Norwegian coffee culture 101
It’s a golden age for the Scandinavian drink that’s more than just a shot of caffeine
“Skavita’npause?” my Norwegian professor asked, an hour into my level 2 Norwegian language class at the University of Oslo’s summer school. We blinked at him for a moment, silent. He slowed it down for us.
“Skal vi ta en pause?” he asked, slowly and carefully enunciating this time. “Shall we take a break?”
He was talking about a coffee break, of course, and he wouldn’t let us take one until we could repeat the question back to him the way he’d asked it the first time—quickly, with all the words blurred together, the way a native speaker would say it. This was a cultural education as much as a linguistic one. The first thing you learn about lectures over an hour long in Norway is that there will always be coffee breaks. Coffee is really very important.
This isn’t news to anyone who grew up with Scandinavian heritage, but experiencing it firsthand in Norway was still a new experience for me. Norwegians may not have the cute word that the Swedes do—fika—but they certainly have the concept of a long coffee break (with treats, of course; many of Norway’s best coffee shops are also bakeries). The coffee break is a staple.
The coffee being made these days isn’t quite the same as it was half a century ago, however. Where uniform packages of pre-ground dark coffee of unknown origin were once the norm, most coffee shops now carry beans from single origins, with notes detailing which farm or farms they came from, the harvest date, how the beans were processed, and the most forward flavors (“plums, red apples, and chocolate,” proclaims the bag of Caballero beans from Honduras in my kitchen cupboard). These days, the coffee roasters in Norway and its Scandinavian neighbors are known for favoring very light roasts—you could say the beans are “gently roasted”—and depending on your brew method, the end result may even resemble a dark tea more than a traditional dark coffee. It’s a trend that’s catching on in the States, too. Roasting the beans more gently so that the color stays lighter also means preserving more of the natural flavors present in the beans before processing. Coffee beans are just the pits of the fruits of the coffee plant, after all.
While you can still buy pre-ground mystery beans at Norwegian grocery stores, the coffee shops are where coffee culture truly flourishes. While you do see the occasional laptop in a Norwegian coffee shop, they’re rare to my American eyes; these spaces are first and foremost still places to gather and socialize. As mentioned before, the kaffepause is important, and it’s truly a break from work. In Tromsø, where I live, the no. 1 ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor is a coffee bar. And while Starbucks has infiltrated Norway in the last five years (the first location opened at Oslo’s airport in 2011), it has yet to make it this far north. In the majority of Norway, local shops and small Norwegian chains are the rule. In these shops alongside the coffee beans and baked goods, you’ll find all manner of equipment for sale in order to brew the beans yourself at home: everything from fancy scales and grinders to whatever brew method you like best, be it Chemex, Aeropress, or Japanese pour-over drippers and carafes.
When in Norway:
• Tim Wendelboe www.timwendelboe.no
• Fuglen, fuglen.no
• Bergen Kaffebrenneri kaffebrenneri.de.gpu.no
• Risø, www.risoe-mk.no
• Kaffebønna, www.kaffebonna.no
For more information about Nordic coffee culture and a larger list of coffee shops, nordiccoffeeculture.com is a fantastic resource.
As for the roasters themselves (and the baristas turning their beans into drinks), they’re pretty world class—Norwegians often win the World Barista Championships. It would be impossible to write about Norwegian coffee culture and not mention Tim Wendelboe, arguably the coffee roaster in Oslo best known on an international scale. Named for its founder, Tim Wendelboe provides a sort of archetype for Nordic coffee culture. On the customer’s end, their single origin beans are lightly roasted and feature all the hallmarks of what we’ve come to expect in Norway, although it is admittedly expensive. But there’s good reason for that: on the supplier’s side, Tim Wendelboe is incredibly invested in making sure the farmers and cooperatives they purchase from are being paid a fair price for their beans and their labor. Transparency is the goal, and this model is an increasingly common one. Wendelboe himself has even gone one step further: in 2015 he bought a coffee farm in Colombia, largely as a learning project. It’s an incredibly hands-on approach to learning more about how the coffee is farmed in order to be better equipped to process it down the line.
When the supply chain is this transparent and the coffee is this good, it’s all the more reason to linger over that cup of coffee with a friend, savoring the flavor of the brew as well as the atmosphere and company you’re sharing it with. So, skal vi ta en pause?
Dianna Walla is a writer and knitwear designer living and studying in Tromsø, Norway. She writes about baking at cakeandvikings.com and about knitting at paper-tiger.net. Find her on Instagram at @cakeandvikings.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.