Greece’s national drink is not ouzo, or wine, or raki. It’s the frappé: a French-inflected, cold instant coffee drink made out of Nescafe and water. That Greece, a country better known for its insistence on using fresh, local produce, would so wholeheartedly embrace a freeze-dried coffee more closely associated with the pragmatic needs of soldiers during World War II than any sort of culinary delicacy is part of the frappé’s appeal.
“It's home-grown as a beverage, despite it being instant coffee,” Vivian Constantinopoulos, co-author of the book Frappe Nation, told MUNCHIES by email. Like all worthwhile culinary inventions—chocolate chip cookies, nachos, beer—the frappé was born by accident. It was 1957, and at the World Fair exhibition in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, Nescafe sales representative Dimitrios Vakondios wanted a coffee. Origin stories differ: either there was no hot water available, or he was simply overheated, but either way the enterprising Vakondios grabbed a shaker meant for a Nesquik cocoa drink, added some granules of Nescafe and sugar, shook vigorously, and poured out what would swiftly become Greece’s preferred beverage, especially in the summer.
Nescafe took the drink and ran with it. By the 1980s, Greek television and radio was filled with advertisements and jingles, aggressively, if somewhat confusingly, promoting the frappé lifestyle: beautiful people jumping fully clothed into pools, beautiful people jumping off yachts holding umbrellas, beautiful people paragliding, singing, flirting, and dancing. “Stop for a bit, make a Nescafe!” a chorus cheerfully sings; it’s a refrain every Greek over 35 knows by heart. Today’s advertisements are less aspirational, and about the simple ways a multinational corporation’s beverage supports your everyday life. Whether you have to wake up at the crack of dawn, or you’re watching a sunset in Santorini, a Nescafe frappé will be there for you.
It’s a simple combination: a spoonful of freeze-dried instant coffee mixed vigorously with cold water, poured over ice cubes. Sugar can be added in various degrees; condensed milk can be trickled over the top. The shaking is absolutely essential: it produces a thick, slightly bitter foam that stays intact as you drink. “It's a taste of Greece: Greeks have grown up with frappé, so have acquired a taste for it. For many Greeks a frappé is the beverage equivalent of comfort-food: it's inbuilt with taste memories and Greeks feel at home with it,” says Constantinopoulos.
Frappé is everywhere in Greece: offices, car rental agencies, shops, the airport, in Parliament meetings. Take a taxi often enough in Athens and eventually the driver will stop to buy a frappé. One guest even turned up to my wedding with a frappé, slurping throughout the ceremony. You can purchase little plastic cups with packets of Nescafe and sugar in any newsstand or supermarket. It’s egalitarian in price: most cafes serve frappé for about one or two euros, though at certain bars in Mykonos the cost can shoot up to an eye-watering 15 euros.
Throughout the crisis, people continue to drink frappé, though it’s not really considered a luxury; drinking frappé, and the social aspects around it, are integral to Greek life. Like any lifestyle, it has its own jargon: watery frappé is dismissed as nerozoumi (water-brew), overly sweet frappé is dubbed petimezi (grape molasses), and a frappé that’s too strong is labeled dynamitis (dynamite). It must be drank siga-siga (slowly), partly for health reasons: a single drink with two tablespoons of instant coffee has over 400 milligrams of caffeine, or the equivalent of four espresso shots. Drink two frappés, and you’ve doubled the daily caffeine intake for healthy adults.
The caffeine sustains the drinker, which is integral to the social fabric of Greek coffee drinking. The frappé is an extension of a centuries-long Greek tradition of sitting in kafeneio (cafes), discussing politics and life, fingering komboloi (worry beads), and playing endless games of backgammon.
“A frappé allows you to sit and chat for hours: not only is it sipped slowly, but the foam remains in the glass for a long while; it doesn't disappear quickly—the drink doesn't suddenly go flat,” explains Constantinopoulos. “And Greek culture is one of conversation, of debate; Greece is not a taciturn nation. Even the phrase ‘ pame yia cafe’ is a synonym for let's go out, let's get together and catch up; there's an understanding that one needs to make time for communication and conversation. Frappé—a long, slow drink—facilitates this.”
Increasingly on-the-go, the Greek obsession for frappé extends beyond cafes, where the beverage is served in glasses. Part of the appeal of the frappé, as with any coffee, is that it’s portable. “On the go” might seem to be a contradiction given the frappé’s history, but it’s common to see trash cans overflowing with plastic cups and straws, or littered on the street. It’s becoming a problem for Greece. A 2015 study found that 60 percent of Greece’s litter was concentrated around the Saronic Gulf near Athens; 95 percent of that litter was composed of single-use plastic, like bags, straws, and cups.
In January, the European Union launched a 12-year program aimed at reducing plastic waste across its member states, Greece included. Greece has made some positive steps to reducing plastic—on January 1, 2018, stores introduced a pay policy for plastic bags (Greeks use an average 296 per year; compare that with the conservative 4 Finnish people use). "Plastic is the most difficult material, given its chemical composition," Ioanna Kapsimali, an environmental officer at Fyli, Greece’s largest landfill, told the Christian Science Monitor in April.
Greenpeace estimates that Greeks use 1 million plastic coffee cups a day. A new project is aiming to reduce that waste by encouraging cafes across the country to offer discounts to customers who bring reusable cups into the shop. The project is called Sto Potiri Mou, meaning “in my cup.” In Greece, there’s a good chance it’s filled with frappé.