Have you ever been to a specialty coffee shop? If you say “yes” and you’re thinking of Starbucks, then you definitely need to make a trip to Colombia so that you actually know what specialty coffee is. I’m not hating on Starbucks; I’m a gold card member myself, but they’ve got nothing on the coffee shops you’ll find in Bogotá. Whether you’re looking for a cultural experience or you just want some really good coffee, hit up one of the many cafés in the capital and go back to basics with these coffee-based favorites.
I thought I knew a lot about coffee before coming to Colombia. Two classes, dozens of cafés, and hundreds of cups later, I realized how wrong I was. I never really knew what exactly I was ordering; I just knew I liked the drinks. As it turns out, I’m not alone, as a lot people don’t know what’s in their drink or the difference between regular coffee and espresso or a latte and a cappuccino. Being the third largest producer of coffee in the world, people expect to get a delicious cup when they come to Colombia, and from experience, I can tell you that the country delivers. You’ll have plenty of specialty coffee shops to choose from while you’re in Bogotá (many of which can be found in the historic and tourist-y neighborhood of La Candelaria) and the following are the key bebidas (drinks) you’ll see on every menu. Already know what you’re going to order? Then I guess the real question is do you know what goes into your drink?
Coffee, the local way
At home, Colombians often prepare their coffee with (lots of) sugar and/or milk (not creamer), so it’s not uncommon to hear them order the same in cafés. Tinto, is sweetened black coffee made from leftover beans, and pintadito is that same black coffee with milk, almost latte-like, but lesser quality and sans foam. You can actually buy these from street vendors for less than $1,000 COP ($0.33 USD), but they’re also on the menu at some cafés, as well as a couple of the local chains that are always nearby, like Tostao and Oma. For a boozier local favorite, try carajillo, which is coffee with Colombia’s beloved aguardiente.
I would say filtered coffee is the crux of any specialty coffee shop. There are a variety of methods to choose from: the Chemex, siphon, French press, V60 dripper, and Aeropress are the most popular. The grind of the coffee will vary a little by method and many places will even bring the beans and equipment out to your table and prepare it in front of you as they explain what they’re doing, which is part of the authentic Colombian coffee experience. Consider that every single aspect of the process will affect how that cup tastes, including the water temperature, pouring method, infusion time, and of course where the beans came from (and within that, there are a million factors that determine the profile). However, any one of these methods will yield a delicious, full-bodied cup that when made properly, perfectly balances the flavors of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity.
Espresso and espresso-based drinks
Espresso and (filtered) coffee are different so let’s get that out of the way right now. While a cup of coffee can have a finer grind (although it’s typically on the coarse side), espresso is made from the finest grind possible and by blasting really hot water through the packed down grounds, hence espresso machines that make this process easier. This is what gives it that rich, complex flavor and the pressure is what creates that light layer of foam sitting on top of your espresso shot. Espresso serves as the base for pretty much all of your favorite café concoctions.
This is simply a shot of espresso with hot water added. You can always ask your barista for more water if it’s too strong.
Think of lattes as milk with a touch of espresso because the majority of the drink is milk. You have a shot of espresso and the rest of the cup filled with steamed milk and a tiny bit of foam to complete it.
Like a latte, cappuccinos are espresso and milk, but what makes them different is the even ratio of everything and amount of foam. In a cappuccino, you get to taste more of the coffee because the steamed milk comprises an equal 1/3 of the drink, as does the foamed milk you see on top. Due to the extra foam in cappuccinos, don’t expect an elaborate piece of art; there’s a reason it’s called latte art and not cappuccino art.
- Mocha (café mocha)
Instead of the extra steamed milk in a latte, it’s been replaced with chocolate (hot or syrup) to satisfy that sweet craving. It’s perfect if you’re not really a coffee person because the chocolate flavor pretty much overpowers the coffee, but it is there. Usually, there’s whipped cream too, so I see this drink as a dessert of sorts.
Speaking of dessert, what would a fabulous cup of coffee be without a great food complement? After ordering your coffee, you’ll almost always be asked “algo para acompañar” (something to go with it)? Generally, you’ll have a variety of pan (bread) cookies, and tortas (cake) to choose from (sometimes coffee-flavored options are available), which makes cafés the perfect outing after you’re stuffed with the soup, rice, bandeja paisa, or whatever typical Colombian food you ate for lunch. No matter how full you think you are, there’s always room for coffee and a treat.
Some people might say I spend too much time in the cafés, and to be fair, I do go to one every single day, but it’s because the coffee is so good and the baristas are always so nice! I’ll never get enough of them and the reason for that is there’s no such thing as too much coffee. You should be aware though, that if you’re a loyal patron of Starbucks, the coffee sizes here might not be what you’re used to. Colombians drink a lot of coffee, but in smaller quantities. Sometimes you might get to choose between two sizes (or more if you’re at Juan Valdez, which is basically the Starbucks of Colombia), but most of the time, your drink comes in one size. Many cafés will also put their own spin on the classics so that they have something that’s uniquely theirs and I encourage you to try them! There will be spices and sometimes coffee liquor (café con licor) available upon request if you’re looking for a little kick, but you really can’t go wrong with any of these basic bebidas. And for when you want to take the experience back home with you, Caffa can hook it up with some quality beans. In the meantime, drink up, because you can’t go back home without trying some of the famous Colombian coffee (Varietale in Chapinero and Eje Ambiental near the universities is one of my favorites)!
I’m in the market for some new café spots! Tell me your favorite in the comments! If you like what you’re reading, follow my articles on www.colture.com! You can also subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media for all things Bogotá related.
If you are looking for a nice café where you can also work, read our article Coffice Bogotá: the 5 top cafés to study & work.
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