August 19, 2020

Greek Coffee Culture: A Story Of Tradition And Renewal

In Greece, coffee is a way of life. Greek coffee culture has an important role in both public and private society.

From tradition and ibrik coffee to the iconic “frappé” and today’s third wave, Greece has always embraced coffee in all its forms. The story of coffee in Greece spans more than seven centuries, and it is deeply entwined with the country’s modern history.

Read on to learn about the history of coffee in Greece, and what the Greek coffee scene looks like today.

Lee este artículo en español Cultura Cafetera Griega: Una Historia de Tradición y Renovación

A Brief History Of Coffee In Greece

Greece’s relationship with coffee started under the Ottoman Empire. The first coffee shop – or “kafeneio”, in Greek – opened as early as 1475 in Constantinople (now Istanbul). George Misegiannis is the owner of Misegianni, an historic “kafekopteio” in Athens. He tells me that by the 17th century, there were more than 300 coffee shops in Thessaloniki alone. By the 18th century, the kafeneio was a well-established Greek institution which served as a basis for social interaction.

Historically, green coffee beans were hand-roasted in a pan over an open fire, and then hand-ground in the coffee shops themselves. In the late 19th and early 20th century, “kafekopteia” such as Misegianni began to appear. These were specialised coffee grinding and roasting shops  – the word “kafekopteio” literally translates as “coffee cutter” – which also sold traditional Greek or “ibrik” coffee. This was how most people consumed coffee until the 1950s, when filter and instant coffee appeared.

In the 1960s, however, an iced version of instant coffee was introduced: the frappé. This quickly became a national favourite. Traditional kafeneio shops remained, but new, more modern coffee-drinking establishments, or “kafeteria”, started popping up. They accommodated young Greeks who wanted to socialise and catch up with American and European popular culture.

The 1990s gave way to Athens’ second coffee wave, which focused on giving people a more refined coffee experience. The famous Da Capo café, among others, brought Italian espresso and cappuccino to the city. It was around this time that the frappé was “revamped” and became the freddo. The freddo is an iced version of an espresso or cappuccino, and remains a Greek summer favourite to this day. 

The third wave arrived in the early 2000s, later than in the US and the rest of Europe, but it was embraced by Greeks with open arms. Iordanis Iosifidis, General Manager of Kafea Terra, a major Greek coffee distributor, tells me that the economic crisis in 2008 did nothing to slow down the popularity of coffee in Greece, nor the rise of specialty. In fact, he says, coffee sales went up.

“Greeks want to be anywhere but in the home,” Iordanis tells me. “They love going out.” With record-low incomes and high unemployment rates in the late 2000s, Greeks were forced to cut back on their more expensive social activities. This left coffee as the one of a few affordable leisure activities for many across the country. 

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Coffee in Greece: A Way Of Life

“For Greeks, drinking coffee is like washing your face in the morning: a daily ritual, a necessity,” says Dimitris Batis, manager of Dexameni café in Athens. “Greeks cannot live without their coffee.”

George from Misegianni tells me about the term “pame gia kafe”, or “let’s go for coffee”. “[The phrase] could mean anything,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll drink coffee; it could mean a chat, drinks, even a long lunch. The point is, there will be socialising. It could be translated more accurately as ‘let’s meet to chat.’” This is just another indication of how coffee is such an important part of life in Greece.

Christos Kavrakos, founder of third wave coffee shop Mind the Cup, tells me that the concept of “filoxeneia” is a big part of Greek coffee culture. Filoxeneia translates as “friend to a stranger”, and is a unique, historic Greek approach to hospitality. For many Greeks, hospitality is not just a duty, it is a matter of pride. This extends to customer service in coffee shops.

Greece’s Three Iconic Coffees

The Ibrik Or “Greek” Coffee 

Greek coffee, also known as “ibrik coffee” has been around – and remained popular – for centuries. It is finely ground coffee made and served from a “briki”, also known as an “ibrik” (a small brass pot with a long handle). 

Dimitris says: “The secret is making it with a gazaki (a single camping gas burner). Many people make it on an electric stove top, or in a machine, but a truly great Greek coffee can only be achieved with a gazaki or traditional hovoli (heated sand).” Whether served at home or in a coffee shop, any good ibrik coffee needs a rich layer of froth known as “kaimaki”.

In the old days, men would drink Greek coffee at the kafeneio. Women – whose presence was frowned upon in the kafeneio – would enjoy the beverage at home as they took a break from their chores. Today, Greeks still enjoy ibrik coffee, which is traditionally served with a side of sweet “loukoumi”, a dessert similar to Turkish delight that is made with starch and sugar.

Christos from Mind the Cup says: “Ibrik, for me, is a traditional kafeneio on the square of a small Greek village. If I drink ibrik coffee at my café here in Athens, I remember the squares, the village and my trips… flavours are memories.”

The rule for both making and drinking Greek coffee: “Siga, siga”, which translates as “slowly, slowly”. Patience is the only way to achieve the signature creamy mouthfeel, and it also stops you from burning your tongue or getting a mouthful of sediment.

The Frappé

The frappé is a Greek iced coffee drink made with soluble coffee, water, sugar (optional), and milk (also optional). It was invented almost by accident by Dimitris Vakondios, a Greek Nescafe representative, in 1957. The beauty of the frappé is its simplicity: anyone can make it, anywhere. Just mix the water and instant coffee, shake vigorously, and add ice, sugar, and milk if you have some.

It is also cheap and accessible. Christos from Mind the Cup has fond memories of frappés in Greece: “In Greece, we have these little street kiosks called ‘periptero’. They would sell individual servings of frappé mix in little plastic packets. I would just add a little water to the mix and shake it in a bottle on the way to the beach! I spent many Greek summers drinking frappés by the sea.”

He and Iordanis both believe that the frappé has no place in the world of specialty coffee – for now, anyway. Iordanis says that the issue isn’t the lack of quality, freshness, and aroma that we associate with specialty; he says the frappé is incompatible with the third wave “experience”. Because the frappé requires no special skill, anyone can make it. It doesn’t need the knowledge or experience of a barista. 

Enter the third wave’s response to the frappé: the freddo.

The Freddo 

The freddo is essentially an iced version of some of the most popular espresso-based beverages. There is the freddo espresso, the freddo cappuccino, and even the flat white freddo. It is extremely popular in Greece, especially in the summer when temperatures soar. It tastes great, it can be served in specialty coffee shops, and it can be customised to suit the customer. The beverage can be served with cream, milk, soy milk, chocolate, cinnamon, or even black… the combinations are endless.

According to Iordanis, the freddo came into existence as a solution to a market problem: “Every summer, espresso sales were going down because people wanted to drink espresso in the cooler months. But in the summer, they would have something cold and refreshing like frappé, which is made with soluble coffee. 

“They invented the freddo, which is basically a double espresso mixed with ice.” The drink became popular overnight and remains a national favourite to this day, as well as being a huge hit with tourists.

Greece & The Third Wave

There are a number of thriving third wave coffee spots across Greece. When the third wave hit the country, it rose in popularity extremely quickly. Iordanis says this is because coffee is such a big part of Greek coffee culture; he says the country’s appreciation for good coffee runs deep. 

Christos believes it’s largely related to filoxeneia and the idea of Greek hospitality. The third wave experience focuses on quality at all levels, including customer service. He says this aligned well with existing Greek coffee culture, and was easily accepted. When I asked Christos why he started Mind the Cup, a specialty coffee shop, his reply was simple: “We wanted to make special coffee and provide good service in a friendly spot.”

Barista training is still hugely popular in Greece, and it is considered to be a respected trade. Kafea Terra, Iordanis tells me, is more than just an espresso coffee distributor. He says the company also trains baristas, as well as providing coffee shop management and service courses. Their aim, he says, is to elevate the quality of the coffee drinking experience entirely, from coffee to service.

Coffee shops are everywhere in Greece, and they perform well. Even through the difficult times, they seem to survive and sometimes thrive. 

A love of coffee and socialising is very much a part of Greek culture, as is the historic concept of filoxeneia, or Greek hospitality. The country has seen some tough times in recent years, and while many things remain uncertain, coffee is not one of them. It’s clearly a way of life in the country, and it will always be part of the picture of Greek living, one way or another. 

Enjoyed this? Then read An Exploration of Greek Frappés

Photo credits: Kafea Terra, Sarah Charles 

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