World, meet Márcio Azevedo and Ricardo Knabben, two Brazilian surfers serving one of the best cups of coffee in the Basque Country. Or, for readers who have recently stepped foot in the Spanish autonomous community’s capital, San Sebastián, no introduction is needed. For much of its existence, Old Town Coffee has been the go-to for specialty coffee west of the Urumea River.
Though the cafe turned just two in October, its co-owners are early riders on the wave of new wave coffee in Spain. Old Town Coffee opened four months before preeminent citymates Sakona Coffee Roasters, who cater to serious coffee needs on the other side of the river, and less than a year after craft-caffeine began budding in nearby Bilbao. Still, if Spain’s specialty scene is a Lite-Brite screen, Barcelona and Madrid are hogging the pegs.
Up until this past summer, Old Town Coffee operated from a corner kiosk in the Mercado San Martin. Flanked by a bakery and a charcutería, the espresso bar could easily offer fresh pastries and pintxos. And besides encouraging intra-stall produce exchange, being embedded in a commercial community helped Azevedo and Knabben make friends. Yet, the market’s regulars tended more toward silver-haired pensioners than flat-whiteniks.
So it was “the tourists who saved us in the beginning,” recalls Knabben. Holding a high ranking on Trip Advisor was a boon to business, he notes, gratefully. Early patrons mostly comprised visitors and expats (rugby players from New Zealand, for example) who were used to espresso topped with foam from fresh milk, not the UHT prevalent in Spain, and drinking while seated, not standing.
“But,” Knabben enthuses, “now we also have locals. We’re really happy with the locals.”
That diverse clientele also incentivized Old Town Coffee to expand.
“We heard our customers’ advice. We wanted to give them more space and privacy, as we were getting very busy for the small market stall we had!” says Knabben.
In July, he and Azevedo packed up and reopened in a place of their own. Situated on a pedestrian street in Parte Vieja—the city’s “old town” for which the company is named—the shop has room for more staff and more elaborate dishes. The new menu features poached eggs and guacamole toast—coffee shop staples in some countries, though not yet in Spain, which is slowly waking up to the habit of going out for breakfast and brunch.
The coffee program has stayed intact, with a two-group La Marzocco FB80 handling the two types of espressos standardly available, and Victoria Arduino's Mythos One and Mahlkönig's EK43 and K30 Vario doing the daily grind. A selection of four filter coffees comes from rotating roasters, including favorites Nømad in Barcelona and Square Mile in London.
When Sprudge stopped by in spring 2017, Old Town Coffee had just started roasting. Behind the bar, a cutely compact Bullet R1 was yielding about three kilos of coffee a day, with green beans largely sourced via Nordic Approach. In the new venue, plump packages with the brand’s skaterly script roost on the shelves. Knabben expects a roasting plan, including possible B2B sales, to come together in winter 2018.
For the meantime, he concludes: “We can get better green beans for less than we pay [for roasted beans]. So we want to improve our quality, and at the same time save money—and have more fun.”
Fun is something the duo seem good at. They hail from Florianópolis, an island in southern Brazil, where they met as kids. Each traveled the world for about a decade before settling in San Sebastián. On separate stints in Australia—Azevedo in Sydney and Knabben in Brisbane—“We fell in love with the coffee,” says the latter.
Those words have been uttered by many a modern-day barista, though do not sound stale at Old Town Coffee.
Consider a scene during Sprudge’s visit at the former market spot: Taking advantage of a pre-siesta lull in customers, Azevedo was testing an AeroPress recipe, readying to represent the Basque Country in Spain’s AeroPress Championship. Plunging a Nømad-roasted Tanzanian Iyela through the newfangled Californian brewer, he showed precision and steadiness. The approach was comparable to that of ’Pressers elsewhere in the world, though in this instance, a row of cured jamón legs hung on the horizon. They gave Azevedo’s passion unique cultural context and created a lasting impression of new coffee in an old town.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.
Photos of new location by José Sabino Jr.