Through wars, globalisation and economic crises, coffee has remained at the heart of social life in Athens. Now the city’s traditional kafeneia are joined by trendy third-wave coffee spots. The CEO of Taf Coffee, Yiannis Taloumis, gives Culture Trip the inside track on the Greek capital’s evolving coffee scene.
To get some insight on the story of Athens’s love affair with coffee, Culture Trip sits down with Yiannis Taloumis, CEO and head of quality at Taf Coffee – a pioneer of speciality coffee and largely responsible for bringing third-wave coffee to Athens. “We drink coffee when we’re happy. We drink coffee when we’re sad. We even have coffee at our funerals! Coffee is always there,” he says fondly.
Finely ground coffee made and served from a briki or ibrik (a small brass pot with a long handle), Greek coffee has been around – and remained popular – since the Ottoman occupation. It is artfully poured into a small cup and customarily sipped slowly over casual banter, philosophical musings or political debate. Men would traditionally drink it at the kafeneio, a simple place of social gathering with a few tables and chairs, coffee, tsipouro and some basic meze (small plates). The kafeneio is still alive and well today for those looking for parea (company), tradition and a dose of nostalgia, rather than speciality coffee.
In the ’60s, Taloumis says the frappe (iced instant coffee) took Athens by storm – a new, modern way to drink coffee, cheap and easy to make. But above all, it was about “out with the old, in with the new” – a motto Athenians have always eagerly embraced, according to Taloumis. He laughingly recalls a typical set-up: a bar, a row of frappes, two single options (sweetened or not) and a waiter with a bunch of straws in his pocket, ready for distribution.
The ’90s gave way to Athens’s second coffee wave, with the Kolonaki neighbourhood’s Da Capo introducing Italian espresso and cappuccino. The frappe was given a revamp around that time, with the Greek summer favourite, the freddo – an iced version of espresso or cappuccino – making its debut.
And in the early 2000s, Yiannis Taloumis and Taf helped bring third-wave coffee to Athens. “The [economic] crisis was actually an opportunity for third-wave coffee” he explains. “There was a need to change; the old ways were no longer working.” This broader appetite for change translated into an openness to a new coffee culture: minimalist decor, high-quality coffee, focus on the origin and the rise of the expert barista.
Athens is now home to some of the world’s best baristas, roasters and coffee shops. Taloumis has played a big role in that – as Taf provides training and acts as a knowledge hub for aspiring coffee experts. Whether you’re looking for a more traditional experience or a speciality brew, Athens’s best cafés and coffee shops will not disappoint.
The brainchild of three baristas who have a love and respect for coffee, LOT51 takes its name from Area 51 Coffee Roasters, the café’s coffee bean provider and the owners’ parallel project. Here, you will find coffee from India, Brazil, Ethiopia, Colombia and Costa Rica, to name a few, all with a high-quality and unique taste in common. The Scandinavian design and architecture – bright, fresh and minimalistic – also adds to the coffee-tasting ritual and experience. LOT51 capitalises on its lively location on Plateia Brazilia, close to Megaro Mousikis, with excellent food and cocktail options also on offer.
Peek A Bloom is the second venue by Nikolaos Geranakis and Nikos Mpelis, founders of Mind the Cup – a well-known name in the local speciality coffee world, whose only drawback for visitors might be its location out in Athens’s western suburbs. Peek A Bloom, on the other hand, couldn’t be more central, right in the busy Syntagma area. With metal, wood and stone accents and a concrete floor, it is in keeping with the third-wave tradition. Its central decor element is a majestic black Giesen roaster, visible through a glass partition – almost like a shrine to coffee.
In Athens’s chic northern suburb of Chalandri, you can find Nomad Coffee. A coffee roastery and brew bar, it offers a varied hand-picked selection of coffee blends and single origins, roasted in-house. Unlike most of its neighbourhood coffee shop counterparts, Nomad does not have a delivery service as nobody seems to mind making the trip here to get some of the best coffee in Athens. Also, the place is so inviting that people rarely take it to go. Sit outside at one of the romantic tables for two on the cobbled pedestrian street, or spread out with a group of friends at the big wooden table inside to enjoy the quirky decor and relaxed atmosphere.
Warehouse Speciality Blends has made – and kept – a good name for itself with Athenians. It’s committed to quality and takes its beverages seriously with blends and single origins from coffee producers around the world, Valrhona cocoa for its chocolate drinks and a total of 500 wines in its cellar! A choice of espressos, milk-based coffees, V60 pour-overs – hot or iced – and ibrik are available. The atmosphere is relaxed, with the decor grungy and industrial (hence the name) but still warm and inviting. Tables spill out onto a typical Exarcheia street on sunny days, complete with graffiti murals in the background.
Tailor Made Micro Roastery and Cocktail Bar is one of Athens’s first speciality coffee shops, located in trendy Agia Irini Square. It stands out for its fine selection of speciality coffees – the freddo cappuccino and flat white freddo are excellent here – and its stylish setting. The name Tailor Made is a play on words – the coffee here is made to order to fit in line with your taste perfectly. It also pays tribute to the area’s history of being Athens’s centre for haberdasheries, fabric shops and tailors.
A quaint little place, Ohh Boy lies in the unpretentious area of Pangrati in downtown Athens. When the weather is good, the coffee shop sets tables out onto the busy street side. The decor is bright and simple, the crowds hip and trendy, and the service extra friendly. Its coffee supplier is Taf – meaning quality is high – and its baristas are also trained by them (great latte art for your Instagram). Meanwhile, the food is home-made, with vegan options available. Pro tip: Try the banoffee pie.
Oraia Ellas follows the kafeneio tradition: simple, traditional and all about socialising. This café takes tradition one step further, though. It is jam-packed with dark and heavy furniture, historical artefacts and stories of Greek history adorning its walls. It has two floors, and the upstairs has a terrace with sweeping views of Athens’s historical centre. Greek coffee comes traditionally served in its hammered copper briki, with a side of loukoumi (Turkish delight). You can also order a slice of its karidopita (walnut pie) as the perfect accompaniment to your coffee.
Panellinion is an institution when it comes to Athens’s kafeneio culture. Established in 1885 and located in Exarcheia since the late ’60s, it has been witness to Athens’s changing political, social and cultural landscape. Here, coffee – or the local spirit tsipouro – is sipped alongside endless games of chess or tavli (backgammon), a central attraction here. Some even say that in times of unrest when Molotov cocktails were flying outside, chess players at Panellinion never even looked up from their games! Black-and-white photos hang on the walls, acting as a reminder of the kafeneio’s longevity.