A traveler’s guide to European coffee culture

by Jul 13, 2017Europe, Recipes

Coffee Culture Bitter Like Death

The HI Travel Tales guide to European coffee culture. We’ve sampled various ways of serving the coffee all over Europe. Learn how to order and drink your coffee anywhere in Europe.

We have experienced coffee culture everywhere we’ve traveled in Europe. We’ve sampled many various ways of serving the caffeinated elixir, from nearly syrupy dark tablespoons of caffeine in doll-sized cups to huge bowls of espresso and frothy milk. It’s what you do as a traveler – enjoy a cup of local coffee as the locals enjoy it. What is fascinating is indeed how much the world (well, much of it) loves a cup of coffee. And sharing a cup of java can actually break down international barriers. But what is also fascinating is the culture of coffee in different countries.

Turns out coffee could be good for you too – A study out on July 10, 2017, by the respected Annals of Internal Medicine journal found that those who drink more coffee have a significantly lower risk of death. Yup, drink coffee, live longer, it seems — at least according to one study. The findings from the studies that looked at consumption in 10 European countries and by different ethnicities were the same no matter what color your skin or what country you lived in. And it was the same whether you drank caffeinated or decaffeinated brews. And those who drank three or more cups a day gained the most benefit in health gains and a longer life. Why? Still uncertain, but this and other past studies noted it could be because of the antioxidant effect from caffeine’s polyphenols.

Coffee culture at afternoon coffee in Munich

When in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, a piece of cake is a must with that afternoon. Try a cherry-rhubarb cheesecake!

Now, what’s not to like about these results? In honor of discovering that coffee is good for you and helps you live longer and stay healthy, we are taking a short look at the coffee culture in a few European countries. Take good notes on what a nation deems appropriate and how and when they drink coffee, and you will blend right in like the savvy traveler you of course are.

Austria/Germany/Switzerland – I apologize in advance for lumping these three countries together since they are really so different. But when it comes to the coffee culture they are also so similar (well, OK, the French- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland do have similarities to their bordering countries). Drink whatever form of coffee you like – from black to espresso to cappuccinos – whenever you like. All day perhaps. Coffee is what they do and the coffee is quite excellent (in most cases). What sets these countries (and a few others apart) is the tradition of afternoon coffee that means so much more than a cup of black brew. To be asked if you want to “have coffee” often means there will be cakes, tarts, strudels or other baked goods involved. “Kaffee trinken” is a reverent thing in this corner of the world, especially on weekend afternoons. It’s treated a bit like the quintessential English teatime: You may be hungry by mid- to late afternoon so why not have a piece of cake to tide you over? We’re in!

Good to know:

  • When you order a cup of coffee in a restaurant, you get just that – one cup of coffee, and you do pay dearly for it. You can also order a small personal pot (like a small teapot) that gives you a bit more.
  • Cake may be misleading since these goodies aren’t nearly as sweet as their American counterparts so you feel pretty righteous about eating them! Or so we keep telling ourselves.
  • Coffee is not normally had at night after dinner, unless it’s been a finer affair and then an espresso can top it off nicely.
  • Warning: “Eiskaffee” is not iced coffee. It is coffee with ice cream! I stepped in once to save a friend from ordering a huge ice cream parfait AND a coffee with ice cream!
coffee and cake in the Harz Mountains.

The best recovery after a long hike is afternoon coffee and cake (in this case, a ridiculously huge piece of cheesecake – yes, we took half back to our room). This sort of sit down in late afternoon in Germany is referred to as “having Kaffee” but somehow that Kuchen (cake) always slips in too.

HITT Tip: What we do find a bit sad is how coffee used to mean sitting down properly, while getting your java in a to-go cup to run out the door meant raised eyebrows and a surprised shake of the head. Now “to go” is much more common. Sigh.

England – Blimey, but times do change! The Brits are now drinking more coffee than tea. This tea-loving nation is experiencing a coffee culture surge in the last decade, thanks to Wi-Fi-loving youth and a socially focused café experience that is replacing what is seen as the aging pub. Rest easy, though, tea is far from dead, and since there are also antioxidants in black tea, we’ll take that as approval to mention English tea here too. By late afternoon, it’s time to tide yourself over until supper with a hot cup of tea (or, yes, perhaps, coffee) and some biscuits, sandwiches or cakes. Know that to many, “tea” refers to a time of day, and not just the beverage. More than half of people in England drink tea with milk – sort of a “tea au lait” if you will – but you need to pour the milk in the cup first, then add the tea. And you better make that cup properly as described by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Coffee too is served with milk more often than not, but you won’t get a grimace if you order it black.

Good to know:

  • Indeed, tea will solve all that ails you, per the Brits. You’ll usually be offered a cup when you get to somebody’s home (though these days, coffee is possible, too). And it rings true in movies when something horrible has happened and you are offered a cup of tea. Accept it with a smile. And add milk, please.
  • Though the coffee culture is growing, and home espresso machine sales are booming, Brits still drink instant coffee more than any other type. It’s still not uncommon for a bed and breakfast to bring out a pot of hot water with a selection of teas and a jar of Nescafe for breakfast. Don’t be shocked. It’s not considered gauche.
  • You have perhaps heard of “high tea.” Which is more like an evening meal with a hot dish and more substantial food. In fact, supper may be called “tea,” so don’t be misled.
coffee culture in great britain with afternoon tea

A proper afternoon tea in Cornwall with clotted cream slathered on scones with strawberry jam, and of course, tea … Ssshhhh, I was having coffee!

HITT Tip: England with its continued tea obsession is actually in the majority globally. A chart from Pew Research shows clearly that coffee remains a western tradition, while most of Asia and the countries of the former Soviet Union lean toward tea. 

France – In this country, you traditionally have a “café au lait” with breakfast (a large bowl-like mug filled half with coffee and half with warm milk. Not to say you can’t have an espresso or a regular cup of coffee too. Since French breakfasts are traditionally a baguette with butter and jam, or a croissant, I have this suspicion that big mug of warm milk is thought to round out the meal. But I don’t know that. Later in the day, if you go into a café or bistro and order “un café” you will almost without fail get a small, potent espresso (a.k.a “un express”). Since I tend to like to sip and not gulp it like medicine, I like to order “un café allongé.” You get a larger cup with espresso to which you can add hot water given you on the side to your taste.

Good to know:

  • The French like their little shots sweet. You’ll automatically get two cubes of sugar with that little espresso shot! If the caffeine doesn’t hype you up, the sugar will!
  • You will nearly always get a small cup of water to go with your shot of coffee. And you can ask for more.
  • A “Café Americain” is simply a weak form of coffee that you do not get to dilute yourself like the “allongé” version mentioned above. Yes, they do look down on it. Pfff!

HITT Tip: Standing at a bar in a café in most countries – particularly Italy and France – is the way many get their quick dose of caffeine. And pay less. Yes, if you don’t take a table you will pay less for your joe. 

Coffee culture in France means different pricing at the bar or at the seat.

Note the price difference on the menu — at the bar (comptoir) is as we note usually cheaper than seated (salle) — not insignificantly!

Italy – Ah, Italy, for such a seemingly laid-back country, we have never seen such shock at ordering a cappuccino after lunch. Gasps all the way around. We quickly learned that “one does not drink” cappuccinos or any caffeine beverage with milk after breakfast or perhaps after about mid-morning. Never. Period. Don’t dream of it. Later in the day, such as after lunch or dinner, it is all about a thick dark very short brew. Be prepared for shock if you want otherwise; apologize in advance; and know you will be fodder for a story that evening somewhere. You will see people streaming into coffee shops to order “un caffè” (not an espresso, puuuleease), and they take it like a drug, standing up at the counter, put in plenty of sugar, lift the doll-sized cup, and sling it back with a backward toss of the head. Done. Go on with your day. What is this dawdle and sip thing you Americans do? And why would we dilute the pure caffeine with cakes or crumpets?

Good to know:

  • Coffee is such a part of life in Italy that you will be an alien if you do not drink it. Instant powder? Holy Leaning Tower of Pisa falling over, no!
  • Flavored coffee or other gingerbread and add-ins? EEEK! Don’t dream of it. But do add plenty of sugar, always delivered with your coffee.
  • In Italy too you will usually get a small cup of water to chase down the burn.
Coffee culture in Italy with very small cups

Yes, this is a cup of coffee in Italy…. Flavor, outstanding, but can we have more please?

HITT Tip: Take a look at Oxford Dictionary’s blog post on coffee terminology to help round out your vocabulary.

Spain – Hot days, late sunsets, steamy cups of java all day long, however you like it. In the morning, it may more likely be a cafe con leche (espresso with milk, much like is drunk in France). Although they too tend toward the milky version in the morning and sway toward the potent black little cups of espresso after lunch and in the afternoon, you won’t get a raised eyebrow if you want the leche in your coffee later either. Breakfast may only be a warm flaky croissant with that caffeine (maybe because they eat dinner so late they aren’t ready for more?). But a strong shot of caffeine toward what we Americans would call “dinner time” is just a warm-up to stay awake for dinner hours later … around 10 p.m. or so.

Good to know:

  • Dawdling at a coffee bar – even if you are standing – is not considered the thing to do in Spain. Slurp your reviving jolt and get movin’.
  • If those itty cups filled with joe are so strong you need a spoon, you can also have a Café Americano in Spain: watered down coffee, and sometimes the water comes on the side like in France.

We want to know why a watered-down coffee in the rest of the world is named after America? In fact, only recently I was in France and the host at my bed and breakfast wanted to know how I liked my coffee. When I said, strong and black, he said, “Oh, so not American.” There you have it. Whatever way you like it, now you know you’ll also live longer. Want to be sure you can always make an excellent cup of coffee no matter where in the world you are? Then read our story, A perfect travel coffee maker: The coffee fix for travelers.

You might also be interested in reading:

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  1. Wendy

    My husband and I love coffee and tea. When we were in England we saw they had different kinds of coffee than we normally see in the United States, like a flat white. Which we are now addicted to. Thanks for your post now we know what to order when we are traveling in Europe.

  2. Mila Mili

    Holy Leaning Tower of Pisa 🙂 , this is a perfect read for all coffee addicts like me!!
    Glad to read that coffee lovers live longer. It seems I will live forever! 🙂

    Yes, I love coffee in all forms and sizes and not only European. I love from short espresso and coffee latte to Americano, Kafe Melange, strong Turkish coffee, sweet Vietnamese coffee, Arabic coffee with cardamom, instant Nescafe, Kopi Luwak …

    Viva cafe!

  3. Lara Dunning

    As a non-coffee drinker I didn’t realize that different countries served coffee in so many different ways. Very interesting read and good to know for the hubs.

  4. yukti agrawal

    I loved reading coffee culture all around the world. I am tea person but smell of coffee always enchants me. Good to knew that coffee increases life span of a person. Now I will also start taking coffee every day atleast once.

  5. maggiemckneely

    What a fun post!! I loved this!! I was not a coffee drinker until I went to Italy, which also happened to be my first trip abroad. Their cappucinos won me over, and I’ve been a coffee drinker ever since. But it’s so true – don’t dare order one after lunch!! And high tea in England – I was so confused when I learned that that was actually a legitimate meal and not just tea with biscuits!

  6. Himanshu Barsainya

    Though I am a coffee lover but could not taste coffee at different places. After reading your post, I would do this too in future. Good to know Brits are drinking more coffee than tea.
    Drink coffee, live longer.

  7. Joshua Schweigert

    When traveling through Europe a few months ago I can’t believe how much cafe lattes I had. I was a pretty consistent coffee drinker in the states but once I had my first sip in England, I was drinking 3-4 a day if not more. So delicious!

  8. Astrid Vinje

    I come from a coffee city (Seattle), and I have to say, I do enjoy trying coffee in different parts of the world. I can’t believe Brits enjoy coffee now!I can’t wait to try cafe au lait when we’re in France this year!

  9. Alison Browne

    This post really made me smile! I just met 2 Italians travelling in Chile that were horrified by the coffee! This past summer, I stood at the bar in Paris and ordered my “noisette.” I felt so French! I will have to try a “café allongé” on the next visit. Love the tips for Austria/ Germany and Switzerland. And.. the quote to start it all is a keeper!

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