Key West is famous for its close proximity to Cuba; the islands are only 90 miles apart. But the two island destinations share more than just geographic proximity. Cuban exiles have found a safe haven in Key West as far back as the late 1800s when they first fought for independence from Spain. Founded in 1871, the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street still stands today as a cultural center and reminder of Key West’s relationship with the Cuban diaspora. One of the best ways to get to the connected heart of the Cuban and Key West cultures is through cuisine, and this is especially easy to do when it comes to Cuban coffee.
The History of Cuban Coffee
Jose Antonio Gelabert opened the first coffee plant in Cuba in 1748 and production methods were later improved by French colonists at the turn of the century. Coffee production in the 19th and early 20th centuries became a major economic force in Cuba and a defining aspect of the culture. That is, until the Cuban Revolution and Castro’s regime beginning in 1959, at which time coffee production was nationalized. The island produces both Arabica and Robusta beans. While Cuba’s coffee production and exportation may not be what it once was, the cultural heritage of Cuban coffee lives on in Florida cities like Miami, Tampa and Key West.
Its Flavor Profile
Cuban coffee is strong and sweet—and a little bit goes a long way. It’s more akin to an Italian espresso than American coffee. Made with an espresso machine or a stovetop moka pot, the beverage is often brewed with demerara sugar which infuses sweetness into the strong espresso. Using dark roast beans and hydrolyzed sugar, the coffee takes on a more viscous consistency and can taste as sweet as caramel or a crème brulee—with a kick of strong espresso, of course!
Varieties of Cuban Coffee
- Café con Leche – The most popular variety of Cuban coffee in Key West is hands down the café con leche. It’s a blend of Cuban espresso that is stirred into a cup of steamed milk. Once mixed, the traditional morning beverage is similar to a latte.
- Cortadito – A cortadito literally means “cut with milk.” This is a smaller version of a café con leche with less milk, but just as much espresso.
- Cafecito – A cafecito is a single shot of Cuban expresso without the steamed milk of a café cone leche. You’ll often see this called a bucci in Key West.
- Colada – A colada is the same as a cafecito, however this variation is meant for sharing. It’s served in a large Styrofoam cup with a few thimble-sized plastic cups to pour the coffee in and share.
Why People Go Loco For Cuban Coffee
Maybe it’s the jolt of caffeine. Maybe it’s the sugar rush. Regardless, Cuban coffee is extremely popular in Key West and some people even describe it as addictive. Since it’s hard to get Cuban coffee in other parts of the country, it’s especially novel when you’re visiting Key West. Many people like it for the sheer fact that it’s so different from the American coffee they consume on a regular basis. Take one sip of a steamy, creamy, sweet and strong café con leche and you’ll understand.
Where to Find Cuban Coffee in Key West
- El Meson de Pepe – A family owned and operated restaurant in the heart of Mallory Square, you can’t go wrong with a café con leche here.
- Fisherman’s Cafe – Located in the Historic Seaport, this waterfront café serves up locally caught fish sandwiches, Old Key West favorites and, of course, Cuban coffee.
- Five Brother’s Grocery – This classic and historic bodega on Olivia Street is one of the best spots on the island for an authentic Cuban coffee. Order up a side of conch fritters while you’re there.
- Sandy’s Cafe – A coffee counter located on White Street, Sandy’s is another classic spot for Cuban food and coffee on the go.
- Cuban Coffee Queen – With two locations in Old Town, Cuban Coffee Queen offers both classic Cuban coffee and creative choices like frozen and frapped Cuban coffee from its iconic takeaway counter.