by Bruce Milletto
, Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup

In 1972, Pat Conroy wrote The Water is Wide, a book that illustrated the huge cultural differences between the inhabitants of a small island off the coast of South Carolina and those who lived on the mainland, only a few short miles away.

The water between Greece and Italy is also small, but the coffee drinking habits of the two countries are many miles apart. As most of us know, Italy is the home of espresso. A recent survey revealed that Greece is primarily a country of instant coffee drinkers, with Nescafe’ being the coffee of choice for most Greeks.

I found this surprising. Everywhere I went I saw two- and three-group espresso machines. Why were they so underused? Obviously there was great coffee and equipment available, but it appeared there was little demand for the product. I was not able to answer this question during the three weeks I traveled through the country.

The Frappe

A drink called the Caffé Frappe was popular everywhere I went. To prepare the drink, the barista or barman puts a scoop of instant coffee into a 10-ounce glass, then adds a small amount of milk, ice, and a dash of sugar. The contents are then blended by what looks like an old-fashioned milkshake machine and topped with approximately 50 percent sparkling mineral water.

Temperatures in Greece are warm for most of the year, so it was no surprise to me that a cold coffee beverage would be so popular. What was surprising was that the six-thousand dollar espresso machines found in most Greek coffee bars were rarely used. When I spoke to the industry at the first annual Greek coffee show, Athens CoffeeBiz 2001, I asked my large audience this question: "Why are coffee drinks in Greece prepared with instant coffee when most coffee bars have an expensive espresso machine and great beans at their disposal?" I never got a satisfactory answer. I drank frappes in numerous bars around Greece and was frustrated by the bitter, flat taste that resulted from the use of instant coffee as the base for the drink. I believe the quality of the frappe would increased ten fold if it were prepared using espresso.

I also ordered numerous straight shots throughout the country. I was served either illy, lavazza, segafredo or Pellini (major Italian brands). The baristas understood proper preparation techniques and rarely did I receive an over- or under-extracted shot. The product was good, but why was the demand so small?

Traditional Greek Coffee

Only in Athens did I find traditional Greek coffee. This type of coffee is prepared on a machine that heats a bed of sand to an extremely high temperature. First, coffee and water are mixed in a "briki," a small copper vessel that is placed directly on the hot sand. The coffee is then steeped and almost boiled. It is served in a demitasse. I found this coffee quite drinkable, but somewhat bitter from the process I dubbed "cooking the coffee."

Specialty Coffee Greek-Style

Mira Gerantonaki, Editor of Coffee Net, the only specialty coffee magazine in Greece, was my host for Athens CoffeeBiz 2001. She told me that the influence of the West and the rest of Europe is finally impacting Greek coffee. The show itself was a testament to this fact. Given this was the first coffee show on the Greek mainland, I was shocked to see three floors of sophisticated booths selling machines, coffee, and every imaginable accouterment. There was even a "best barista" contest, a fixture at most U.S. coffee tradeshows.

The Coffee Net show exhibited more positive energy and elicited more participation than any first time show I have ever seen. I would guess that the next show scheduled for 2003 will be light years ahead of this first show in exhibitors, attendance and knowledge.

Thanks to the folks at Coffee Net, specialty coffee is beginning to make a big impact in Greece. Like in many other countries where specialty coffee is emerging, the Greek coffee culture is growing and developing quickly. Two years ago at a U.S. tradeshow, I spoke to a young entrepreneur from Chicago. Today he has a small chain of coffee bars in Athens.

Because of Greece's proximity to Italy, I had expected their coffee cultures to be similar–I was wrong. However, I predict over the next few years the Greeks will begin to use their espresso machines and the instant coffee craze will be history.

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