In Colorado’s land-locked capital, surrounded by towering mountains and evergreens, Emmett Barr whips up a café con leche at Buchi Café Cubano—no palm trees in sight. The United States is just 90 miles from Cuban shores, but it can seem a word away. It’s why he and other cafe owners are attempting to recreate the Havana coffee-drinking esperience stateside. Some of these cafes, including Cuban Coffee Queen and 5 Brothers in Key West and Versailles and Islas Canarias in Miami, are clustered in Florida, where there is a large Cuban population. Others, like Buchi Café Cubano, have opened outside of the gravitational pull of Havana’s geographic and cultural influence.
Because, when it comes to emulating Cuban coffee culture, there only seem to be three non-negotiable rules. First, the coffee must be strong and sweet; in Havana, it’s laced with raw sugar during the brewing process and there’s less milk than what most Americans are used to. Second, it must be taken liberally. Then, above all else, it must be enjoyed in good company. Coffee in Havana is an intensely social activity, cherished as both a social lubricant and sign of hospitality. Havana residents adopt a decidedly unhurried approach to partaking in their coffee, and view it as an opportunity to slow down and bring people together.
“You start brewing a café Cubano the second a guest steps into your home, no questions asked,” says Vivian Hernández-Jackson who runs Azúcar, a Cuban cafe in San Diego. Being raised by Cuban parents who were exiled by Castro’s government as teenagers exposed her to coffee from a young age. “I was drinking a straight café con leche by the time I was 12.” Living in a coffee-obsessed city like Miami also helped. “Cuban coffee is as important to Miami as flamingos, Gloria Estefan, and Miami Vice,” Hernández-Jackson quips. “I don't know any Cubans in Miami who are tea drinkers, unless they’re sick or trying to go to sleep.”
Hernández-Jackson’s menu includes all the standard drinks you’d find at a traditional cafe in Havana. She even gets her coffee beans from Gaviña—a family friend’s company that originated in Cuba in 1870 and moved its operations to California in 1967. “They source their beans from all over the world and I feel that the Old Havana-style roast is what makes the coffee authentic, not the provenance of the beans themselves,” Hernández-Jackson says. She follows the traditional method of adding Demerara sugar during the espresso brewing process rather than after. This allows the sucrose to hydrolyze via the heat from the espresso and render a smooth, thicker brew with a unique layer of sweet crema on top.
Then there’s Jeremy Sapienza, who co-founded Cafetería La Mejor in Brooklyn with his partner Luis Velazquez. While Sapienza has no familial connection to Cuba, his attraction to Havana’s coffee culture was developed over the course of his upbringing. The Miami native grew up patronizing the many Cuban restaurants and cafes that dot the city’s landscape—a result of around 1.2 million Cuban immigrants arriving in the Greater Miami area over the past six decades. “There are $5,000 espresso machines in pretty much every gas station, lunch counter, deli, and supermarket in Miami, which is pretty wild,” Sapienza notes. For the first several years that Sapienza and Velazquez lived in New York, they lamented the lack of local cafes serving quality Cuban coffee. All they wanted was a little taste of home; so they opened Cafetería La Mejor. “There were some of the old standards in Manhattan but they are honestly terrible,” Sapienza says. “I thought an updated ‘Brooklynized’ twist on a Floridian classic would be a cool idea.”
While brewing methods and reverence for coffee-drinking is easily exported, some aspects of Cuban coffee culture remain firmly on the island. For instance, none of the Cuban cafes in the U.S. are subject to the same government rations as Havana residents, which means they don’t have to stretch coffee with chícharo.
In fact, Sapienza is proud of the differences, and quick to stress that his cafe embodies a more distinctly Floridian, if not by way of Havana, coffee experience. “I've tried to make it clear that Cafetería La Mejor is Floridian, but it's hard because we serve Cuban coffee and a sandwich—invented in Florida—called a Cuban sandwich,” Sapienza says. Yet, he also raises the question of whether the missing Cuban connection should have any bearing on the authenticity of his business. “It's like an Irish New Yorker moving to Idaho and opening a New York-style pizza place,” Sapienza suggests. “Is he Italian? Does it matter?”
Marius Venter, the owner of Key West’s Cuban Coffee Queen, Hernandez-Jackson, and Sapienza are all firm in their commitment to transmit an authentic Havana cafe experience to their customers. But first they have to meet American palates halfway—somewhere between third wave cafe culture and old-fashioned tradition. Says Sapienza of his adherence to third wave coffee practices, “We may toss sugar, salt, and butter in the café con leche but we still dial in and make sure we’re adhering to the rules that we know will make the coffee taste its best.” In Cafetería La Mejor’s case, this entails using top-shelf ingredients: Stumptown Coffee Roasters beans, Hudson Valley Milk, and upstate New York pasture-raised pork for sandwiches. It also means finishing off drinks with latte art and silky microfoam, perfected over countless hours of training. Azúcar offers patrons the option of adding soy, almond, or coconut mik to their Cuban coffee, and many of its drinks also come in iced versions to cater to customers’ requests.
But Sapienza doesn’t think that makes his coffee any less a lo Cubano at heart. “We also put two sugars in every coffee and that's just how it's gonna be unless customers ask otherwise,” Sapienza says.
Venter adopts similar principles, taking pride in the extra flair he adds to standard Cuban recipes. “We put a little spin on things such as serving a regular Americano with a shot of café Cubano or doing an iced café con leche with espresso ice cubes, but on the whole we’re definitely trying to stay true to the Cuban experience.”
Indeed, while they’re happy to embrace preparations they’ve picked up from Cuban coffee culture, and perhaps improve on them, none are willing to compromise on quality, taste, or social responsibility in order to claim some version of authenticity. “They use shit ingredients at most 'authentic' places, and that’s not something I’m willing to do for authenticity's sake,” Sapienza asserts. “The culture has to necessarily serve as inspiration, and since we’ve ripped it out of its native context we’ve had to adapt it to local conditions.”
Venter adopts a similar mindset, and has made some deliberate modifications to the traditional way of doing things. Cuban Coffee Queen serves its drinks and sandwiches in biodegradable paper containers, while many other cafes in Key West—and Havana itself—use Styrofoam or small plastic cups. “It sets us apart from other local joints, but I don’t think it makes us any less credible,” he argues. Such a modification helps Cuban Coffee Queen compete with other cafes in the area while staying true to its Cuban roots.
Purists may argue that these owners' modifications divorce the experience they’re providing from the coffee-drinking tradition that’s alive and well on the streets of Havana. But maybe that’s a good thing, and it’d be hard to say that they aren’t dedicated to preserving the social aspect of Cuban coffee culture. Azúcar and Cuban Coffee Queen have large seating areas for customers to linger over their drinks with friends, and Cuban Coffee Queen and Cafetería La Mejor also make use of the quintessentially Cuban window-ordering experience—the ventanilla—as a way for baristas to interact with customers. It may be spiffier than Havana, but what does it matter if the coffee’s expertly executed and the vibe is right, they challenge.
Both Venter and Hernández-Jackson state that one of the most rewarding parts of the job is when native Cubans or Miami transplants stop by to get their Cuban coffee fix. At Cafetería La Mejor, Sapienza gets Cubans and Floridians flocking to his Bushwick cafe, driven by a sense of nostalgia. “The minute they see that bright teal façade, the pink neon, and brass outside counter from down the block and across the street, they know what it is,” Sapienza says. “That means I did it right.”
As first published in Volume 3: Havana of Drift