When I first went to America, I made a classic German mistake. I’d go to a café and say: “One coffee please!” Without fail, the barista would look at me and ask: “Well, what kind?” Now, I was the one getting confused: “Uhh, just…a normal one?” Inevitably, I’d end up with an Americano, and, to a German, that’s not “a normal coffee.”
Eventually, I discovered that “Kaffee,” the standard drink served millions of times a day in German cafés, restaurants, and office kitchens, is actually “caffè crema,” a long espresso exclusive to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and of course Italy, the place it originates from.
Unlike an Americano, which is an espresso topped up with about 450 ml of hot water, a caffè crema is made from around 200 ml of water, pressed directly through the beans. Essentially, you just keep the espresso running for longer, which makes it a less sizable but usually stronger drink than an Americano. If you hear a German complaining about “weak American coffee,” this difference is why.
Yesterday, I slipped into the old habit of ordering “just a normal coffee,” and, as I was explaining the whole story to a friend, our barista explained that in Malaga, where he was from, they had not one, or two, or five types of coffee but ten. “The smallest one is called ‘nube,’ which means ‘cloud.’ It’s basically all milk. The second-smallest is called ‘sombra,’ which means ‘shadow.’ It’s basically still all milk.” He confessed to us that, even as a local, he often couldn’t figure out the different proportions, but that most tourists didn’t mind.
In Malaga, coffee was a rare commodity after the Spanish Civil War. When customers ordered “a finger of coffee,” as they were used to, owners would often serve too much or too little, depending on the size of their fingers. Don José Prado Crespo, founder of Café Central, solved the problem with a little mural outside his shop, depicting ten variations of everyone’s favorite beverage and giving them names.
Now, if you wanted a coffee without milk, you’d order one of the first four kinds, and if you wanted something a little lighter, you’d order one of the remaining six — although the “no me lo ponga” aka “don’t bother” didn’t find too many takers (it’s an empty glass).
Whether your next order is a shadow, caffè crema, or Americano, remember that culture differs everywhere, but culture is also one of the best “things we do.” You can’t expect the world to function the same way in a foreign place as it does right outside your door, but there’s also nothing embarrassing about learning new ways while sharing your own.
May your next cup of black gold be as delicious as your last — and whatever you do, don’t order “just a normal one.”