Spain’s Cup of Joy
There’s more to the country’s new brew than just specialty coffee.
The whir of milk steaming, the rustle of conversations, the high-pitched hum of a moto zipping along the cobbled street beyond the open front door — this is the soundtrack at Madrid’s Toma Café.
Toma has been a near-daily destination for me in the Spanish capital, where I’ve lived for almost eight years. Since the coffee shop opened in 2011, I’ve seen Toma go from the size of a walk-in closet to a bigger, albeit still snug space, where a scattering of benches and chairs battle for room between exposed-brick walls. And the shop’s client base has grown exponentially too, as its reputation for being “the best place for good coffee in Madrid” now precedes it.
This morning, I place my usual order for a cappuccino (espresso with foamed milk), but it’s the next one I’ll enjoy that I’m already thinking about, as tomorrow I’ll be heading off to Barcelona. I know the city well enough, save for one key thing: its own version of Toma Café. As a long-time shop employee named Joaquín delicately drizzles frothy milk into my cup, I ask him if he knows of a good place for coffee in Barcelona.
Through a big smile lined by a scruffy beard he suggests Nomad Coffee. I note it down and sip on my cappuccino, surprisingly exhilarated by this unexplored addition to my Barcelona itinerary.
All I’m after is a good cup of coffee. Little do I know that I’m about to get much more.
I’ve gotten lost in the medieval streets of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter and snapped pictures of the city’s redbrick Arc de Triomf gate, but somehow I’ve never ventured off into the neighborhood that sits in between them, El Born.
Today, though, I have good reason to explore it. As I walk on the well-trafficked Carrer de Trafalgar, I’m glued to my phone’s map, which indicates that I’m just steps away from the street where I’ll find Nomad. I pass it several times before realizing it’s not a street at all, but rather a doorway that leads to a private alley aglow with sunshine that pours in from above.
Nomad Coffee, a little workshop of a café, sits almost at the end of this passage. Its bar sets the stage for what looks to be an almost religious coffee experience: In front of each of a handful of stools sits a marble block, the home for a shot glass of palate-cleansing water and a really good cup of coffee.
This “good” kind of coffee, however, is admittedly hard to come by in Spain — hence my need to search. “The consumption of coffee continues to be very traditional,” explains Elisabet Sereno, Spain’s director at La Marzocco, the company behind the world’s most esteemed espresso machine.
By “traditional,” Sereno means that Spanish coffee-drinking habits currently revolve around a kind of coffee that isn’t considered to be very good, technically-speaking. It all goes back to the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, when there was a shortage of coffee. A new roasting technique was adopted called torrefacto, which involves adding sugar during the final stage of roasting, thus burning a shiny glaze onto the beans.
The benefits at the time were manifold: The sugar made the coffee weigh more; it masked the bad flavors of poor-quality beans; and it preserved the beans for longer. Today, the tradition continues, complemented by the widely served, sharp-tasting robusta beans, which are often mixed with torrefacto. Add to all this the popularity of French roast — beans dark roasted to the point that their original flavor is all but lost — and it should come as no surprise that Spaniards have become accustomed to a less-than-ideal brew.
“Fortunately, Spaniards travel and try good coffee in other countries, which is helping to spread a culture of better-quality coffee [in Spain],” tells Sereno. As a result, things are now changing here. “Barcelona,” she continues, “is a portal for change when it comes to [ushering in] a coffee culture based on quality and transparency.”
Indeed, Nomad — along with Madrid’s Toma and a growing number of other cafés in the country’s bigger cities— is breaking the mold as part of a movement called the “third wave.” In doing so, they’re evangelizing specialty coffee, which originates from virtually defect-free beans carefully nurtured at every stage — from plant-growing to coffee-making. This ultimately enables the complex flavors found in the satisfying cup that I’m sipping on now — and without the need for even a granule of sugar.
Heading out the opposite end of the secret passageway that led me to the café, I feel gratified by my little detour, but I’m still unaware that this is just my first taste of the bigger story behind Spain’s specialty coffee.
A week later, I’m on Spain’s high-speed train, the AVE, careening across the country’s eastern plains at some 300 kilometers per hour. Today, I’ll be sharing my love of Valencia — Spain’s third-largest city, which cozies up to the Mediterranean Sea — with my mom. I’ll take her to the El Carmen neighborhood to show her some of my favorite street art; we’ll dine beachside on a paella of crusty-bottomed, saffron-tinged rice; and as we walk down the city’s narrow streets, I’ll explain how, during the Fallas festival in April, they fill with the sound and heat of exploding fireworks and giant bonfires.
We had an early wake-up call, though, and a nice coffee wouldn’t hurt. As our train passes fields of olive orchards and glides above the water of a glistening reservoir, I search my phone for the best places to get a caffeine pick-me-up, but with no luck. I eventually admit defeat and start scrolling through my social-media feeds instead, where I see a post from Nomad congratulating a new specialty coffee shop opening in Valencia’s Mercat Central.
I reach out to the new shop, and after a few text messages and several hours later, I’m waiting outside the market’s giant corrugated doors. I savor a sliver of shade in the heavy and humid Valencia heat, and a view of a commanding entrance to the Baroque-style Santos Juanes Church that sits opposite me.
Retrogusto Coffeemate’s owner, Martina Requena, eventually opens the door, letting in the afternoon sunlight and leading me into the ghostly vacant market. Only hours before, its almost 400 stands buzzed with sellers hawking vegetables, fruits, pastries and fresh-from-the-sea fish, among other products. Soon one more item will be added to that roster of goods: specialty coffee.
Martina and her partner, Paula Esquembre, will open their stand here the coming weekend. With only some of their equipment set up in preparation for the big day, she does her best to make me a cappuccino as we swap coffee stories. Mine, of course, started at Toma, and I’m amazed to learn that hers began there as well, as it was the first place where she and Paula learned how to prepare specialty coffee.
I marvel at the coincidence of it all: Toma sends me to Nomad, Nomad sends me to Retrogusto, and Retrogusto points me right back to Toma. How is it that all of these cafés are connected and supporting each other as they do? “In the end we’re all a team, working to offer good coffee,” Martina tells me, “and we want this good work to be recognized in our city, and throughout the country.”
She hands over her creation, her dark eyes seeking my stamp of approval, as though it were just the green light that her business needs. “Está buenísimo!” I tell her. A smile of satisfaction washes across her face — and, incidentally, across mine, too, as I relish in this delicious moment made up of so much more than just good coffee.
Back home in the capital, I learn that a few more specialty coffee shops have recently cropped up, including one called Coffee & Kicks. Located just steps away from central Puerta del Sol, the café sits on an uncharacteristically tourist-free street and occupies what used to be an early 20th-century metal workshop.
The now refurbished space had been in disuse for 80 years, until Guillermo Lassalle decided to give it new life via a coffee shop. “I was unemployed and going to Toma every day,” he explains, “so decided I, too, should start selling this hard-to-come-by coffee.” Guillermo now serves Toma’s blend, and the shop’s experts trained him as well. In fact, it’s not rare to see a Toma employee working the counter here, lending a hand and sharing his or her knowledge.
“What’s going on here?” I wonder out loud, as I finally sit down with employee Wojciech Suder at Toma’s kitchen-side bar. Wojciech is from Poland and a passionate advocate for the specialty coffee community, not to mention a star Toma Café Warrior (as they call themselves). He leads weekly introductory “cupping” sessions for customers — teaching novices how to better evaluate coffee’s tastes and aromas — and generally just infuses the shop with friendliness.
“Specialty is about the community behind the product,” he says between playful exchanges with his coworker. He’s not just referring to the community of baristas and coffee shops in Spain, though. It goes much deeper than that, all the way back to the coffee beans’ roots — literally.
For instance, in the micro-region of Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia — one of Toma’s key sources of beans — farmers grow the plants, after which a village of people comes together for the harvest. From this, a tight-knit community forms around the beans.
“They work for a better life for the whole community,” Wojciech says. “When we take the green bean from them, we have to make sure that we appreciate the job.” In doing so, they must transfer that sense of community around the bean to each other. “Because before you get the coffee to the cup,” he says, “there are almost 1,000 hands that touch it. It’s important for the barista not to spoil it.”
Ultimately, the results of this journey are passed on to the customer. “I can see the change on people’s faces when they take a sip of our coffee. [Selling] coffee is like selling happiness.”
As I sit there chatting with Woijceck, it occurs to me that these café owners and baristas, who shop by shop and cup by cup are introducing this “untraditional” coffee to Spanish culture, aren’t just importing specialty coffee but so much more. And that all this time — during my visits to Toma and on my unplanned quest around the country— I’ve not just been seeking good coffee, but a thoughtfully prepared cup of joy.
Now, if I listen to Toma Café’s “soundtrack” more carefully, I can hear that it’s more than a gentle garble of voices, but a blend of laughter, friendly conversations, a toddler gleefully mumbling“mamá.”It’s the coming together of people in this space, and also that of a “thousand hands” — all which form a global community, from the beans of places like Ethiopia to the fellowship of baristas across Spain, and beyond.
Madrid’s Best Specialty Coffee Shops
Find your own cup of joy at these top cafés in the Spanish capital.
Coffee & Kicks
Calle de las Navas de Tolosa, 6
Given its tourist-center location, this is the perfect spot to caffeinate before you set off on a day of sightseeing. Go there for some tostada con tomate (tomato-topped toast), to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and ample seating, and to make friends with the café’s pup, Manolo.
Calle de la Palma, 49
This tiny space draws crowds for more than just the capital’s best java: It also offers decadent housemade baked goods, an inventive lunch menu, and a selection of non-coffee-related beverages, including hot chocolate, fresh orange juice and gourmet teas.
Calle Pez, 20
Though HanSo Café just opened its new doors in the hipster-friendly Malasaña neighborhood, it’s actually been serving coffee for a while now in a previous location. Expect the brew here to be on par with that served at Toma.