On the Fourth of July, a tribute to a quintessentially American drink: Cuban Coffee

This national holiday may be brought to you by beer—lite beer, cold beer, dark beer, warm beer—but this Fourth of July, I’ve got a different, equally American drink in mind. I’ve got buchi on the brain.

The world might not know what a buchi is. I’ve only ever heard the word in my hometown Key West. But the drink lives by other names all along the invisible caffeine archipelago that connects Miami down the Keys and across the Gulfstream into Havana and the Cuban mainland where that idea of dark, sweet coffee seems to have come from.

Buchi is nearly equal parts espresso and sugar, mixed well and poured in a tiny plastic shooter cup, like the kind Nurse Ratched served pills in. To use a different narcotics metaphor, if a double-shot latte is a line of coke, then a buchi is a bump, a quick hit to be done standing before going back to what you had been doing.

If Cuban coffee is a drug, then every visit home to Key West occasions a dismal relapse. I woke early today, as I have the past four days, just to walk down long blocks lined with poinsettias to Sandy’s cafe, tucked in the armpit of a laundromat on the street I grew up on. There’s always already a little line in the earliest light, a couple cops maybe, the tow truck driver, a charterboat deckhand buying coffee and cuban mix sandwiches for the captain. Everyone orders versions of the same thing—a buchi, or a con leche, maybe a colada (which is just big-gulp buchi). Always hot, even in the middle of summer, never iced. If it’s a buchi, they drink it on the spot, staring down White Street, and then break for whatever the rest of the day will bring. But they, like me, will be back—just before noon, and again in the mid-afternoon lull.

When I first started to make homes for myself, living on my own terms thousands of miles from Key West, one of the first things I did right was to bring this coffee into my house. I got a metal stovetop espresso maker. I bought the biggest one I could find. I brought Bustelo with me from Florida and bought a five-pound of Domino granulated sugar.

[Side note: Domino was bought a decade ago by two Cuban exiles, the Fanjul brothers, who had lost their Cuban sugar empire to Castro and then rebuilt it ruthlessly in the United States (on the backs, the critics say, of generations of abysmally low-paid workers). Like Scarface, but sugar instead of blow. They don’t just own Domino, they also own C&H and Florida Crystals. You eat their sugar, there’s no way not to.]

There were always plenty of drugs around in California, but none held me quite like the coffee that came bubbling off my stove. Then as now I can barely wake up without drinking a mug full of this thick espresso. In Starbucks terminology: venti Americano, hold the water.

Key West coffee culture isn’t just Sandy’s. It’s Five Brother’s Grocery on Southard, it’s the heavily touristed Cuban Coffee Queen on Margaret. It’s any deli, really, on the island. And it’s spreading off-island, in small pockets. A childhood friend named Emmett Barr has brought Buchi to Denver, of all places, with a celebrated cafe that does the important things: espresso with sugar, pressed pork sandwiches on buttered Cuban bread.

Scientists are constantly revising and rewriting the literature on the benefits of coffee. It may perhaps lead to an early death. Or it may save you from colon cancer. I am pretty sure I drink a dangerous amount of the stuff, but I can’t pretend to referee any arguments about the merits of coffee in moderation. What I can say is that I think coffee just makes sense for Fourth of July. Not that our Minute Men were jacked up on macchiatos when they took the North Bridge in Concord from the British. But the things that I cherish about America—that it’s a country that works hard, that brims with confidence and ambition (if also aggression)—can easily be seen as sign of overcaffeination.

On the flip side, in a sad irony of this hemisphere, I see Cuba now as a country without coffee. I mean, there’s coffee, of course, though much of it is crap given the poor quality of beans and the general meagerness of life for most Cubans. I did have one transcendent cup of coffee on my last visit, at a friend’s home in Santa Clara, cooked from the same metal stovetop espresso maker as I use, only with a heaping cup of sugar poured directly into the top of the machine, so as to bond immediately with the percolating coffee. But the rest was instant coffee, barely methadone for a profound addict like myself.

It is the same with the food. Just like burritos are an American invention, not a Mexican one, much of the great Cuban food that makes a sweltering crimepot like South Florida bearable comes from the United States, not Cuba. When I lived in Havana in 1999, I saw some of the black beans I recognized, and plenty of sweet maduros. But the real food that I craved, the rich picadillo and pernil and ropa vieja, were nowhere on the island. I found myself longing to leave Cuba so I could finally eat good Cuban food.

I’ve known Cuba from a distance all my life. My grandfather ran a Cuban nightclub in Key West after the war, and Havana, then as now, looms just 90 miles offshore. But when I first went in person in the 90’s, I was amazed by the energy, the lift, the glimmer, even in spite of the deprivations of the Special Period. Now, though, the glint in the eye is gone, the energy that used to say, ‘the world is changing and Cuba is going to change with it,’ has dimmed. The restlessness, the agita that Cuba needs now more than ever seems gone. The coffee has drained from the island.

This is the Fourth of July. It is about our independence, and we have learned hard enough that we can’t always fret over the freedom of others. So I’ll have my beer, but only after a Buchi, or three, and I’ll be content to think quick thoughts about my great luck to be in this country here, near Sandy’s and Five Brothers, and not ninety miles across the Gulfstream in a Cuba without Cuban coffee.