A guide to Greek coffee culture

Think that ‘going for a coffee’ must be a pretty universal experience the world over? Think again!

Greek coffee culture isn’t so much to do with the type of coffee (I’ll get to that!), but with the cultural role coffee plays. Unlike the commonality of ‘takeaway’ coffees here in the UK, coffee plays a crucial role in Greek social life.

Shared with family, neighbours and friends, ‘going for a coffee’ is the chance for a social. It’s where we put the world to rights, talking over the latest political scandals, business, catching up on each others’ lives and generally bonding.

A Greek coffee trip is not just the chance for a ten minute break from work. Definitely not! When planning a meet-up over coffee, we keep the whole afternoon free and fully expect to be there, same cup in hand, two hours later!

What is Greek coffee?

Greek coffee brewed in hot sand
Traditional Greek coffee brewed in hot sand

The coffee itself is usually taken short and strong. It isn’t, however, as strong as an espresso - it’s more like a filter coffee, as boiling water simply infuses into the grinds, rather than being forced through them by steam, as in an espresso.

Many people in the UK might know it better as Turkish coffee, as it’s made the same way - boiling fine-ground coffee in water and letting the grounds sink. But most Greeks wouldn’t dream to call their much-loved coffee anything but ‘Greek Coffee’!

It has quite a bitter flavour, so many add sugar.  You can personalise your coffee to your own requirements before it’s made, by asking for “Sketos” - no sugar, “Varis” - strong (2-3 tsp of coffee + 1 tsp sugar), “Elafris” - light (1 tsp coffee + 1 tsp sugar), or “Glykos” - sweet (1 tsp coffee + 2tsp sugar).

Greek coffee culture in evolution

Cool coffee is a really popular take on Greek tradition. Whilst we still want that caffeine hit and rich coffee taste, some long for iced drinks in the summer as a refreshing alternative to a short hot coffee.

Freddo espresso
Freddo espresso; Double shot of espresso mixed with ice and sugar

More popular with a younger crowd (and increasingly the rest of us too, when the summer heat hits!) are both the frappe and the freddo. These are both Greek versions of iced coffee. Choose freddo espresso or freddo cappuccino, or go for the ‘frappe’.  Made using Nescafe instant coffee, a frappe combines instant coffee, milk and sugar. It has to be Nescafe, and there is even rumour that it must be Greek Nescafe (presumably due to a supposed difference in ingredients)!

A trend of my childhood was for “Nescafe spastos”. This was essentially a disposable shaker, filled with a serving of instant coffee, milk and sugar - so you could make your own frappe on the go. We would buy “spastous” and head for the beach with our frappes!

Where to drink Greek coffee

In Greece, you tend to take your coffee either in a ‘kafeteria’ or a ‘kafeneio’. Kafeneio, in rural Greece, are where you will find a mostly male set of coffee drinkers, arguing gently about politics whilst playing backgammon or cards. Kafeterias tend to be more modern, and tend to act as a more welcoming space for women, too. Whilst kafeterias will likely sell food to go with the coffee (even if that’s just sweet pastries), kafeneio will often serve nothing but coffee. It’s usually a simply decorated space, and a must-visit whilst in Greece if you’re keen to put your finger to the pulse of the area you’re staying in and see more ‘real’ life.

Traditional kafeneio at the village square
Traditional kafeneio at the village square, with seats to enjoy a chat and a coffee

Coffee culture is great in the UK, with more and more cafes offering amazingly made coffees with responsibly, ethically sourced beans - it’s brilliant. But there is nothing like the traditions you grew up with! Try staying in a UK cafe nursing your first coffee for more than an hour, as you would in Greece, and it becomes clear that we have different coffee cultures!

If you feel confident that you’ve got Greek coffee sorted now, you’re probably thinking you need a snack to go alongside! Here's my favourite accompaniment to my mid-morning coffee!

I’m so looking forward to the summertime. We have all fingers and toes crossed that we will be able to travel back to Greece to see our dear family - and maybe indulge in a few frappes with friends.