A Foreigner’s Guide to Drinking Coffee in Colombia

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If you’ve ever stood in line at Starbucks and been in awe of the person before you in line whose complicated order (think: iced, half caff, ristretto, venti, four-pump, sugar free, cinnamon, dolce soy skinny latte) just seems to roll off the tongue, you’ll be equally mesmerized by how difficult it is to order coffee in Colombia. While it never nears the level of expertise required to fill in all the boxes on your Starbucks cup, it does take some know-how to get the proper jolt (read: the latte you really wanted instead of the cappuccino you’ll be sipping begrudgingly). Here’s what I learned about staying caffeinated in Colombia while shuttling to and from fashion shows at ColombiaModa 2015.

You can take your wine and your coffee “tinto.”

In some parts of the Spanish-speaking world red wine is known simply as “tinto.” In Colombia, a “tinto” is also what you call black coffee so don’t be surprised if your waiter offers you a “tinto” at 7 a.m. Just nod your head “yes” and wait for the early morning cloudiness to subside.

Colombian coffee is one-size-fits-most.

If you’re used to dealing in absolutes when it comes to coffee, you may have a hard time wrapping your head around what a traditional cup of Colombian coffee is. It’s not quite a concentrated espresso nor is it a slightly diluted cup of “American” coffee. It is somewhere in the middle and served in appropriately ambiguous cups, the kind too small to fill with water but too big to use for shots or digestifs.

Thou shall not add thou own milk.

Partly to get around the extra charge but also because I’m a control freak, I always ask the barista at Starbucks to let me pour my own soy milk. I exercised my OCD rights in Colombia and was met with looks of bewilderment and confusion. Instead of bringing me a side of milk, my waiter took back the black coffee and replaced it with a café con leche (latte), which was more milk than coffee. The solution? Order a shot of espresso (be specific!) and “spike” your coffee. Colombians can get behind the extra caffeine though not the extra milk. 

Go Italian not Cuban for espresso drinks.

Coming from Miami, I assumed that everyone knew what a “cortadito” was: espresso with a small amount of milk. After struggling to get the perfect milk-to-coffee ratio, I thought ordering a “cortadito” would be the solution, until my waiter had no idea what I was talking about. I went out on a limb and ordered the same drink elsewhere in Italian and ecco – there was my macchiato! The same trick works for cappuccinos, but not lattes. For that you’ll need to ask for a café con leche.

Don’t assume you’ll take your coffee the same way in every country.

I add a splash of agave to my coffee when I brew it at home. At my parents’ house, it’s three tablespoons of sugar or bust. And if I order my usual at Starbucks, I forego sugar altogether but go heavy on the milk. In Colombia, I skipped it all! For the first time in my life, I drank — and thoroughly enjoyed — my coffee black. The beans are roasted and ground differently; the types of coffee you’ll be exposed to won’t be what you’re used to seeing in your grocer’s aisle and the cultural norms surrounding coffee are entirely different (few grab-and-go options, for instance). Take a moment to soak in your environment and don’t be afraid to step outside your coffee comfort zone. You’ll be in port for several hours so treat it as an opportunity to embark on your very own coffee crawl.


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