Chances are high that when you meet new people in Greece, they will ask you this exact question, and grabbing a coffee will be the first thing you do together. Before coming to Greece, I had many preconceptions regarding the country’s culture. Like ancient Greek architecture, cats on the street, traditional Greek cuisine or mythology, unemployment, and low income.
Many of these expectations, especially the cats, have proven true in my experience so far.
Yet I didn’t consider the coffee culture to be a big part of Greek living as well. Greeks consume 5.5 kilos of coffee annually, thus even more than the French and Americans. Moreover, they drink coffee at home as well as in cafes. So for me, as a coffee lover, it was a welcoming surprise that coffee is a part of the Greek way of living too. Even we volunteers have a coffee break every day in our office. We go to a store called Frida Coffee, where a Barista named Chrysanthes Leondaridoy makes us coffee most of the time. She was kind enough to give me some safe insights into the greek coffee culture as a barista who has worked for over thirty years in her job.
How did today’s greek coffee culture come about?
Coffee in Greece first appeared during the Ottoman Empire. Due to the early trade routes connecting Greece to Europe and Asia, it was possible to import coffee from Persians. As a result, the first so-called Kafeino was established in 1475, located in Constantinople. After that, coffee became more popular worldwide, and the tradition of coffee shops spread. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, by the 17th century, there were already 300 coffee shops in Thessaloniki alone. In these Kafeinos, only men came together to socialize, and many of these shops remain today. Besides these traditional kafeinos, new coffee shops arose: “Kafetarias”. These Kafetarias had a younger audience and were influenced by European and American culture.
Furthermore, in the 90s Italian coffee was introduced in Athens and released the second coffee wave. The third wave shortly after initiated the habit of celebrating the coffee experience as we know it today. Associated with the third wave is Barista training, also influenced by the Italian coffee culture. Leondaridoy is one of these trained Baristas. She talks about her path with me:
“I’ve been working for 25 years; at the beginning, I was self-made, but then I took lessons. And then I got a degree. But first, I had to pass an exam. I wanted to be special in my job.”
Given the significant influence of other coffee cultures from around the world, one question arises:
Is there an original Greek coffee?
When Greeks go to a Cafe, they often ask for a “Greek coffee”.
When I asked Leondaridoy about it, she showed me coffee beans and said, “This is called greek coffee, but it’s the same in Turkey same in Egypt. Its the Arabian coffee” she further illuminated
“It’s not Greek, here it’s called Greek; it’s the same; they make it the same way. In Turkey, they call it Turkish coffee. In Greece, we call it Greek coffee”. So, why would one make a difference if Turkish and Greek coffee are the same? Greeks would order Turkish coffee at a cafe for most of history. But, at one point, that changed. It traces back to the attempted Turkish invasion in 1974. One of the ways Greeks expressed their anger was by changing the name from Turkish to Greek coffee. That’s why the tradition of ordering “Greek Coffee” came about that remains today. Therefore there is no such a thing as greek coffee.
Still, one kind of coffee making is known to be very Greek. It’s iced tea. Ice tea nowadays has many design options. Nevertheless, the first form of iced tea in Greece was the Frappé. Frappé was invented by Dimitris Vakondios in 1957 in Thessaloniki. The Nescafe employee mixed instant coffee with cold water ice cubes because he didn’t find any hot water, and voila, the Frappe was born.
Frappe was the first step in how the tradition of iced coffee became entrenched in Greece, and it became the most popular drink for a long time. Despite that, when I asked Leondaridoy whether Frappe is still a popular drink, she answered, “Yes it is, but now it’s a little bit old, old fashion – Freddo is the new “in coffee ” 20 years ago Frappe was the only thing, but now it’s different”. The Freddo she talked about is either an espresso or a cappuccino with ice and is part of the fad of the second coffee wave. The Freddo was a response to people only drinking hot coffee in the winter and not summer, and a way to sell in the summer was to make them cold. So it’s a perfect refreshment on hot days.
How do Greeks drink their coffee?
Drinking coffee in Greece is a way to socialize. Greeks take up to one and a half hours to sit in a cafe and drink coffee. Often the way to ask someone out on a date is the question: “Do you want to go out for a coffee?” Moreover, offering guests coffee at home is part of a good tone.
Socializing through coffee has become more popular since the late 2000s with the high unemployment rates; going to cafes with friends is now one of the few affordable entertainment possibilities.
So, is coffee drinking just a way to interact with other people, or is it really about the taste?
“Both – it’s very important to our culture coffee because people sit together and drink coffee.”, Leondaridoy says. She further expresses how people also take their time when drinking coffee to taste the aroma of the coffee beans and often drink coffee alone at home just because they like the taste.
Looking at the historical and traditional background of greek coffee culture, the importance it has now for many Greeks in their lives doesn’t come as a surprise and belongs to the culture just the same as all the cats living in the streets.