Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Order Coffee in Brazil (and Get What You Want)

Ordering a coffee in a foreign country can be a difficult and trying proposition, even when one speaks the local language. And when one doesn't it can be exasperating at best, and a disaster at worst. It seems that every country, and sometimes every city or region, has its own vocabulary for ordering a cup of coffee. Most often, this vocabulary isn't posted on coffee shop walls, or in menus, or even to be found in bilingual tourist dictionaries.

Imagine a tourist from, let's say, Laos or Angola trying to order a coffee in a North American or European Starbucks. If they are happy with a plain brewed coffee with nothing added, the only linguistic difficulty is understanding the vocabulary of cup size - short is a small (but don't look for short on the price list on the wall), tall is a medium, grande is a large, and venti is an extra-large. OK, but what if this imaginary tourist wants a coffee drink? Then he or she had better know the precise vocabulary terms not only for the size of the cup, but also for type of coffee, amount of caffeine, how the drink is poured, the desired temperature of the drink, the amount of fat included, and the source, animal or otherwise of the "milk." Oh, and whether optional free whipped cream on top is wanted or not. Before that tourist heads out the door to the nearest Starbucks, I'd advise him or her to study this online guide to ordering at Starbucks, and perhaps printing a copy to take along. It's a mere 13 steps to make sure you get the drink you want.

Brazil, being as coffee-crazy as it is, has developed a Portuguese-language vocabulary for ordering coffee, though it's not as complicated or deliberately obfuscating as Starbucks'. Many of the terms are Italian, a reflection of the importance of Italian coffee culture and Italian immigrants to Brazil in creating contemporary Brazilian coffee-drinking habits and customs. With no claims to completeness, or to national coverage, here is Flavor of Brazil's Brazilian coffee vocabulary. It should help almost anyone to get the right kind of coffee in almost any coffee bar, lunch stand, or gourmet restaurant in Brazil. (As for Brazilian Starbucks locations, which are currently limited to the major cities of the Southeastern region of Brazil, I have no idea how they've translated "Starbucks-speak" into Portuguese).
Brazilian-Portuguese Coffee Ordering Vocabulary

Cafezinho: Filtered coffee served in a small cup, of china or plastic, normally pre-sugared and very sweet. In restaurants, generally offered without charge at the end of a meal, but can also be purchased at any time of day or night everywhere in Brazil, in bars, lunchstands, bakeries or from street vendors. The iconic Brazilian style of coffee.

Café-com-leite: This is the drink that's familiar elsewhere in the world as café au lait or caffè latte. It's a mixture of either filter-brewed or espresso coffee plus hot milk. In most stand-up coffee bars, the barman will pour hot milk into a medium cup until the customer tells him to stop, then will fill the cup with coffee. Alternatively, hot pitchers of coffe and milk will be served, allowing the customer to mix at will. Sugar is added by the customer.

Café-pingado: This is a café-com-leite with a larger portion of coffee and a small portion of milk than is usual.

Café-curto (or café-expresso): A small, strong and bitter coffee brewed in an espresso machine that uses steam to create the drink. Served in a small espresso cup. Sugar is added by the customer.

Café-longo: Also made in an espresso machine, this drink is served in a larger cup and is more dilute than café-curto.

Café-carioca: Made in an espresso machine and of the same strength as >café-longo, it's served in a small demitasse-sized cup.

Capuccino:  Follows the traditional recipe for cappuccino, only differing in dropping one of the two letter Ps.

Café-solúvel: Instant coffee. 'Nuf said.
Descafeinado: Means decaffeinated and can be applied to any of the drinks above, though decaffeinated coffee is not nearly as popular in Brazil as it is in other parts of the world, so don't be surprised if it's not an option. Cafezinho is pre-brewed, and I would be quite astonished if I ever saw a decaf version offered.

Adoçante: Artificial sweetener. You should be aware that Brazilian sweeteners, even brands familiar to North Americans, may contain any number of chemicals, even those prohibited in other countries like cyclamates or saccharin.

Compared to the Starbucks system, all this is quite simple, não? It should help most foreigners to obtain at least something that resembles the coffee style they want from home. I do encourage everyone from outside Brazil, however, to try at least one cup of cafezinho. You may not like it, but drinking one is an essential part of experiencing Brazilian culture. Hot, strong and sweet, sweet, sweet.

Finally, if you take your coffee without sugar or artificial sweetener, as I do, be prepared to be looked at as if you were completely bonkers. I've had people actually stare at me to see my expression when I sip an unsweetened coffee - it's something that is totally beyond their frame of reference and totally incomprehensible to them.



  1. Here is Minas most of the "capuccinos" served are from the instant packet, so I always ask first. Usually a "capuccino Italiano" is made as a capuccino, but adds chocolate and whipped cream. In some places, an "expresso com leite" comes closest to a capuccino or latte.

  2. Thanks for the input, Corinne. As I mentioned in the posting, these vocabulary terms are often regional. It's good have hear how things are done in Minas Gerais, a state I'm not personally familiar with.

  3. My wife's family would all gather around and watch me drink a big cup of black coffee. When friends or family came over, they'd offer me coffee. I became a conversation piece with a cool parlor trick. Celebrity at its finest!

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