Traditional Greek coffee - credits: RUBEN M RAMOS/Shutterstock.com
Traditional Greek coffee - credits: RUBEN M RAMOS/Shutterstock.com

When most of us think of Greece, usually what comes to mind are impressive architectural ruins, delicious baklava and stunning cliff coastlines peppered with bright white, quintessential Greek homes and resorts. We don’t always think about coffee.

Leaving coffee out of our Greek day-dreaming is a mistake. Just like in many other parts of Europe, coffee is a key component of Greek culture. You can trace its roots back several hundred years, and young people today still love to meet up in the newest, trendiest cafe to slurp up a chilled frappe or espresso. In fact, Greek comes in at number 15 on the list of top coffee-consuming countries in the world. At 5.4 kg per person per year, Greeks consume more coffee than they do in France, the UK and the US.

However, just like in any other coffee-drinking world capital, the Greeks have their own way of doing it. Sure, you can find all the international chains and if you want to have the same cup of coffee you have every day back at home, you can probably find it. But where’s the fun in that?

Coffee culture in Greece has an interesting background. So, if you want to feel like a local while traveling through this ancient birthplace of modern democracy, then read on to learn more about how coffee is drunk in Greece.

Greece and its coffee history

greek coffee and biscuit Snatorines shutterstockTraditional Greek coffee - credits: Santorines/Shutterstock.com

When you stop to think about it for a moment, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that coffee has become such a major part of Greek culture. Located just South of Turkey—the gateway between Asia and Europe—Greece has been at the center of human history (and ever-expanding trade routes) since people first sat down to make civilizations. Greece has also changed hands many times throughout its history, and while it has still maintained cultural continuity, each society that passed through left their mark in one way or another.

Coffee first came to Greece during the times of the Ottoman empire. After being “discovered” and made into a drink in Ancient Arabia, and then traded by the Persians around the world, the first coffee shop opened in 1425 in Constantinople. This tradition quickly spread around the world, and as the Ottoman Empire increased its influence in the region, so did coffee. Now, several hundred years later, coffee has become entrenched in Greek culture. It may come from faraway lands, but drinking coffee in Greece today is a decidedly Greek thing to do.

However, as with anything, there’s another layer of intrigue to this story. Because coffee trickled its way down from Turkey, and because of the similarity between the way the Greeks and the Turks make coffee, for most of recent history, people in Greece would go to a cafe and order a Turkish coffee. But this changed in 1974 when a Greek military junta attempted a coup that resulted in an attempted Turkish invasion. A lot of anti-Turk sentiment popped up in the country, and one of the ways this materialized was by changing the name to “Turkish coffee” to “Greek coffee”. Even though they are essentially the same—of course, each cafe has its own unique method—changing the name was a way to demonstrate Greek displeasure with the political maneuvers of their Northern neighbors. So nowadays, when you go to a cafe in Greece, you’ll likely order an Elliniko kafe—Greek coffee. If you’ve ever been to Turkey or drank a Turkish coffee, you’ll see the similarities, but to blend in well in Greece, remember, they’re not the same thing!

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Coffee Culture in Greece

greek coffee hovoli SARYMSAKOV ANDREY shutterstockMan preparing traditional Greek coffee on the hot sand - credits: SARYMSAKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock.com

Despite the colorful history surrounding the emergence of coffee in Greece, the way in which it is built into the country’s everyday life is rather similar to what you will find in other parts of the world. In Greece, drinking coffee at a cafe is about as common as drinking it at home. People will often have the materials they need to make Elliniko kafe or some other form of the drink. Coffee is an essential part of entertaining in Greece. If you’re invited into someone’s home, you will most likely be offered a cup of coffee. And if you have someone over to your house, the polite thing to do is to prepare coffee to share with your guest.

Cafes in Greece are not overwhelmingly different than those of other countries, but if you spend a little time in the country, you’ll notice a few things. First, there are two types of Greek cafes: kafeteria and kafeneio. A kafeteria is what you would expect of a typical cafe. They can range in design from a simple coffee shop to a more elaborate and trendy hangout spot. Some kafeterias will only be open during the day, whereas some of them will turn into bars in the evening. Many will serve some sort of food, even if it’s just small pastries or pieces of bread. A kafeneio is also essentially a coffee shop, but usually, it will have been claimed by the locals, particularly old men. These are the spots where Greek retirees get together to hash out their differences about local politics, play cards or backgammon, and escape from the hot Decor in a kafeneio will likely be far more basic, and not all of them will serve food. But the coffee is fantastic, and they offer a real local flair that’s worth checking out. It might be intimidating to walk into a place filled with old Greek men arguing, but everyone’s friendly and will quickly make you feel at home.

Drinking coffee in Greece

Frappe coffee - credits: Tomas Mehes/Shutterstock.com

While the influence of other cultures can certainly be felt in Greek coffee culture, there are still a few things uniquely Greek that you should keep in mind so that you can make the most of your coffee drinking time in Greece. We’ve already mentioned Elliniko kafe. This is the “true” Greek coffee despite being made much in the same way as Turkish coffee. Finely ground coffee is added to hot water and then allowed to boil. As the water recedes and the coffee grounds sink to the bottom, the drink becomes the thick, velvety Elliniko kafe. Its flavor and aroma are quite strong, but it’s delicious. But because of its intensity, many Greeks will add a little bit of sugar to their coffee. If you don’t specify how much sugar you want, you can expect the barista to add in a spoonful or two. Be more specific if you want more or less.

There are generally speaking four different levels of sweetness you can order for your coffee:

  • sketos (no sugar)
  • metrios (one sugar)
  • glykos (sweet, two sugars)
  • variglykos (very sweet, more than two sugars)

If you’ve never had coffee prepared this way before, consider asking for sugar on the side so that you can sweeten to your taste. Then, once you’ve figured out what you like, you can order like a local.

No conversation about Greek coffee would be complete, however, without mentioning the frappe. Coming from the French word “to hit,” a frappe is a cold coffee drink that has become very popular in Greece, especially during the hot summers. It was invented by accident back in the 1960s when a Nestle chocolate employee ran out of chocolate milk mix to make a drink. So, he used instant coffee instead, and the frappe was born. That’s really all it is: instant coffee, milk, and ice. that’s blended together and served with a straw. But despite its simplicity, it has rapidly become one of the most popular ways to drink coffee in Greece, especially among young people who aren’t as excited about drinking traditional Elliniko kafe.

Lastly, we cannot forget espresso and cappuccino. It seems no culture has been able to avoid Italian coffee culture, and so now in cafes all around Greece you can find these and other popular drinks, such as the flat white. Typically, small, local cafes still greatly outnumber international chains, and it seems this will continue. But more and more of these local cafes are offering options beyond the traditional.

Final thoughts

coffee grinder Radek Ziemniewicz shutterstockCoffee grinder - credits: Radek Ziemniewicz/Shutterstock.com

It should be clear that enjoying a coffee should be an important part of your trip to Greece. In between lounging on beaches and visiting ancient ruins, stop into a local cafeteria or kafeneio to enjoy a nice Greek coffee and a slice of local life. However, if you can’t make it to Greece, you can try your hand at making Greek coffee on your own. With the right coffee grinder, you can make the fine grains found in Greek coffee. Then, you just need to add hot water. Of course, you’ll need to play around with things for a while to get it right. But then when you do, take a trip over to Greece so you can see how close you got to the real thing

About the author: Caroline is a traveling writer. She goes all over the world searching for ways to live and travel like the locals and has become a real coffee enthusiast. It brings people together, but because it can be prepared in so many different ways, it helps people maintain a sense of personality and uniqueness in the face of an ever-globalizing world.