If you’re planning to travel abroad, experiencing different cultural traditions can be one of the most enjoyable aspects. Unique cuisines can have a profound impact on a traveler, like digging into another country’s beloved dish or discovering unique and local ingredients and drinks.
While the basics of coffee around the world are typically the same—coffee grounds and water—coffee cultures and drinks can vary wildly from place to place. Learning these nuances and different country’s coffee habits can open a travelers’ eyes to new cultures.
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that most other countries have very different coffee traditions than we do. These include how frequent coffee or coffee drinks are consumed, and how they are brewed and served.
European café culture centers around espresso and espresso-based milk drinks. In Italy and France, espresso is king. Italians mix milk into espresso with breakfast, enjoying a cappuccino (equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk) or a café latte (espresso with more steamed milk and less foam). Italians take coffee breaks throughout the day; however, after breakfast they typically do not mix in any milk and order just an espresso. These short, strong shots are often enjoyed standing at the coffee bar. If you’re looking for something similar to the drip coffee you brew at home, an Americano is what you want to order. This is espresso with added hot water and is most like American drip coffee.
In France, cafés line the large boulevards and small neighborhood streets. Like the Italians, the French only drink coffee with milk at breakfast, and this is usually done at home. The café au lait is served in a small bowl instead of a mug to allow for dipping in pastry or bread. When visiting a café, typically menus are not given as there are only a few common options to choose from. Café is the word for coffee in French but ordering un café will produce an espresso. A café allonge will be similar to an American drip coffee, but is an espresso diluted with water.
Moving east, China’s coffee-drinking habits are very new compared to European and South American countries. Historically, tea was the main beverage, and it was consumed multiple times a day in China. In 1999, Starbucks opened its first location in Beijing. Since then, coffee has grown there in popularity. Because Starbucks helped introduce coffee to the Chinese, its menu creators drive the popular drinks—which are quite different from those you would find at a Starbucks menu in the United States.
Unlike China and other Asian countries, coffee is a mainstay in the diet in Vietnam. Vietnam is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, and Vietnamese coffee is well known for its strong flavor. Coffee is typically slow roasted and then slowly steeped and brewed, producing an intense brew. There are two popular ways to have coffee in Vietnam. One, Ca Phe Nau, is coffee with condensed milk. The other is Ca Phe Den, or black coffee. The use of condensed or sweetened condensed milk dates back to when fresh milk was not readily available in Vietnam.
Swinging south to Brazil—the world’s largest coffee-producing country—coffee is essential to daily life since it plays such a huge role in the economy of the country. The most popular way to drink coffee in Brazil is simple—black with heaping mounds of sugar. This is a cafezinho. When milk is added, the café-com-leite, the ratio of milk to coffee is unbalanced. This drink often has much more milk than coffee. Espresso based drinks are not as common here.
While every country and culture have its own signature drinks and ways of serving coffee, there is one common theme—we’re all looking for the best cup of coffee. We just get there in different ways.