The Reason European Cafes Serve Shots Of Water With Their Coffee

Many visitors to Italy are excited to order their first caffè from a bar in the country. They may have done their research so they know that ordering and drinking their coffee while standing at the bar is the most economical way to go (and what the locals do). And, of course, they understand that they only have until 11:00 a.m. to order a cappuccino or café latte without getting questionable looks. What may come as a surprise is the small glass of water that the barista sets down next to the espresso they've requested. 

You're most likely to experience this phenomenon in Naples, Piemonte, and Liguria, but not so much in Milan or Rome. In short, this is a gesture of Italian coffee etiquette that dates back to ancient coffee roasters who offered customers water to cleanse the palate either before or after the coffee was enjoyed. The practice has survived to modern-day cafes either because the method makes sense, and they want their coffee to be experienced at its most pure — or because Italians are notoriously protective of traditions. Perhaps it's a little bit of both. While adding water to coffee beans before grinding largely prevents mess, drinking water alongside an espresso shot is purely for enjoying the flavor. 

Italian cafes used to roast their own coffee beans

The first Italian coffeehouse opened in Venice in the late 17th century. Over the next 100 years, more than 200 more existed in the Venetian area alone. It was customary for these cafes to roast their own coffee beans, thus creating their own signature coffees. Of course, the proprietors wanted customers to taste and appreciate their craft, so they offered water to cleanse the palate of any food or drinks they'd had before the coffee. Thus, patrons could enjoy the full flavor of the drink. Building from this tradition, most people today will drink the water before consuming their coffee.

Still others choose to drink the water after they've drunk the coffee. This is sometimes done when the customer thinks the coffee tastes sour, bitter, or otherwise unpleasant. People may also do this to avoid their mouths feeling dry as the result of unripe coffee beans; however, it's also simply instinctual for many and often has nothing to do with a negative coffee experience. They simply may not know that drinking water after the coffee might be insulting to the cafe. Another popular practice is to sip the water both before and after the coffee to cleanse the palate twice. 

Does the type of water matter?

If you are drinking the water before your coffee, it largely doesn't matter what kind of water you choose and is mostly a matter of taste and preference; however, while the bubbles in sparkling water may cleanse your palate better, they can also have a mild anesthetic effect on your taste buds, deadening the flavor a bit. Therefore, if you are a serious coffee aficionado, still water may be a better choice for you. Some agree that sparkling water will also better help battle the effects of coffee breath (when you drink it post-coffee) since it's a stronger palate cleanser than still water. 

The temperature of your water doesn't really matter at all. Some might enjoy the sharp contrast between ice cold water and hot espresso while others find room temperature water easier to drink. 

If a glass of water comes with your espresso in Italy, it's safe to assume that you are in a coffeehouse that embraces traditional coffee practices. Enjoy the experiment and find out which method you prefer: drinking the water pre- or post-coffee, or both. While caffeinated drinks won't actually kill your hydration, caffeinated coffee is stilla diuretic. If you don't want to drink it for the sake of appreciating every nuanced flavor of the coffee beans, at least replenish the water in your system before a long day of sightseeing.