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As Espresso Rises, Will 'Greek Coffee' Be Left To The Turks?

"Greek coffee" may be a matter of national pride in the Mediterranean nation. But increasingly, Greeks are embracing espresso, an imported brew, as their cup of Joe of choice. Pawel Loj/Flickr hide caption

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Pawel Loj/Flickr

"Greek coffee" may be a matter of national pride in the Mediterranean nation. But increasingly, Greeks are embracing espresso, an imported brew, as their cup of Joe of choice.

Pawel Loj/Flickr

Greeks have loved coffee for centuries. Today, they drink more per capita than even the French and Italians, and almost as much as Americans, and they may spend hours each week in cafes. They're proud of their coffee too, and if you call their rich, gritty signature brew "Turkish coffee" instead of Greek, you're practically asking for a fight in the Greek islands.

But while coffee can be a matter of national pride, increasingly, the Greeks are sipping on a decidedly non-Greek brew: espresso. Chalk it up as one more sign of globalization.

From hipster-thick city centers to the remote hinterlands, espresso is booming in Greece. Mikel Coffee Co., a cafe chain focused on espresso-based drinks, has spread through the country. New restaurants in Athens are specializing in serving espresso — and training baristas to prepare it. Coffee-roasting companies have appeared, and in the midst of the trend, gritty Greek coffee has been put on the back burner.

And the tourism industry has also latched firmly onto espresso: Today, new hotels often install industrial-sized espresso machines in their kitchens, something they weren't doing five years ago, says Athens architect Yiannis Giannopoulos, who oversees construction and remodeling of hotels.

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Chrysa Gerolymatou, the general director of the 6-year-old Mikel Coffee Co., believes Greek coffee lovers increasingly see espresso as a more cosmopolitan, modern choice. Whatever the reasons, she says, espresso is undeniably catching on in Greece. "Consider that until the early '90s, there were only two coffee choices — Greek traditional coffee and instant coffee," she tells The Salt in an email.

While espresso has been in Greece for about two decades, its popularity didn't begin to take off until about 10 years ago.

"Drinking coffee and being out of house with your friends is part of your social identity," says Greek food writer Marianthi Milona. She notes that, even through recent hard times, many Greeks who've become hooked on espresso have continued to prefer it.

"You can save money by resisting to buy expensive food or clothes, but as a Greek, you try always to find money for a cup of coffee," Milona explains.

Even in the home, the hiss of espresso machines is growing louder and louder. According to Euromonitor International, a market research firm, sales of home-use espresso machines in Greece increased a total of 40 percent from 2008 to 2013. Forecasts suggest sales will continue to grow for at least the next five years.

This is not the first time that an outsider coffee has reshaped Greece's coffee culture. In the middle of the 20th century, Greeks embraced the virtues of instant coffee — often the Nescafe brand. Sure, the thought might horrify coffee snobs of today, but back then, instant Joe was seen as a sign of modernity and the Western world (not to mention a way to a much faster cup).

"This fast way to prepare coffee reminded the Greeks of their European identity," Milona says, "something that is completely different from the Eastern world." And different from Greek coffee, whose roots date back to the Ottoman empire and whose very name is tied up with Greece's tortured history with Turkey.

Nescafe eventually gave birth to another coffee drink now considered a signature Greek beverage: the frappe, an instant coffee whipped into a froth, served over ice and sucked through a straw.

But now, even the iconic frappe could be displaced by espresso, says Yannis Taloumis, owner of a new Athens coffee shop and roastery called Taf. That's because espresso, too, can easily be served cold, over ice — inevitably a popular coffee style in Greece's blazing summers.

So, will espresso ever replace the traditional Greek coffee?

"Never," Milona says, adamant that Greeks will not forsake their cherished coffee traditions.

But Giannopoulos says Greek coffee has been largely relegated to the home, at family breakfasts on the weekends. Taloumis says it's now especially popular among folks 65 and older, and Gerolymatou agrees that young people, enamored of the modern cafe culture, generally aren't interested in drinking espresso's gritty predecessor.

All of which means, if espresso consumption continues to creep into the nation's caffeine culture, Greek coffee could eventually be left to the Turks.

Alastair Bland is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who covers food, agriculture and the environment. He recently returned from a trip to Greece.