This is a long-form version of the final article, published in print in December 2014 in Barcelona Metropolitan Magazine
“Everyone in this industry would love to open their own little coffee corner,” says Elisabet Sereno, National Coordinator for Spain for the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). Elisabet has dedicated to her life to being a coffee ambassador, educator, and entrepreneur, and has recently opened True Artisan Café coffee shop just steps from the Arc de Triomf of Barcelona. Having formed a partnership with the La Marzocco brand of hand-built Italian espresso machines, True Artisan Café is at the same time a La Marzocco espresso machine showroom, a SCAE-certified education and training center (with coffee introduction, barista certification, and roasting classes of all levels, costing between €80 and over €300), and —of course— a great place to enjoy some carefully-roasted and expertly-prepared coffee.
“Growing and processing coffee is a very labor intensive process,” Elisabet says, “so to not show respect to the beans during the roasting, grinding and brewing process would be to not respect the long journey which the beans have taken, or the hard work that has gone into their production. That’s why we have partnered with La Marzocco. Their machines truly respect the coffee.”
Why is this so important? Well, it takes one entire year for one coffee plant to produce one kilogramme of green coffee beans. Through processing, this coffee loses 15%-20% of its weight during the roasting process. In the end, one kilogramme of roasted coffee yields between just 120 and 140 cups of brewed coffee; that’s a lot of work for a product that is so often mistreated in the final steps of its journey from seed to cup. The main goal of True Artisan Café is to spread this appreciation and respect for coffee to Barcelona’s professionals and consumers alike, through training and education, and top-quality service, preparation, and presentation.
“However,” Elisabet continues, “it is just so difficult to get the permits to open your own coffee shop or coffee roaster business in Barcelona that many people would just rather go to London.” There are two reasons why there are so few ‘specialty coffee’ shops in this. First, there is a scarcity of coffee education and knowledge among the coffee-drinking public. Second, there is a severe lack of assistance to entrepreneurs from the Spanish government.
Currently, an individual applying for a permit to open a coffee shop in Barcelona is forced to apply for the same type permit required of someone interested in opening a bar; there is no “coffee shop” category. Since these food service permits are expensive and limitedly available—especially in the densely-packed Ciutat Vella—many potential independent café concepts never come to fruition. When asked, David Abrahamovitch, co-founder of the extremely popular East London coffee shop Shoreditch Grind, explains how simple it is to launch a specialty coffee shop in England with one telling sentence: “All you need here is a coffee machine!”
“The demand for fire safety and precautions in opening a Barcelona coffee shop is needlessly high,” Elisabet explains. “In reality, roasting coffee is more similar to popping popcorn (than cooking with open fire).” The cost of implementing exhaust systems and other over-cautious fire safety protocols crushes any small business owner on a budget.
Even so, coffee culture has ridden various waves over the centuries and continues to become ever more focused on quality, both in business practices and in the cup. Little by little, the ‘Third Wave’ of coffee culture is dawning in Spain.
The ‘First Wave’ of coffee culture upheld the Italian tradition of mixed beans of unknown provenance which have filled cups since Caffè Florian—the first coffeehouse in Europe—was opened in Venice, Italy in 1720. Starbucks ushered in the ‘Second Wave’ during the 1970s and 1980s, as the first large coffee company to bring ‘coffee origin’ to the awareness of the consumer. Now, the ‘Third Wave’ is here, focused not only on coffee bean origin but now also dedicated to full transparency in the sourcing process and ultimate freshness of the roasted beans. As a result, the new generation coffee houses are dedicated to propagating their respect and love for coffee to the masses. People want to know everything about the coffee, including who roasted it and when. Roasting ‘in the moment’ is the wave of the future, and coffee shops are working closely with artisan coffee roasters (or roasting their own beans in-house) to have full control over the flavour profiles and aromas in the final cup. True Artisan Café serves coffee from a different, artisan roaster each month.
Understanding the nuances of coffee sourcing, processing, and brewing on a professional level is a highly academic endeavor that must be mixed with passion. So what accounts for the disconnect between the “romantic” idea of a Barcelona coffee shop and the reality that most of the coffee served in the city is a bit lacking in character?
Ever wondered why the café con leche (espresso with steamed milk) is so popular here? The answer, aside from lack of properly trained baristas in all but the most progressive establishments, is an unpleasant little remnant of Spanish coffee’s past: torrefacto.
Torrefacto is a process of dark-roasting coffee beans with sugar added during the roasting, creating a shiny glaze on the bean that acts as a means of preservation and yields a dark, slightly bitter brew that often requires the addition of milk and sugar to be palatable. Initially used by coffee importers and distributors in the early 20th century to keep their beans from going stale, torrefacto became indispensable in the era that followed the Spanish Civil War.
Coffee shortages after the war were balanced by this roasting process, giving the sensation of a strong cup while using less coffee, while adding sugar weight to coffee maximised profits (up to 15% in weight could be sugar) and masked the flavour of inferior quality coffee bean. Out of all the coffee that Spain currently imports, 70% of the beans are of the inferior Robusta species, which is easier to grow and has a noticeably more bitter taste. Using cheap Robusta instead of higher-quality, complex, nuanced Arabica beans was masked by the torrefacto process for years. During the Franco Era, coffee came in three distinct levels of quality: Popular, Regular, and Superior, the last being the best. Imports were strictly regulated by the government, and the coffee options were few. The superior-level coffee often came from Columbia during that time period, leading people to believe that, by default, Colombian coffee was good without taking factors like roast and preparation into account. Today, buying coffee at the typical supermarket is tricky, as Spanish labeling laws do not require packing to specify what type of beans are used in the blend; if they don’t say, I would just assume there’s something to hide.
Over the decades, the people of Spain have grown accustomed to the flavour of this sugar-roasted coffee, and though some people claim to love torrefacto and it is ironically marketed around the world as a “gourmet product” of Spain, there is no longer any reason for the torrefacto process to continue. In the end, this tradition has shaped Spain’s perception of what coffee should taste like, leading to the belief that if a coffee isn’t strong and dark, it isn’t “good”. It may be hard for people to appreciate the more delicate flavour of light and medium-roast coffee, but the fact that it actually maintains more natural caffeine than its dark-roasted counterpart is an easy selling point here in Spain.
So what makes a “good” cup of coffee? At Nomad Coffee Productions—a coffee laboratory/roaster/coffee shop that has the whole city buzzing— founder Jordi Mestre loves sharing coffee knowledge with consumers, facilitating the spread of information and in turn generating a more demanding coffee-drinking public.
Every Friday, Nomad hosts a coffee “cupping”; a tasting of six different coffees, sampled in the professional coffee evaluation format. Jordi explains the origins, roasts, and flavour profiles of each coffee, which are prepared simply by pouring hot water directly onto coarse-ground coffee in a glass cup, no filter. The coffee grounds float at the top, forming a “crust” which is broken with a spoon to release the complex aromas of each brew. The grounds eventually settle to the bottom of the glass and the coffee is tasted three times (hot, warm, and cold) in quick, airy sips from tasting spoons to evaluate the beans full range of flavours and aromas. The “cuppings” are fun and informative events lasting about an hour and costing €15 per person, with a bag of coffee included.
Jordi is also a London coffee veteran who decided to move back to his native Barcelona and take his Nomad Coffee Cart business (founded in London in 2011) to the next level in February 2014 by opening Nomad Coffee Productions; a “concept store”, not a “coffee shop”. You can drop by for a coffee Monday-Friday from 8:30am-3:30pm, but their main goal is coffee roasting and experimentation. Nomad offers four-five different coffees at any given time in their coffee shop/laboratory; some roasted for espresso, others for filter coffee. They also supply many other shops and restaurants with their espresso blend, though the precise, expert preparation found at places like Nomad and True Artisan Café is hard to match.
At True Artisan Café, Elisabet and head barista Ionut Bindila show how they grind and weigh the coffee on a digital scale every time a drink is ordered. For a double-shot of espresso, the ground coffee weighs between 16 and 19 grammes (depending on the desired outcome). The top-of-the-line, hand-built La Marzocco Strada EP (Electric Paddle) espresso machine that adorns the coffee bar costs as much as a new Volkswagen, and gives the barista absolute control over their coffee extraction. The precision in each step of the preparation process—and the importance of everything from the fresh local milk to the filtered water—puts this professional coffee in a whole other league than the “slap and tap” espresso at the typical corner café.
Back at Nomad, Jordi offers these tips for home coffee brewers: To get the best cup of coffee without leaving the house, he ranks “espresso machines” and stovetop Moka pots as the worse options, for the former’s inadequacy compared to the real thing, and the latter’s commonly bitter taste. At the opposite end of the spectrum he ranks “drip” coffee (filter cones, Aeropress, and the like) and French Press pots as the best bet for a pleasing cup in the comfort of your own home.
Jordi shared this sure-fire recipe for French Press coffee at home: 16 grammes of light roast coffee, ground on the coarsest setting (ask your coffee shop to grind it for you, but buy small amounts at a time so that it stays fresh) and 230 ml of water at 94˚C degrees. Add all the hot water at once to the press pot, stir briefly, then set a timer for exactly four minutes and place the lid on the pot with the plunger pulled all the way up. After four minutes, press the plunger down, then decant the coffee (an important step often neglected) to stop the brewing and avoid over-extraction.
So, just as fine wine, craft beer, and artisan cocktails in Barcelona have fought a long fight to gain respect, recognition, and perceived value from the consumer, so goes the struggle to bring about a new era of coffee drinking culture in the city and beyond. As coffee lovers, it is our job to become educated in not only where the coffee that we drink comes from, but how it is treated throughout its entire, impressive journey from far-off plantation to cup and saucer. There is most definitely a correct way of preparing a cup of coffee, and the more informed we are and the demanding we become, the better the coffee culture of Barcelona will be. I propose that everyone go out and try one of these “3rd Wave” coffee shops for themselves and discover the full potential and complexity found in these little beans that were once so regarded, but have since by left for dregs. Go out, order a coffee, ask questions; join the conversation.
Six places to drink a great coffee in Barcelona
Nomad Coffee Productions: Passatge Sert, 12
True Artisan Café: Passatge Sant Benet 6
Onna Café: Carrer de Santa Teresa, 1
Skye Coffee Co.: Carrer de Pamplona, 88
Satan’s Coffee Corner: Carrer de l'Arc de Sant Ramon del Call, 11
Cafés El Magnífico: Carrer de l'Argenteria, 64