Gibraltar, San Francisco’s cult coffee, comes to London

Gibraltar art at London's DoseCould you fall for a coffee that’s shorter than a latte but taller than a macchiato (an espresso “marked” with a spoonful of milk foam)? Many of us have, more of us will.

In Milan, the caffè marocchino – essentially a mini-cappuccino dusted with cocoa– has risen to the height of fashion and stayed there. The cortado, the Spanish take on a espresso “cut” with a small quantity of milk, has been assimilated at coffee bars on both sides of the Atlantic. And in San Francisco, the Gibraltar – a mini-latte served in a paneled glass – is a local cult coffee with a growing and now transatlantic following. The gospel of Gibraltar has spread to seminal coffee shops in LA (Intelligentsia) and New York (Café Grumpy), and to Climpson & Sons in London. It’s the coffee of choice at the newest of London’s great independent coffee shops, Dose Espresso, on Long Lane at Smithfield Market. 

Blue Bottle CoffeeThe Gibraltar was conceived as a lark and named as something of an inside joke by the esteemed Bay Area (California) roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Prior to the January 2005 opening of his first coffee kiosk in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley district, owner James Freeman began using the distinctive but cheap glasses he’d bought at a restaurant supply store for his improvised R & D. This research entailed pulling shots of various blends and roasts in the 4 1/2-ounce glasses, topping some with steamed milk and offering samples to the hopefully grateful employees at Dark Garden, a corset shop down the street. These young women knew a good shape when they saw one and quickly developed a fondness for the little lattes and the cute glasses with octagonal paneled bottoms and smooth, rounded tops. The coffee needed a name and barista/roaster Steve Ford, then a colleague of Freeman’s, found inspiration on the packaging for those glasses. Forget Gibraltar the rock, the city or the strait. This “Gibraltar” is


a registered name for a line of tumblers by the American glassware manufacturer Libbey. It is perhaps fortunate Blue Bottle did not buy similar glasses from a popular French manufacturer, otherwise its coffee invention might have taken the name Duralex, which sounds like the brand of a male contraceptive.

Although Blue Bottle has served Gibraltars by the thousands, Freeman has resisted any temptation to put it on his menu. The word-of-mouth status has been seen as part of its allure. Other cafés, like San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, where Ford is now head roaster (but not the boss), have felt no compunction about listing it in bold letters alongside their espressos, lattes and cappuccinos. So how does Ford feel, now that his Gibraltar may be destined for the Oxford English Dictionary?

I’ve never really talked about the Gibraltar for publication, partly because I think it was very much of a time and place – that being the Bay Area circa 2005. The fact that I’m talking about it now is mostly because I’ve given up on the original idea. There WAS something special about it back then. Now, it’s just another drink on the menu to me, and like so many cappuccinos, generally prepared poorly or just wrong. Every year people ask about it, so I can track how far the idea has gone, but the fact that it’s all the way in the UK and I have no idea how it got there is disappointing. And not to be too melodramatic, but I feel like the soul of the drink has been lost. It used to be something unique, and now it’s just another piece of fucking latte art.

Blue Bottle Gibraltars - photo by Steve NashAny bitterness felt by Freeman is less of the dark-roast variety. He likes the Gibraltar’s appeal as a transitional coffee for latte drinkers ready for something shorter and stronger. (The Gibraltar has less milk than a standard latte but the same amount of espresso.) He’s pleased that it’s served in a glass (though not all cafés use the exact same glass) and therefore can’t be ordered to go. It’s a stick-around coffee which, according to Freeman, fosters cultural experience, the urban use of spaces, and sustainability (no paper to toss out). He’s nevertheless uncomfortable taking or sharing credit for the unintended consequences: “The moral of the story?” asks Freeman. “Be careful what you joke about.”

About Daniel

Food critic and events leader Daniel Young is the "Young" behind young&foodish


  1. Manaboutworld says:

    I’ve never ordered anything called a Gibraltar but the midway point between machiatto and latte is, for me coffee nirvana. I enjoy good coffee but find espresso and even macchiato too bitter for my taste. Unfortunately, by the time UK baristas have added all their milk to make a British style capp or latte sometimes I think it makes little difference what coffee was used in the first place.

    A New York based ex-girlfriend of mine used to order something she called a ‘dry cappuccino’. I think that was something similar to your description of a Gibraltar. I remember we once pondered another drink she’d heard of called ‘wet macchiato’. We presumed that was another name for something similar. As it happens that was also around 2005.

    Despite the gradual expansion of Starbucks et al in Spain, one of the great things about ordering coffee in Spanish bars is that they still look at you like you’ve got a screw loose if you order a latte or cappuccino. The most popular drink there at any time other than breakfast? The cortado: a shot of dark roast espresso cut through with a between the same amount and twice as much full fat milk.

    Loved Freeman’s comments. Hope he meant then to be taken with a pinch of salt! (not sugar, obviously, that would be sacrilege…)

  2. sammy boy says:

    The Gibraltor makes perfect sense, because it’s what most barrista’s (certainly the ones without pride / or outside Milan) should be making as a capuccino in the first place.

    In the UK, this is what you have to do:

    If you’d like a single Espresso, asked for a double.

    If you’d like a Cappuccino, ask for a Macchiato.

    If you’d like a Latte, ask for a Cappuccino.

    If you’d like a glass of milk, ask for a Latte.

  3. I love the Gibraltar and think the drink still has a soul. Blue Fog does a nice job and I enjoy the charming little glass.

  4. Daniel Young says:

    Denise – Me, too. I even like a Gibraltar glass – or a Duralex Provence, its European counterpart – for good cheap red wine.

  5. I’ve seen so many post’s where everyone try’s to make sense of what a Gibraltar really is.
    It’s not a tiny latte, or a dry capp.
    It’s a real coffee drink, that’s been around forever.
    The name is Cortado.

    Gibraltar is a nickname given to the drink by Blue Bottle in San Fran and Intelligentsia in Chicago. The nickname comes from the glass they put it in.

  6. Daniel Young says:

    Jay – Did you read the post? It’s all there.

  7. While it’s nice to know why it’s called a Gibraltar on the West Coast, considering it’s just a glorification of a preexisting drink (cortado), that sound byte from Ford makes him sound like a cynical jaded asshole.

    I thought the coffee industry had a million too many already.

  8. Daniel Young says:

    Justin – As you probably know there is ambiguity regarding the correct ratio of milk-to-espresso in a cortado. Many versions contain less milk than would a 4 1/2 ounce Gibralta.

  9. I would make one modest adjustment to the info about coffee in Spain. I have spent a substantial amount of time in Spain, particularly in and around Madrid, and I think this article might be confusing a “cafe cortado” with a “cafe con leche”.

    Generally a cortado is an espresso with only a dash of hot milk. You’ve got the right picture if you imagine an espresso cup with a single shot of espresso, then filled close to the top with milk.

    A “con leche” on the other hand comes in a larger cup, maybe 2-3x the size of an espresso cup, has the same amount of espresso as a cortado, but is filled close to the top with hot milk.

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