Dear America, land of pumpkin spice lattes bigger than your skull: we love you dearly, but coffee/coffee rituals just isn’t your thing (let’s be real, slurping down your thermos of joe like your life depends on the caffeine rush just doesn’t count). No, when it comes to enjoying the true art of cafe (i.e., regularly making time to sit and sip espresso with friends and family), you gotta look elsewhere in the world. So, we here at SPI decided to check out what coffee culture is like in each of our program countries: France, Italy, Costa Rica and Spain. Sit back with your third cup (we won’t tell, we promise) and enjoy!
In terms of complexity, Italian coffee is nearly unrivaled in Western Europe. In fact, there are so many culturally-accepted iterations of what kind of coffee to drink and when to drink it that you may need to consult a veritable guide on the subject before traveling anywhere in Italy. For instance, you want to order a cappuccino in the afternoon? Be prepared to get some weird looks — drinking coffee with milk after meals or in the afternoons is simply not done. Decaf is unheard of, and ordering yourself a latte will only net you a giant glass of hot milk. And when it comes to drinking your coffee, if you want to get real Italian about it, stand and sip at the bar (Paris, this ain’t!).
The French may not necessarily know how to make the best cup of coffee (generally speaking, it tends to be over-extracted and thus pretty bitter — sans any rich, deep flavor!), but in terms of cafe culture (i.e., intimate socializing over coffee), they’ve got most of us beat. This is mostly due to the fact that, for centuries, cafes in France have been seen as the happenin’ joints in which to discuss everything from existentialism to elementary physics. In fact, we’re pretty sure Sartre developed his most important theories over a nice, fat cafe au lait.
Costa Rican coffee, on the other hand, is some serious liquid deliciousness. Coffee seeds were first planted in Costa Rica in the early 1800’s, and thanks to the country’s excellent growing conditions for this magical crop, coffee has become a veritable household name there. In terms of how people choose to enjoy their steaming cups of flavorful cafe, sitting down to enjoy each other’s company over coffee is a highly-valued daily tradition in tico life.
In Spanish coffee culture, the drink itself varies, of course, depending on which diverse region of Spain you’re traversing, but in general (just like in Italy) there are several variations of how to get your caffeine fix. In fact, there are even a handful of drink names for the different amounts of milk you’d prefer in your coffee — cafe con leche, for example, is half and half; cafe cortados have a bit more espresso than milk; cafe manchados have a little more milk than espresso, etc. — you get the picture!). And of course, coffee rituals in Spain provide a good insight into tried-and-true Spanish philosophy — that is, that taking a break out of your daily routine to have some good conversation over cafecitos is what truly makes life worth living!