I had a friend pitch me this article since it is a widespread phenomenon, and there may be unexpected reasons for it. While I couldn’t really find anything on the history of post-meal coffee, I collected the best reasons I could find with whatever evidence there was.
Why do people drink coffee after dinner?
People around the world drink coffee after dinner to aid digestion, increase alertness, and stimulate conversation. Some use it for weight loss or appetite suppression, or to enhance the taste of desserts.
But, as usual, there is more to it than that one simple paragraph.
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I do find it interesting when talking about cultural things that the writer of each site seems to betray their own ethnocentrism – they seem to think that their country has stupefyingly complex reasons for something, while other countries have only one simple reason. I don’t intend to do that, as every country has variations between traditions, regions, and individuals. Instead, I’ll just mention some examples and avoid representing the entire nation.
My first intuition was that the caffeine would be used to counteract the effects of a heavy meal, allowing for more and more lively conversation after enjoying a meal together. It turns out that this is true in some places.
However, there’s more to it than that.
The Dutch believe that it helps with digestion, so they have what’s called a “reverse coffee” (koffie verkeerd). It differs from a café au lait by adding less coffee to steamed milk than usual. The belief is that it helps with digestion.
In France, they serve coffee with cognac after dinner, or maybe in the form of a “café granit” – a supposedly sweet, intense coffee with mocha liqueur. However, for the life of me, I can only find information on café granit here and here; neither are credible nor in agreement.
As well, the French consider coffee a course all its own, and is traditionally served after dessert. These days, it’s becoming more common to take them together, though.
In Italy, coffee is expected to be provided after the meal (with the exception of breakfast). One oddity I found was that they don’t find it acceptable to order a cappuccino if it’s after noon – it’s considered heavy and is a meal in itself (a complete breakfast, even), and the milk is thought to hamper digestion.
This last part seems to be especially important for anyone Italian (or Italian-adjacent) talking about consuming cappuccinos. Apparently, they think a lot about digestion. They really believe that milk is terrible for digestion. One source said milk is bad in the evening for the same reason that orange juice is… but then didn’t follow up on what that reason might be (found here). However, espressos are acceptable at any time of the day – except with the aforementioned meals. (source)
Immigrant nations, like Canada and America, will likely have greater diversity than usual in their explanations for after-dinner coffee because the people who immigrate will often bring their coffee customs alongside their other traditions. It’s uncommon, but apparently rural parts of North America find it agreeable to drink coffee with the meal, not following it. Other cultures may find this weird because coffee often indicates that the meal is over and it’s time to smoke, as the flavors mingle well.
There are two far-flung traditions that originated in France (I assume because they’re French words) known as apéritifs and digestifs. The first is a food or beverage intended to encourage an appetite before a meal. The second, digestifs, are used after a meal to help encourage digestion. Liquor, caffeine, and nicotine have all been used to help with digestion, particularly after overindulging.
Finally, it seems that some cultures believe the bitter coffee can make the sweetness of the dessert even sweeter. To me, it seems that you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul with this move – your dessert will taste sweeter, but your coffee will be as bitter as an ex-spouse attending your second wedding.
Contrary to the previous paragraph, others seem to believe that the bitter coffee will cut the sweetness of the dessert. I don’t know how that is possible, but to each their own. To me, it sounds like trying to make a whisper seem louder by shouting in your ear – the contrast would only be exaggerated.
Satisfaction and Satiety
Some theorized that coffee, like desserts, is served after a meal to ensure that guests leave satisfied. Apparently, desserts were originally used in such a way because they’re calorie-dense, and this will signal to the body that you’ve had enough to eat. Another theory was that fruit-based desserts would have enzymes that aid in digestion.
Caffeine, likewise, is an appetite suppressant, and coffee has many helpful enzymes, so a restaurant or host that wants their guests to leave satisfied may offer this to top off whatever room is left in their guests’ appetite.
In short, it’s part of being a good host to make sure your guests are satisfied.
As well, many families and friends will find that serving coffee after dinner allows for the festivities to remain lively, resulting in a better time. That’s just good hosting!
Socialization and Discussion
When people are alert, energetic, and satiated, they will be more likely to talk and discuss ideas and events.
It’s been said that Western civilization has developed as rapidly as it did thanks to the introduction of caffeine and the advent of coffee houses. In these places, politics, philosophy, and group coordination sprung forward because of the effects of caffeine. Kings and Shahs have been wary of them for this reason.
However, if you want your dinner to be a success, mixing in caffeine and alcohol after meals for wakefulness and sociability is a good call. It may mess up your sleep that night, but perhaps the social boost is worth it.
Some people believe that alcohol helps with digestion and bowel movements, while others may imbibe because they believe it helps with increasing their metabolism and suppressing appetites.
According to this site, espressos (unexpectedly) help slow digestion, making it easier for your body to process heavier meals. It also does not cause stomach ulcers, acid reflux, or indigestion – those are generally caused by the food being consumed.
There seem to be positive health effects from caffeine consumption, and that may also be why people drink coffee after meals.
As well, coffee appears to prevent gallstones in both men and women (source). There are also a whole whack of other positive effects (including a reduced rate of death from all causes), but they’re not directly related to post-meal consumption. (More here: Healthline, Harvard, Huffpo, Woman’sDay)
The most obvious reason is that coffee helps you to be more alert. If your meal is particularly large and carb-heavy, then you will probably have a hard time staying awake. (Side note: if you doubt that carbs, in particular, make you sleepy, try eating a fat- and protein-rich lunch with salad and note how your wakefulness doesn’t dip.)
The fix? Coffee!
Some people just want to extend their day into the night, while others may have plans to go out afterward. Whatever the reason, counteracting the post-meal sluggishness is a popular reason for consuming it.
Matthew Walker PhD (Why We Sleep, 2017) does a good job of explaining why caffeine is not good to take in the afternoon, let alone after dinner. Caffeine lingers in your system for many hours and will disrupt the quality of your sleep if taken later in the day. This can lead to a vicious cycle where you wake up tired and turn to even more coffee throughout the day.
Knowing this, you may want to limit your consumption of caffeine after meals unless you think it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
This isn’t to say to avoid it altogether, but just to be aware of the cost. This video expands on that.
People drink coffee for plenty of reasons, be they cultural, health, social, or intellectual. It’s a wonderful drug that has helped shape the world as it is today. However, it should be noted that you don’t want to regularly drink it in the afternoon, as it can cause your sleep quality to drop significantly.