When you think of Greece, you may think of ancient ruins, beautiful islands, and an enduring mark on global culture. But don’t forget Greek coffee! Thanks to its unique position throughout history, Greece has had a strong coffee culture dating as far back as the 15th century. Like the Greeks themselves, Greek coffee is bold, potent, and a social drink. From Frappé to Freddo, ellinikós kafés or Greek coffee has a rich history, so let’s dive in!
Tracing The History of Greek Coffee
Coffee came to Greece along with the Ottoman Empire, with the earliest record of a coffee shop or kafeneio in 1475 in Istanbul (then Constantinople). By the 17th century, there were hundreds of coffee shops dotted along the Greek islands and by the 18th century, gathering at coffee shops was firmly ingrained into Greek culture.
Due to its proximity to the Ottoman Empire and modern-day Turkey, Greek coffee has often been called Turkish coffee and the history of the naming customs is intriguing. Prior to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, coffee in Greece was called Turkish coffee but as the relationship between the two countries soured, coffee began to be called “Greek coffee” to reinforce its cultural identity within Greek society.
Traditional Greek coffee starts with hand-roasting green beans in a pan over an open flame. The roasted beans are hand-ground in the café itself before being brewed and served. By the 19th and 20th centuries, specialized kafekopteia became commonplace. Kafekopteia literally means ‘coffee cutter’ and these shops would grind and roast coffee and also serve Greek or ‘Ibrik’ coffee.
In the 1960s, one of Greece’s most iconic coffee drinks was introduced: the frappé. Greek frappé became a national favorite and enjoys continued popularity across the world. Around this same time, modern coffee shops started opening up alongside the traditional kafeneio shops. This was the first wave of Greek coffee and was focused on catching up with popular American and European coffee culture.
The second wave of coffee in the 1990s saw the introduction of more refined coffee experiences and the rising popularity of Italian-style coffee like espresso and cappuccino. Even the beloved frappé was revamped into the freddo, which is an iced version of the espresso or cappuccino.
Third-wave coffee was late to arrive in Greece, later than most of Europe. Despite the recession of 2008, specialty coffee continued to grow in early 2000s Greece. Economic hardships left coffee as one of the few affordable opportunities for socializing.
Greek Coffee Customs
The magic of the Greek isles has also steeped into their coffee customs. Greek coffee is more than just a drink, it’s a way to socialize, exchange ideas, and even plan for the future.
Reading fortunes from tea leaves has been around for a while but in Greece, they read fortunes in the coffee grounds left behind in a cup. According to the custom, you must swirl the cup once you finish your drink so that the sediment covers all sides of the vessel. Then place the saucer over the mouth of the cup and turn it over. Wait while the grounds drain down the side of the cup and then flip it again. Finally, you need someone else to look into the cup and tell you what they observe. The tradition says that the bottom of the cup shows the past, the middle shows your current time, and the top shows you what’s to come. Many different shapes and symbols can be observed and it takes a skilled eye to interpret them.
It is also believed that one can predict the weather with a cup of coffee. It’s all in the bubbles: if the bubbles collect along the edges of the cup then it will rain or snow. On the other hand, bubbles around the center of the cup indicate clear and pleasant weather. Try it for yourself!
Looking for a good luck charm? In some parts of Greece, it’s believed that pouring out a little coffee from your cup will bring you luck and prosperity.
3 Popular Greek Coffee Recipes
1. Briki Coffee
Briki coffee gets its name from the brewing container called an Ibrik, which is a small brass pot with a long spout and handle. This method has been around for centuries and needs very finely ground coffee. The traditional way to brew requires heated sand or a gas burner, although many now use modern electric stoves to get a similar result. Good Ibrik or Briki coffee is characterized by a rich layer of froth called kaimaki. Sweetener is added along with the coffee grounds while brewing and the drink is never stirred once brewed.
To serve, Briki coffee is poured into small, thick-rimmed cups quite similar to demitasse cups used for espresso. The coffee is paired with a sweet side, often a dish called loukoumi made with starch and sugar.
Frappé is a refreshing cold drink made with instant coffee, water, milk, and sugar (the last two are optional additions). This Greek coffee was invented in Thessaloniki in 1957 by Dimitris Vakondios, a Greek Nescafe representative. The frappé is simple and can be made by anyone, anywhere. Simply mix the instant coffee and water, shake it, and add ice. Sugar and milk are optional but round out the drink well.
Think of Freddo as the Frappé’s sophisticated cousin. While anyone can make a Frappé regardless of brewing expertise, the Freddo requires well-made Italian espresso shots. One or two shots of espresso are poured into a metal canister with ice and shaken to cool it down quickly. You can order an Espresso Freddo, Freddo cappuccino, and many other variations. This Greek coffee drink is very versatile and customizable.
Greek Café Culture: How To Order
Greek coffee shops are not hugely different from those in other countries but they have unique characteristics that make them purely Greek. The first thing to know is that are primarily two types of cafés in Greece: kafeteria and kafeneio.
A kafeteria is more like a modern café that you may be familiar with and these establishments vary from simple coffee shops to trendy hangout spots. Some kafeterias are open only during the day while others convert into bars for the evening. Most will serve food or snacks like pastries and bread to accompany the coffee
A kafeneio is also a coffee shop but is usually of an older style and is frequented by locals, particularly old men. It used to be frowned upon for women to sit in a kafeneio and so it became a bastion for older men to gather and debate about politics, local news, or to play board games. Most of these coffee houses don’t serve food but they’re a must-see if you want a taste of centuries-old Greek coffee.
When ordering coffee, there are three styles you should know: ketos (no sugar), metrios (one sugar), and glykos (sweet, two sugars). If you absolutely must, you can also ask for variglykos (very sweet, more than two sugars). Ketos is for the hardcore coffee drinkers who like a strong and potent brew, while metrios is the most common way to drink Greek coffee. Keep in mind that Greek coffee is very strong, so consume in moderation if you don’t want to wreak havoc on your stomach.
Throughout the centuries, Greece has been in a state of flux but one of the things that remain constant is the core of Greek coffee culture which focuses on taking things slow. The Greeks view coffee as something to be savored slowly. It is simple and part of daily life, enjoyed with friends, family, and neighbors. No matter what else changes, one thing that doesn’t change is the Greek love for coffee!