The offer came with a gesture and a smile, as we didn’t share a language: two hands appeared in the open window of the passenger seat, holding the tiniest plastic cup I had ever seen, about two inches high, filled with steaming hot coffee. Sometimes you don’t need words to convey a message. “Here, for you. Enjoy!” I carefully sipped the thick, black liquid, which was strong and so sweet I feared my tooth enamel would crack. The elixir created a kick that started in my mouth, slid down my throat and settled pleasantly in my stomach. This was exactly what I needed during our daylong drive through monotonous countryside.
My partner Coen and I had recently arrived in South America with our antique Land Cruiser. As we crossed into Brazil we faced the challenge of learning Portuguese. Cafezinho was our first word: Brazil’s diminutive for café – coffee. During our two years of traveling in Brazil, exploring all corners of this beautiful country, not once did we hear a Brazilian use the word café; it is always cafezinho: Quer um cafezinho? – Would you like a coffee?
A Gesture of Hospitality
Cafezinho plays an important role in Brazilian hospitality: you’ll be offered coffee at people’s homes, but also free of charge in many (roadside) restaurants and at gas stations.
At the latter, while an attendant is fueling up your car, you either serve yourself a cafezinho from a thermos or ask for one at the counter of the restaurant/café. This service has been a long-standing tradition of hospitality. However, nowadays newer and bigger gas stations often have a more luxurious restaurant where you pay for your coffee. But even then, in many cases the attendants still carry their own thermos and many are happy share their coffee with you.
Food with Your Cafezinho
A tip: buy pão de queso with your coffee: a delicious, little roll of bread with cheese baked into it. The two perfectly complement each other. Another great match is cafezinho with beiju, a type of tapioca pancake that you’ll mostly find in North Brazil where it is served for breakfast.
Our surprise at being offered coffee at gas stations was followed by coffee being free of charge in restaurants. Lunch is the main meal in Brazil and around noon you will always find a place for a quick meal of rice and beans with a slab of meat or an extensive lunch buffet. After lunch you’ll either be offered a cup of coffee or, again, you’ll get one yourself – plastic or ceramic – from the thermos on the counter. For those who don’t care for sweet coffee, don’t worry. You’ll often find two thermoses: one with the sweetened version, the second without sugar and with sweeteners (called adocante) placed next to it.
Brazilians sip their cafezinhos throughout the day, although with a focus on the morning and not much in the evening. Never drinking from large mugs but always thimble cups, they manage, on average, to drink some eighty liters per person per year. Even though there has been a growing interest in fancy versions such as mochas, ice coffees, and frapuccinos, at least in bigger cities, for the time being cafezinho still has the upper hand in this country.
Quality vs. Quantity
Coffee isn’t native to the Americas and the first coffee beans did not arrive in Brazil until the eighteenth century. Cultivation quickly expanded and coffee became one of the most valuable commodities in the country. Brazil has been the world’s largest coffee producer in the world for the past 150 years, growing about a third of today’s world production. An estimated 300,000 coffee plantations are to be found in the south/southeast, particularly in the states of Paraná, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
We fell in love with the brew but then, we don’t have a particular fine palate for coffee. Even though true coffee fanatics may find the taste of the cafezinho inferior, this does not mean that quality coffee has no place in this country. “The finest crops are all exported, particularly to Europe (Italy and Germany), and the U.S. and Japan, whereas the beans of lesser quality are used for domestic consumption,” a coffee planter in Minas Gerais explained. In this respect it’s a story similar to the wine production in Argentina and Chile or cacao in Ecuador, whose prime quality crops are exported as well.
Brewing Your Own Cafezinho
Cafezinho connected us with people, as we shared it with so many locals who were open to approach. We found Brazilians to be very outgoing and curious about who is visiting their country. In their homes we learned to brew cafezinho and we continued preparing our own long after we left Brazil:
– Bring water with lots of sugar (to taste) to the boil.
– Lower the flame, add coffee and stir (some will add the sugar at this stage).
– Keep the pan covered for a minute or so for the ground beans to sink to the bottom of the pan.
– Pour the brew into the coffee sock that you hold above the thermos (or your cup).