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

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

Just like in many other parts of Europe, coffee is a key component of Greek culture. You can trace its roots back to several hundred years, while young people today, still love to meet up in the newest, trendiest cafes of the city to enjoy a chilled frappe or espresso coffee. In fact, Greece comes in at number 15 on the list of top coffee-consuming countries in the world. At 5.4 kg per person per year, the Greeks consume more coffee than the French, the English, and the Americans!

However, just like in any other coffee-drinking world capital, Greece has its own recipe for the perfect cup of coffee. Sure, you can find all the international chains that will serve you the same coffee you have every day back at home, you can probably find it, but where’s the fun in that? Therefore, if you want to feel like a local while traveling through this ancient birthplace of modern democracy, here, we'll give you an insight into the way the Greeks drink their coffee.

Greece and its coffee heritage

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 started forming civilizations. Additionally, Greece has changed hands many times throughout its history, and while it has 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. Despite coming from faraway lands, drinking coffee in Greece today is considered a very Greek thing to do.

However, 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. 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 rose in the country, and one of the ways this materialized was by changing the name from ''Turkish coffee' to 'Greek coffee', as a way to demonstrate the Greek displeasure with the political maneuvers of their Northern neighbors.

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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 Greek coffee or any other type of coffee. If you get invited to 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.

Coffee shops in Greece are not vastly different from those of other countries, but if you spend a little time in the country, you’ll notice a few distinctions. Firstly, there are two types of Greek cafes: kafeteria and kafeneio. A kafeteria is what you would expect a typical cafe to be. They vary 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 serve some sort of food to accompany the coffee, 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 summer heat. The decoration inside a kafeneio is far more basic, and not all of them serve food. However, the coffee there is exceptional, 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 noticed 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 experience in GreeceGreek coffee 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 thick and velvety. Its flavor and aroma are quite strong, and 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 it 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 Greek innovation of frappe. Coming from the French word meaning 'to hit', a frappe is a cold coffee drink that has become very popular in Greece, especially during the hot summer months. It was invented by accident back in the 1960s when a Nestle chocolate employee ran out of chocolate milk mix to make a drink and used instant coffee instead. That’s really all it is: instant coffee, milk, and ice, blended together and served with a straw. Despite its simplicity, frappe rapidly became one of the most popular ways to drink coffee in Greece, especially among young people.

Lastly, we cannot forget espresso and cappuccino. It seems no culture has been able to avoid Italian coffee culture, and so nowadays, in coffee shops all around Greece, you can find these and other popular coffee drinks.

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 in a local kafeteria 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 t 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 when you do, you'll need to take a trip 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.