge but also your palate.
So, the next time you savor a cafecito or café con leche, remember to celebrate this island coffee tradition. Salud!
I hope you loved reading all about Cuban coffee and how to make it. Have you tried this coffee before? I’d love to hear all about your experiences in the comments section below!
Cuban Coffee FAQs
Cuban coffee or café cubano is a sweet espresso drink. It consists of dark roast Cuban-style ground coffee brewed and sweetened with a thick white, brown or demerara sugar foam known as espuma.
You can brew Cuban coffee on a stove using a stovetop espresso maker or traditional moka pot. Always use low-to-medium heat for brewing coffee with a moka pot. Take about a tablespoon of the first drops of espresso Cuban coffee mixed with sugar and whip to create a thick sugar foam. Combine your brewed coffee and sugar foam and serve immediately in small cups.
Cuban espresso coffee is strong and sweet, made with finely ground Cuban-style coffee and brown sugar whipped to a thick foam (espuma). This technique tempers the coffee’s bitter flavor by replicating the texture and light caramel color of crema from espresso made with an espresso machine.