Coffee culture in the United States is heavily influenced by the rise of Starbucks, and other west coast coffee houses like Peet’s Coffee and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in the 1960s. This has led to espresso based beverages served in large cups being popular all across the country. It also means that coffee shops often prioritize convenience and quickness. It’s not uncommon for a customer to receive their coffee in a paper cup, and be back on the street in less than two minutes after placing an order. Even when customers remain in the store, they’re often seated on a couch and completely absorbed in the laptop, phone or novel on their laps.

Almost antithesis to this is the coffee culture of south Florida. Coffee is often consumed in small cups by drinkers standing directly at the counter, and there is a strong focus on community and conversation. You’re also less likely to see the typical coffee shop drinks like the mochaccino or macchiato. In their place are locally popular beverages like the cortadito and the colada, unique beverages that owe their origins to the close relationship between Florida and Cuba.

Coffee in Cuba

Like many other Caribbean islands, coffee was once a major crop in Cuba. At one time, coffee was more profitable than sugar cane, and the Sierra Maestra mountain range was known for quality coffee due to the mineral laden soil and cool climate. Remnants of this rich tradition can be seen at the remains of the first coffee plantations, a World Heritage Site that includes several estates that were abandoned in the early twentieth century. The abandonment of these estates was due to the inability of the Cuban coffee industry to keep up with developments in the rest of Latin America as well as a series of severe hurricanes that had hit the island in some prior decades. Political conflicts also decimated the coffee industry; this included the guerilla warfare that raged in the heavily forested coffee growing regions, and successive authoritarian regimes that controlled the economy and agriculture on the island.

Nationalization of the coffee industry in the years following the Cuban Revolution resulted in coffee rationing where the average Cuban received just four ounces of coffee every month. This contributed to a culture of drinking coffee in small cups or tacitas and a preference for dark roasted coffee beans that could mask additives. Co-founder of the coffee focused Drift Magazine Adam Goldberg believes that this rationing also led to the practice of stirring brown sugar into a small amount of coffee to mimic the crema of an espresso shot. The rationing of coffee and other commodities eventually led to many Cubans fleeing the country, with the vast majority of them settling in Miami.

Coffee in Miami

In Miami, the center of Cuban culture is the Little Havana area, and naturally this neighborhood is also the center of coffee culture in the city. In Little Havana, there are few institutions more known for Cuban Coffee or synonymous with Miami Coffee than Versailles Restaurant, situated at the spot where Eighth Street transforms into Calle Ocho. Versailles Restaurant describes themselves as both a symbol of the multicultural American dream, and the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world. They have an extensive menu of Caribbean food, but are most famous for the coffee, croquetas, and pastries served to customers through La Ventanita, a small window that allows a barista to serve a cup of coffee to someone standing outside the restaurant. The founder of Versailles Restaurant, Felipe Valls Senior is credited with introducing the Ventanita to Miami by combining a serving counter with a small window. The concept quickly spread, and it’s now common to see coffee being served through ventanitas at all hours of the day, all across the city.

The most popular drink is the Café Cubano, espresso made from dark roasted coffee with some sugar stirred in. This strong coffee serves as the base for the Café con Leche also known as the Cuban Latte, and the Cortadito, which is made with equal parts espresso and milk. Evaporated milk is offered as an option in some drinks, due to the prevalence of beverages using canned milk all across the Caribbean that has contributed to a preference for the richness of evaporated milk. Another popular way to drink coffee in Florida is to order a colada, which is a cup with several shots of Cuban espresso that is poured into several smaller cups. The colada is an essential part of a coffee break in Miami and it’s common to see groups of workers sharing coladas of coffee on afternoons. In some ways, the colada defies class divides as everyone partakes in the tradition of sharing one. Heated conversations about Cuban politics happen over coladas, and even Presidential candidates often come to Versailles Restaurant to court the politically powerful Latin American community.

Cortadito from Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana

A Cortadito from Versailles Restaurant

The Cuban Sandwich

After coffee, the second most famous item from Versailles Restaurant is their Cuban Sandwich. This style of sandwich made with cheese, pork, and long loaves of bread started taking shape in Havana, and was officially invented in Tampa. The city that is considered to be the Cuban sandwich capital of the world however is Miami, where there are more restaurants serving Cuban sandwiches than anywhere else on the planet. The most famous of these is the one served at Versailles Restaurant. It was a conversation over a Cuban sandwich in the movie Chef that moved the plot forward. In the movie, the Cuban sandwich allowed the main character to rediscover his culinary heritage, and it served as the cornerstone in his efforts to rebuild his career as a chef. This movie serves as a testimony to the cultural and culinary importance of the Cuban sandwich. Nobody would argue that the Cuban sandwich or coffee from Versailles Restaurant is the best in the city, but everyone would agree that the restaurant and their food is culturally significant.

Cuban Sandwich and Café con Leche

Cuban Sandwich and Café con Leche from Versailles Restaurant

The coffee culture of the Middle East is considered by UNESCO to be Intangible Cultural Heritage. This includes the bitter style of coffee served in the Arabian peninsula, as well as the traditions and hospitality associated with serving this coffee. It also includes the Turkish coffee traditions that can be traced back to the sixteenth century Ottoman Empire. Cuban coffee culture in South Florida is probably the best example of something similar in the Americas; Coffee consumption strongly rooted in tradition, that brings a community together.