I remember seeing the cafe cubano beverage for the first time on Miami Vice (filmed in the mid 1980s), when Crockett ordered one while under cover. (I wish I could find a youtube video of that scene). They actually showed the barista adding sugar to the portafilter before pulling the shot. I thought to myself even back then “wow, that’s going to screw up that espresso machine, all that sugar backflushing…”.
The history of the drink goes back way further; at least as long as steam driven espresso has been brewed in Cuba, using stovetop moka pots.
Just as in Italy, people prided themselves on the espresso they’d serve you as a visitor to their home, in Cuba, serving a proper and robust cafecito to guests was a matter of pride, and Cubans took a lot of care and effort into making the perfect cafecito. Here’s how they did it:
Traditionally, a moka pot is used to brew this beverage: extra fine ground moka pot coffee is used and it gets all prepped up and put on the stove, much like a standard Italian moka pot is done. Then the Cubans go a bit of a different route after firing up the flame.
Once the first couple of teaspoons of coffee is brewed in the device, it is removed from the flame, and that initial brew is poured into a cup containing several teaspoons of raw cane sugar. The moka pot is then put back on the flame to continue brewing.
While that is going on, the initial cup with sugar and a few teaspoons of the espresso coffee is vigorously stirred to mix it up and melt the sugary goodness, while still keeping a close eye on the moka pot. When the moka is about 1/2 to 2/3rds brewed, it is removed from heat again (long before any steam flushes through the coffee inside).
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At this point, the drinks are ready for assembly: 30-50ml of the moka espresso is poured into each serving cup. Then each cup is topped with the sweet foam mixture prepared earlier. There is a common belief that this method of building the drink results in a much more complex beverage experience, and that the sucralose in the sugar is hydrolyzed better with the addition of super-hot initial coffee liquid and the rapid agitation that the stirring provides. This hydrolyzation results in a more tangible sensory sweetness.
This is the traditional, long standing way of making a cafe cubano, and it’s what we based our pump-driven espresso machine version on.
Many places today serving the beverage don’t go to that kind of effort. At best, they just brew an entire shot into an espresso cup preloaded with a teaspoon of sugar, and give it a quick stir before serving it to the customer. At worst (for their own machine), they will preload sugar into a portafilter, either below or above the ground coffee, and brew it that way. We do not recommend this, as it will definitely shorten the life of your espresso machine and potentially damage it.
Also it’s important to note that traditional cuban style coffee is often made with darker roasts; because these coffees typically have more bitter components and a “roasty” profile, the use and addition of sugar helps balance the drink better. It’s not meant to be overly sweet; just the foam on top is the major sweet component, and it gets balanced by the bitter liquid underneath.
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Machines and Coffee Used in this How To
- Breville Barista Pro (available in Canada from idrinkcoffee ($899CDN), and the USA from Espresso Zone ($799US)).
- Social Coffee Company’s People’s Liberation blend.