Coffee and Drinking Culture in Greece: Dos and Donts

If you take shots of ouzo οr drink the sediment at the bottom of your “Greek” coffee, you need to watch this video. Here is what you should know about the coffee and drinking culture in Greece.


Greek Coffee Culture (+ Tea Consumption in Greece)

You might know Greek coffee as “briki coffee” or as “Turkish coffee”, because, yes, Greek coffee is no other than the traditional coffee consumed in Turkey and it is speculated that it originates from the Arab world. Greeks started drinking this type of coffee during the Ottoman rule of Greece and it was always referred to as “Turkish”. Things changed, however, after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, when the Greek-Turkish relationships became strained. Many coffee distributers and coffee shop owners realized that the word “Turkish” on their menus would bring negative emotions to their customers, hence reducing their purchase intentions.

Nowadays, less and less people consume this type of unfiltered coffee, not because of its Turkish origins, but because they prefer coffee that does leave any residue at the bottom of the cup. The sediment is very bitter when consumed by accident and it has no practical use in a modern society. In previous centuries, the shapes of the sediment were often interpreted to reveal truths about the past, present, and future. But this practice is not as popular nowadays.

Greeks take coffee very seriously and Greece is one of the top coffee consumers per capita in the world. Despite popular belief, Greeks today have a preference for Italian coffee, specifically espresso. Since the climate is rather warm, cold and iced coffee is very popular. It is named “freddo”, which means “cold” in Italian, and, surprisingly, freddo coffee is more popular in Greece than in Italy. In the past, before “freddo espresso” gained popularity in Greece, people would often make “frappe”, a cold beverage made with instant coffee, sugar, and milk. Frappe was invented in Thessaloniki in 1957 and it is becoming less and less popular nowadays.

In general, you will find three types of coffee places in Greece: the sophisticated «καφετέρια», the traditional «καφενείο» or «καφενές», and the practical “coffee-to-go” coffeeshops. A «καφετέρια» is a sit-down café where friends gather and drink coffee, not just for the shake of getting caffeinated, but also for chatting and catching up with each other. This is a weekly habit for most Greeks who meet with their group of friends every weekend to socialize and drink coffee, usually before or after lunch. In these types of coffee shops, you can find Italian-style coffee and its Greek variations, such as “freddo espresso”, while the traditional unfiltered Turkish coffee or frappe, are rarely included in the menu. Ordering sweet and savory pies is also very common in these types of coffeeshops.

A «καφενείο» or «καφενές» is a traditional coffee shop that you can find in small villages and some touristic parts of the cities. The term derives from the Serbo-Croatian “kafana” and it describes the coffee shops that were very popular in Balkan countries during Ottoman rule. When they were first established, they were the only places of socialization for men, while women would usually meet at home. If you visit a «καφενείο» today, you can order Turkish/Greek coffee, frappe, and alcoholic drinks that were also established during the Ottoman rule, such as ouzo and tsipouro. Prices are generally low in these shops and you might notice that the patrons are mostly elderly people.

A “coffee-to-go” place is -as the name suggests- a coffeeshop that does not have a sitting area and you can only order coffee to go. These places are popular among professional drivers, students, and people who work in offices that do not provide coffee machines for their employees.

If you have watched Helinika’s video on the Greek culture, then you might remember that the Greek culture is collectivistic, which means that drinking coffee is a social activity, as with eating meals, and drinking. “Coffee-to-go” shops were popularized after the arrival of American coffee chains that introduced the concept of drinking coffee on-the-go. Greeks usually spend at least one hour sited at a coffee shop, since this is a common socialization activity. You may also notice that waiters and waitresses rarely interrupt a conversation to ask for the bill, as it often happens in other European countries. In the Greek service culture, asking for the customer to pay as soon as they finished their drink or meal is often considered impolite.

Now it is important to also talk about the consumption of tea in Greece. Although neighboring countries, such as Turkey, consume a lot of tea, Greece ranks at the 50th position of tea consumers in a list of 55 countries. In fact, many Greek people dislike the taste of tea and drink it only when feeling sick. In the Greek mind, tea is more like herbal medicine, rather than something you drink to enjoy. Of course, there are many Greeks who are devoted tea lovers!

In a nutshell:

  1. Greeks love coffee.
  2. Drinking coffee is a social activity.
  3. Greek coffee is actually Turkish coffee.
  4. Young Greeks prefer iced Italian coffee.
  5. There are three types of coffee shops in Greece (modern, traditional, to-go).
  6. Greeks are not big fans of tea.

Drinking Culture in Greece

Many foreigners are often recommended to drink ouzo, an anise-flavored aperitif, or tsipouro, an unaged brandy, when visiting Greece. These two, especially ouzo, resemble a popular alcoholic beverage from Turkey called raki. But visitors often taste these drinks in a way that surprises locals. They drink it plain and warm, in shot glasses, as if it is tequila.

Ouzo and tsipouro, however, are served in highball glasses with a lot of ice cubes and, sometimes, with icy cold water. Greeks also like drinking ouzo and tsipouro in the summer, preferably by the sea, along with seafood. These drinks are also paired with “meze”,  a collection of selected dishes that are shared among everyone on the table.

“Meze” does not have Greek origins. It was adopted during the Ottoman rule and you can find meze restaurants in different parts of the world. Ouzo and tsipouro, however, are Greek beverages and their history takes us back to Byzantine times. There are speculations that ouzo in particular was consumed in ancient Greece but under a different name.

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Ouzo, as we know it today, started getting produced in 1932 in Lesbos island. Tsipouro, on the other hand, is linked to the 14th century Greek Orthodox monks of Mount Athos. It is important to note that these two drinks are recognized as products with a Protected Designation of Origin in the European Union, prohibiting their production outside of Greece and Cyprus.

It goes without saying that Greeks also produce and consume wine from ancient to modern times. Ancient Greeks had a god dedicated to wine and his name was Dionysus. More than 6.500 years ago, Greeks would export wine, usually made from vitis vinifera (the common grape vine), in the Mediterranean region. Some well-known grape varieties today are: Agiorgitiko, Kotsifali, Mavrodaphne, Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, Malagousia, and  Moschofilero.The island of Santorini, Crete, Thessaly, the Peloponnese, and northern Greece are some of the most popular wine producing regions in Greece.

Greeks also love beer, especially in the summer. Some years ago, archaeologists discovered that ancient Greeks consumed beer since the Bronze Age, despite previous speculations that they only drank wine. There are many breweries in Athens, the Cycladic islands, and other parts of Greece.  

If you have watched Helinika’s video on the Greek culture, then you might remember that the Greeks have generally a balanced relationship between restrain and indulgence. That means that, for a lot of people, there is an ease at controlling desires and impulses, without associating certain activities with shame and guilt. Greeks indulge in alcohol regularly, without necessarily getting tipsy nor drunk.

Drinking a glass of red wine with dinner is often recommended by cardiologists and it is also common to meet with friends and colleagues after work for a glass of wine. At the same time, the concept of getting wasted on the weekends is not very popular. Alcohol is usually paired with food or snacks, such as almonds and carrot slices. Since the Greek culture is also a collectivistic culture, drinking alcohol alone at home is usually frowned upon.

In a nutshell:

  1. Greeks drink alcohol regularly but in moderation.
  2. “Boozing” culture is not popular in Greece.
  3. Beer and wine have been consumed since ancient times.
  4. Cardiologists often recommend a glass of red wine per day.
  5. Ouzo and tsipouro are protected names in the EU.
  6. Alcoholic beverages are usually paired with food.
  7. Drinking alone is often frowned upon in Greece.

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.