Tucked away in a cute little square of the old city of Malaga is Mia Coffee Shop, one of a growing number of specialty cafes in southern Spain. It is owned and run by 32-year-old Leo Linares, who arrived in the country in his late teens when his family immigrated from Venezuela. The place is small, unpretentious, and not immediately noticeable. The flamboyant church across the street draws away most of the looks and photos from tourists passing through the area.
Every now and then, you can see Linares’ head popping out of the shop’s main window—beautifully adorned with fruits and plants—saying hello to passers-by, and serving quick flat whites to tourists and regulars. “At first, most of my customers were foreigners,” says the waiter-turned-barista. “Specialty coffee is a new thing here in Malaga. Locals are used to their traditional coffee shops and are generally unwilling to change their routines when it comes to eating and drinking,” he adds.
Indeed, southern Spain and Malaga in particular seem to be tough markets for specialty coffee venues. Scattered through the city, you can see posters that proudly present the way you are supposed to order a local cuppa: a milk-heavy nube (cloud), a mitad (half milk, half coffee), sombra (literally “shadow”—kind of a cappuccino), solo (a 120mL Americano), or a crema (an espresso shot). This is also torrefacto (sugar-glazed, dark-roasted, low-quality beans) territory.
Linares began his specialty coffee journey in 2013, a turning point in his life. “I had some ups and downs that year, with some powerful issues in my personal life. I wasn’t happy with work either,” he admits. It seems things started to click for him when he met his wife. “She made me a better person, straight away. Then at work, I saw a colleague pour a heart in a cappuccino. I thought it was pretty cool, so I asked him to teach me. 2013 made me slow down, become more mature, and show passion and care for what I really wanted to do in life,” says Linares. “I got the Mayan sign for the year tattooed in my arm, as a reminder,” he adds.
Fast forward to 2015, he decided to quit his well-paid barista job in Seville to plan the opening of a shop in Malaga and prepare his participation in the 2016 Spanish Barista Championship. For the signature beverage part of the competition, he looked to his mixed Latin American-Spanish roots for inspiration and prepared a concoction made of honey-processed Colombian espresso with panela (a sugar cane powder) and vanilla-infused olive oil.
“The beverage had great reviews from the judges, although I ran out of time and was eliminated from the competition. It gave me massive confidence going forward with coffee,” says Linares. His wife Maria—after whom he named Mia Coffee Shop—helped him execute the idea for the drink and continues to support him with the business. While Linares competed in Madrid, she was busy talking to sales representatives, trying to secure quality equipment for the cafe.
Mia Coffee Shop is basically a one-man operation, where drinks and food are prepared with delicate care and at the owner’s pace. There is a Wega Pegaso with Compak E6 grinders and coffee from Spanish micro-roasters like, Mr Chava from Seville and Puchero Coffee Roasters from Valladolid. Linares’ ability to convey expertise and love for the job he does is certainly a factor behind his recent success attracting coffee aficionados traveling through Malaga as well as luring the more traditional local crowd to specialty coffee.
Other places flying the Third Wave coffee flag in the city include pioneers Bertani Café, along with more recent openings such as El Último Mono and Santa Canela. Linares also runs improvised cupping sessions for anyone willing to learn. “It may sound cliché, but all the new friends I’ve made here, the regular customers who fall in love with Mia Coffee, they are my new family and this is my house, because I open 10 to 12 hours per day, Monday to Saturday,” he says.
And a family atmosphere is exactly what you feel in this cozy little place, especially when you see his eight-month-old son hanging from his shoulders, reaching for the grinder. “He loves its smell [coffee], because it reminds him of me,” says the proud father.
Jaime San Martin is a freelance journalist. This is their first feature for Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of Robin van Calcar.