Home About Spain Cuisine The tipping point of Spanish coffee and tea
Last update on November 07, 2019
Written by Dancing in the Fountain

Karen McCann explains the peculiarities of the Spanish types of tea and coffee, and how tipping is generally handled in Spain.

When my husband Rich and I were taking language classes, at a quarter to eleven we were released for the midmorning break, and we’d all rush out to the nearest bar for a second breakfast. This fine Sevillano tradition consists of small baguettes sliced in half, toasted and dripping with olive oil, topped with ham and chopped tomatoes, accompanied by a cup of coffee.

Spanish coffee: what’s that?

Long before Starbucks made ordering caffeinated beverages as complex as the preflight check of an air-to-air combat plane, the Spanish organised their coffee into subtly calibrated categories.

There is, to name a few:

  • café con leche – a small glass filled half with espresso, half with milk;
  • café solo – a straight shot of espresso, and quite an eye-opener;
  • leche manchada – literally ‘stained milk’, a half inch of espresso in the bottom of a glass of steamed milk;
  • café Americano – very weak coffee served in a cup and saucer;
  • descafeinado – instant powdered decaf;
  • descafinado de máquina – decaf espresso made in an espresso machine from fresh grounds, which of course could be ordered in any of the above configurations.

Tea with milk

Tea drinkers had an easier time of it, unless (like me) they wanted a cup of tea with a little milk. Although that’s not a terribly unusual beverage in Spain, ordering it is generally greeted with disbelief and incomprehension. If you say té con leche (tea with milk), they give you a tea bag stuck in a cup of boiled milk, which is horrid. If you say té con leche aparte (tea with milk apart, or on the side), they bring you tea, but not the milk. Apparently by ‘apart’, they assume you mean in another room, or on someone else’s table.

To be as clear as possible, I usually specify té hecho con agua, con un poco de leche aparte para añadir (tea made with water, with a little milk on the side to add in), which may work out in the end, although I generally have to send back the tea-bag-in-milk version once or twice before getting what I’ve asked for. You can see how invaluable this kind of experience is to the language student seeking to expand her vocabulary.

The tipping point in Spain

One of the first things you learn out on the town is that you never pay up front. The barman keeps track of la cuenta (your tab) in his head or by writing it in chalk on top of the bar, although some places are now finding it more convenient, if less quaint, to install computers.

When settling the tab, the Spanish rarely leave a big propina (tip). If anything, they might leave behind a few small coins from the change they get back after paying the bill. Tipping is simply not the custom, since service is included in the price and waiters are a professional class whose salaries are supposed to provide a living wage. Except in places catering mainly to foreign tourists, a customer leaving behind an extra 15 or 20 percent of the bill would be viewed as peculiar and inappropriate, as if you’d insisted on paying an additional EUR 20 for a sweater in a shop.

Even without having to calculate a propina, paying my bar bill at the end of the midmorning break was a tricky business in a bar that was llena de gente (full of people) who were just finishing up their second breakfast. First I had to flag down the barman, then I had to recall enough vocabulary to remind him what I’d ordered, and then — if it wasn’t written on the surface of the bar where I could read it upside down — I had to attempt to understand the numbers he was shouting over the din. This whole process would sometimes take longer than consuming my tea and toast.

But that’s the charm. Welcome to Spain.