If there’s just one Basque word you remember, let it be bihotz. That means “heart” in the language of an estimated million people living across northern Spain, a swath of southwest France, and even Boise, Idaho—and it is the name of the one cafe not to miss in Bilbao.
Craft-beverage-crazed couple Cristina Mairal and Pedro Sainz opened Bihotz in December 2014. The two Spaniards moved to the Basque Country’s capital to “start a new life” and because “we love the city,” says Mairal. Uncoincidentally, they met in the nation’s specialty coffee epicenter, Barcelona, where Sainz regularly patronized the first iteration of Satan’s Coffee Corner and eventually found himself taking barista lessons from owner Marcos Bartolomé.
Bihotz’s façade blends in with the terracotta-toned buildings of hilly San Francisco. The gentrifying neighborhood is a 15-minute walk from Bilbao’s medieval quarter, over the Nervión river, though away from the glare of the Guggenheim Museum. A modest blade sign hangs above the shaded street to advertise the cafe, its logo a chainring encircling two crossbones-style portafilters.
Inside, Bihotz is snug, though the vintage-schoolhouse tables and seats are comfortably mixed and matched. Sainz is an avid cyclist, and bike parts and tools are incorporated like readymades. A nook with a communal table and a mantle topped by faux trophy heads could be the set of a Michel Gondry dreamscape. Décor notwithstanding, Bihotz sometimes struggles to attract natives the way it does expats and blogged-in tourists.
“It’s hard for people in the area to [appreciate] what specialty coffee means at the moment. They like coffee and they know something different happens here, but not many people know exactly what they are having,” observes Mairal.
Acclaimed Spanish specialty roaster Right Side Coffee provides the two or three weekly changing single-origin espressos. Framed by the roaster, a featured profile description is proudly displayed atop a Nuova Simonelli Mythos One grinder. Beside it, off-bar, is a La Marzocco Linea PB, its two groups facing towards the customers.
“We’ve got it outside the bar so they can see how we work with it,” Mairal notes of the equipment’s placement. “Sometimes we speak to the people. When they ask for a coffee, we spend two, three minutes explaining.”
For filter, Bihotz relies on Sakona Coffee Roasters, established in 2016 by Spanish barista champion Javier Garcia in the Basque town of Irún. V60 is the preferred method, though such orders remain scarce.
“For Bilbao, doing five, six a week is quite gooood,” Mairal laughs. “We’re happy that we can make [filter coffee] at least once a day.”
Plus, Bilbaínos are inclined to have a quick morning coffee and pastry at their local bar, adventuring to other watering holes after work. This reality dictated Bihotz’s hours, opening 3 PM most weekdays and 11 AM on weekends (though closing at 10 or 11 PM). Moreover, it compelled the couple to begin purveying another long shared love: craft beer.
Turnover in drinks is currently 70% beer and 30% coffee, estimates Sainz. There are six taps, rotated every few days, and 50 different bottles imported from as far away as San Diego, USA (Pizza Port), and as nearby as Hernani, Spain (Basqueland Brewing Project).
But for those seeking still more craft beer, the fiercest competition may well be Mairal and Sainz’s second business, Penguin Bar. Opened in April 2016 in Indautxu—a couple neighborhoods west and levels of chichi up from Bihotz—Penguin has 16 taps, up to 80 bottles, and coffee.
The coffee program is guided by the same principles and suppliers as Bihotz, though each bar tries to offer distinct origins. Penguin is also larger and operates until 2 AM several days a week. Illustrations of penguins vivify the dark walls and 3D-printed penguin skulls cap the tap handles. The atmosphere is Audubon goth-punk, in a good way.
Asked about selecting beers versus coffees, Mairal explains: “The variety of beer styles is massive so it’s a bit harder work, but the concept is the same. We know it’s fantastic ingredients, it’s been worked with love, and [the producers] live for what they do.”
She adds: “It’s the concept we have for our business, and that’s what we want.”
So yes, when in Bilbao, for your new-wave coffee fill, visit Bihotz. But then consider a chaser at Penguin. It’s a rare bird, this venue serving up seriously curated craft beers on the same surface to so heartfeltly handle a La Marzocco Linea PB, two Kyoto-style syphon brewers, and—this is Mediterranean Europe—a huge slab of Parmesan.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.