What Is “Tinto”?

If you know anything about Colombia, it’s likely about how  coffee is a huge part of Colombia’s economy.  Nearly everyone visiting Colombia has, at some time in their life, enjoyed a cup (and perhaps thousands of cups) of coffee made from beans that originated from this country.  

So, if you are a coffee drinker, you are probably going to be excited to try some locally made Colombian coffee. The most common way to drink coffee in Colombia is referred to as “tinto,” which translates more literally into “ink.”   You don’t usually buy tinto in a coffee shop.  Instead, you buy it from a vendor on the street. Basically, any time you see a vendor with a bunch of thermoses, usually made out of white plastic, he’s selling tinto.  If you try and flex your high school Spanish and ask for a “cafe,” you will mark yourself as a true gringo.  The vendor will typically charge you about 500 pesos, maybe less maybe more.  And he will pour out about three or four ounces of tinto into a small plastic cup.  The tinto might come presweetened, or the vendor may offer you sweetener.  Don’t expect milk or any other type of creamer.  The vendor may also sell you a cigarette to go with your tinto for a few hundred more pesos.

Tinto cup

You may wonder how four ounces of coffee is possibly enough.  If you are used to a Starbucks venti, it’s not.  But Colombians seem to view coffee and caffeine a little differently.  Rather than a giant caffeine high first thing in the morning, Colombians prefer their coffee in smaller doses, and often much later in the day.  If you want more, you can always find another tinto vendor within a few blocks to sell you another shot and make small talk with.  

Now you’re probably wondering how good of a cup of coffee is a shot of tinto?  If you are a true coffee snob, you’re not going to be happy.  Tinto is not going to rival the cold brew or pour over of a fancy U.S. coffee shop.  It’s basically very cheap coffee for the common Colombian.  They say that most of the best coffee that Colombians grow is exported, not consumed locally.  Frankly, if you are a big coffee snob, you are going to have a hard time in Colombia.  Outside of a few specialty cafes in the big cities, the third-wave coffee frenzy that has taken over places like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York has not really made it to Colombia.  But what Colombians have instead is a very fun, casual, less pretentious, and more affordable tinto culture.  


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