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Why Is Espresso Served With Lemon? (It’s Really Not Why You Think)

Be it a zest, twist, or a whole wedge; lemon is an accompaniment to espresso which so many of us are familiar with. As great as it looks in a picture on Instagram; has anyone ever stopped and wondered why? It is a bit of a strange pairing if you think about it. Why is espresso served with lemon?

When you think of a fresh brewed cup of espresso it’s natural to imagine an authentic Italian scene. The warm Mediterranean climate and the Italian scenery appear to go hand in hand with a fresh lemon wedge to round off the beverage.

The tradition of pairing lemon with a coffee sounds Italian in origin but actually this is not the case. In reality the coupling was likely developed to offset the bitterness typically associated with an over-extracted espresso.

Why Is Espresso Served With Lemon? (It's Really Not Why You Think)

Roots In Italy?

It’s often called Espresso Romano, in America lemon with coffee is often thought to be a traditional Italian invention.

In Italy, and Rome in particular, lemon with espresso, or any coffee, is pretty much unheard of. If anything is mixed with espresso it is either sugar, milk, water, or liquor.

As it turns out, it is just a myth that lemon is a traditional Italian coffee garnish. In fact, if you were to ask for some lemon with your coffee in Italy, you would get some odd looks.

Where Did It All Begin?

So lemon with coffee didn’t originate in Rome or anywhere else in Italy. The combination didn’t just appear out of thin air. How did the Café Romano trend begin?

In Europe During WWII

While there is little historical evidence; one rumor says that lemons were used to clean coffee cups during WWII because water was scarce.

The story goes that coffee shops must have, somehow, had more lemons than water. Knowing lemon has disinfecting properties it can be used to clean things. Running a coffee shop with water being rare meant it had to be saved for only making coffee.

A Garnish To Mask A Bad Espresso

If an espresso is brewed badly; unwanted flavors are extracted from the grounds alongside the lovely flavors you do want. Fortunately, the unwanted harsh bitter flavors usually only pour into the cup toward the end of the brew, so the flavors you do want are already there.

To counter that unwanted bitterness; a squeeze of lemon could bring your cup of joe back into balance.

The Union Of Java and Citrus

Another origin story goes that an Italian-American restaurant owner loved both coffee and citrus. Feeling that both went great together, the restauranteur served lemon beside espresso and so the trend began.

When Life Gives You Lemons; How Should You Use Your Lemon?

There are three variants of our citrus side. These three are:

  • Zest. This is just the yellow skin of the lemon. Usually served as a long thing spiral of zingyness.
  • Twist. This is all of the rind excluding the juicy lemon inner.
  • Wedge. This is a full on slice of lemon. Skin, rind, and juicy fruity inner.

A Squeeze

Possibly the most common treatment for your dissection of lemon is to squeeze whatever juices you can into your coffee.

This habit comes from the idea that the lemon is to offset bitterness. If your coffee is well brewed, it probably won’t need it. Then again; there is a difference between needing it and simply liking it in there.

While I would say to give your coffee a taste first to make sure it’s not overly bitter; there’s no reason not to include that citrus zing if that’s what you like.

A Dab On The Rim

Rubbing lemon on the rim of your coffee cup stems back to the idea that lemon was once used to clean coffee cups.

While coffee cups certainly don’t need extra sanitization these days; it does add a nice lemony twang to your sip.

Suck It

Sucking on some lemon before or after your brew reminds me of tequila slammers. Who knows, maybe some salt would go nicely?

More realistically; it would make for an effective palette cleanser. Whether you’re looking to taste the full flavor of your coffee, or whatever you’re having after, it’ll do the trick.

Stick It In

Just dunking your lemon into the brew, like it’s a glass of coke, really is going the whole hog with infusing that citrus zing. You know what? It works.

While you do have a lump of lemon floating around in your java it certainly gets the taste of lemon in there. If offsetting bitterness is your goal then it’s mission achieved. Like that lemon flavor in there? It’s very present.

The Coffee Purist Opinion

From a purely coffee purist opinion, an espresso shouldn’t need anything to accompany it.

Technically speaking, a perfectly brewed espresso shouldn’t be at all unpleasantly bitter. Ideally, there would be well balanced sweet component to the flavor.

If something is actually needed to offset bitterness in an espresso then the brew has been over extracted. That unpleasant bitterness usually only creeps into the cup at the end of the extraction and appears as a lighter color, or dark black, of froth. Ideally, a non-bitter espresso has a rich dark brown frothy crema on top.

In essence, from a coffee purist stand point, serving espresso with some lemon to counter bitterness is like saying, “here you go, this espresso is probably burnt”.

What Else Is Served With Coffee? (Coffee Pairing Ideas)


I am a massive chocaholic. If there’s any food or drink that comes close to my love for coffee it’s chocolate. It’s no surprise chocolate is top of this list. It’s also less of a surprise that coffee and chocolate go great together.

That’s why we have mocha.

There’s more to chocolate than just chocolate. As just a toe into the chocolate world, I can say from copious amounts of personal experience that these chocolate variants are ideal coffee accompaniments.

  • Dark Chocolate
  • Brownies
  • Chocolate Cake
  • Chocolate-Dipped Fruit
  • White Chocolate
  • Milk Chocolate


Dutch for syrup-waffle; these things are delicious. Like a cookie, but filled with caramel.

Balance a stroopwafel in top of your coffee mug and just leave it there for a minute. The steam heats it up and transforms your stroopwafel into a wonderful gooey disc of heaven.

For best result, find a Dutch stroopwafel.

Lotus Biscoff

There is an art to dunking your Biscoff in coffee. While they are great dry; they are other worldly when dunked in coffee.

They need the quickest dunk though. If you let the coffee soak in too much then the Biscoff quickly falls apart.

It’s a quick dunk and chomp. It’s no mystery why these little things are served gratis with coffee all around the world.

Fruit (That Isn’t Lemon)

Does any fruit not go with coffee?

If you like a fruit, and you like coffee, then why not enjoy them together? Two tasty, and healthy, things at once. All over the world coffee is enjoyed with a side of fruits of all kind.

Some fruit which are lovely paired with coffee:

  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Banana
  • Dates
  • Grapes
  • Mango
  • Orange
  • Apple


It’s not traditional and it’s certainly less known. Coffee and cheese is a delicious pairing.

When enjoying a cheese board, why not include a coffee to compliment it? It might sound strange but the flavors do go together wonderfully.


Café und kuchen, coffee and cake, is a popular phrase in Germany. It’s no surprise too. Everyone loves cake and coffee only makes it better.

I feel like café und kuchen could be easily taken as an excuse to eat lots of cake and fair enough too.


A classic in France and a delicious breakfast treat. Whether you prefer your croissant with jam, butter, or both; they famously go well with coffee.

Pain Au Chocolate

Chocolate goes great with coffee. To make it slightly more acceptable as a breakfast, why not cook it into pastry and make it an option beside croissants?


While everyone knows about sweet muffins what about, the more savory variant, breakfast muffins?

They’re a little handful of breakfast. They can come with any filling you like: ham and cheese, sundried tomato and spinach, or my personal favorite, the classic egg muffin. They go perfectly with a fresh mug of java.


Nothing beats a classic New York bagel. They are delicious with coffee and perfect to take on the go.

Got time to sit and eat? They’re delicious to sit and take your time to eat too.


Like with muffins; there are sweet scones and there are savory scones. Better yet; they both have a place beside coffee.

It’s a classic English treat, and if you haven’t tried one, it’s super easy to whip up a batch at home. Serve a scone with a coffee to impress your guests.

For fruit scones, check out this recipe at Bake From Scratch

For more savory scones check out this recipe from Jamie Oliver. You can trust a Jamie Oliver Recipe.

Scones are usually made as thick cylinder-shaped lumps in the UK. I think that’s the best way to make them; not as a wedge. But That’s just me.

Coffee Cake

Coffee and cake, café und kuchen, are already famously good counterparts. So it doesn’t take much of a leap to bake coffee into your cake.

Check out this recipe at liluna to make your own delicious coffee cake


1 Comment
  1. Nope. It was to clean the cups. People were not accustomed to using “public” crockery.

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