In the morning, a café con leche and a croissant is the standard, after lunch a quick cortado, and maybe a café solo in the early evening for a little something to tide the hungry over until dinner. Café culture is an intricate part of Barcelona residents’ socialising and snacking routine, and the city has limitless options for a caffeine fix. Standing at a bar or seated at a table in a smoky café has long been the scenario for having a cup of Joe around town.
But in the last few years, Barcelona’s café scene has changed. Chains and speciality coffee shops are diversifying the city’s coffee consumption traditions. These newcomers look nothing like the old café-bar to which most people are accustomed.
Gone are the hazy ambience and napkin strewn floors. These new guys run a tight ship, spic and span and non-smoking. There’s also the menu, which includes such tongue-twisters as ‘llet amb caramel amb desnatat doble carga’ (double tall skimmed caramel latte). Fashionable, big-name coffee shops have come to Barcelona, and from the crowded tables and lines at the tills, it looks like they are here to stay.
One popular example of a successful chain is Jamaica Coffee Shop. The franchise has 35 shops in Barcelona alone, and 108 throughout Spain. Jamaica has no plans to stop building at the Spanish border, and will continue to expand in the rest of Europe (currently, they are focusing expansion in Hang Zhou, China, where business is booming). The first Jamaica in Barcelona was opened in 1993 by José Mangas and Antonio Veloso, who also own Garriga Cafes, a coffee roasting company with speciality blends from exotic locations. Jamaica was one of the first franchises to enter Barcelona’s family-run café climate, offering new coffee flavours with a focus on preparation and origin.
“The most difficult thing [about entering the market] was to convince the customer that we would offer a good product without increasing the price,” María Marmol, of Jamaica Coffee Shops, told Metropolitan. “People saw us as an exclusive shop because they were used to corner bars, full of smoke, quite old and offering bad coffee. We offered better coffee in a better atmosphere at the same price. People just didn’t believe it.”
Bad coffee? Though espresso-machine rendered java may satisfy some, most coffee served in bars around town is not top-notch. Ask the barista in most cafes if the coffee is more Robusta or Arabic, and a blank stare is likely to follow. Until recently, these two terms were foreign jargon in Spain. Like wine, coffee-making is a complex process with many factors determining its overall quality points. Most coffee blends are made from mixing Robusta and Arabic coffee in different proportions. Strong and highly caffeinated, Robusta is used for its kick. Arabic, on the other hand, has much less caffeine but is richer in the delicate aromas and flavours that Robusta lacks.
These are just the basics of becoming a coffee connoisseur. Origin has a lot to do with the quality of the coffee as well. Was it grown in the shaded mountains of Costa Rica, or in mass production in Asia? Is the coffee fair-trade? Organic? Is the bag made from recycled paper? Does the company exploit or support indigenous bean pickers? There are many variables in making the perfect cup of Joe.
Jamaica Coffee Shop is keeping an eye on the public’s desire for politically correct beans. “We buy coffee in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya and Jamaica; some of them are fair trade, but just a small portion. Organic and fair-trade coffee will be extremely important as people become more aware of the impact of fair trade on poor countries. We plan to offer more of these options in the future,” said Marmol.
While Jamaica is the largest coffee chain in Barcelona, Starbucks is right behind them with many stores in key locations around the metropolis. Starbucks had a challenge entering a market where people have always preferred a quick espresso for €1 to a ‘grande latte’ at €4. Enter any Starbucks in Barcelona to view a brilliant marketing campaign at work. All shops in Catalunya have propaganda about the company’s history and do-gooding written in Catalan. For Catalans and Europeans new to the super-sized and super-sweet menu, Starbucks has just the solution: a colourful pamphlet with pictures and descriptions of the caramel macchiato, cappuccino, latte, mocha, coffee-of-the-day, and a series of ‘frappuccinos’. The caffeine giant even offers coffee-tasting courses, where curious coffee lovers come for a couple hours to learn about where beans hail from, and how they’re converted into a creamy white chocolate mocha.
At first glance, it may seem that Starbucks appeals mostly to tourists, but in reality most of them host a mix of locals and foreigners tipping back giant cappuccinos and relishing decadent desserts. With a café-lounge ambience formerly unknown here, Starbucks has tapped into, and met, a need in the café market. The coffee shops’ big comfy couches appeal to tired tourists and lounging locals alike. Most people prefer a big couch to a hard metal chair or bar stool. It makes sense. On top of this, there’s no smoking in the US chain, and some locations offer internet and study areas, making it the perfect choice for kids and college students needing a sugar-rush and a safe place to meet. Though there is little current demand for environmentally sound coffee, Starbucks does offer some of these items just in case. It’s also the only café in town where vegetarians or those with a lactic aversion can order a soy latte.
Operating on a slightly smaller scale than Starbucks is Di Lorenzo Café from Panama. Di Lorenzo’s is owned by Café Duran, a coffee growing company started in Panama in 1907 by a Catalan immigrant. Café Duran is a big player in raw coffee exportation internationally, and wants the same to be true of their chain of Di Lorenzo coffee shops. In November 2006, Di Lorenzo Café opened their first space in the centre of Barcelona. In just a year, the company has expanded with two more cafés, one in Sant Cugat and another near Diagonal Mar shopping centre, and plans to continue.
Unlike their competitors, Di Lorenzo’s advantage lies in their expertise in each step of the coffee process. “We started as coffee growers, and because of this have a better understanding of what good coffee is,” Guillermo Gasperi, from Di Lorenzo, told Metropolitan. “We grow, pick, clean, roast and blend the beans, then serve it up in the way we know is best-suited for the coffee. Barcelona wants quality coffee. Luckily for us, most cafés are still serving bad blends or cheap roasts, so there’s a lot of demand for our product.”
It seems that the future of Barcelona’s café scene will host more big-name chains and shops offering speciality brews. Will the heavily ordered latte one day replace the espresso or cortado in popularity? Only time will tell. While the demise of the small café in favour of a brand name would be sad, the possibility that Barcelona will enjoy better coffee, which is also socially and environmentally conscious, is an attractive prospect. For now, small bars and cafés seem to be in no real danger of extinction, with new names in coffee offering more in the way of variety than competition.
Some places to find Fair Trade coffee:
Café Just; Sostinent Navarro 18, tel. 93 310 6456
Intermon Oxfam; Provença 247
Veritas; Via Laietana 28
Xarxa Consum Solidari;
Pl. de Sant Agustí Vell 15
Naidunia Fair Trade Shop;