The complex love affair between Finns and coffee – the history of coffee in Finland

Coffee arrived in Finland like it did to other countries in Europe too: as a luxury good that was first enjoyed by the wealthy upper class but then slowly gaining popularity among peasant also. In late 1800’s coffee was no longer reserved for special occasions only but enjoyed everyday by everyone. Before this was possible, though, Finns had to figure out how to prepare the beans they had managed to acquire. Stories tell of unfortunate guests who politely had to decline when they were offered coffee beans floating on a bowl of water or fresh coffee grounds on a plate.

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Finns have not always had the opportunity to drink coffee as much as they do now. During the 18th century, Sweden, to which Finland was then part of, attempted to set three coffee prohibition laws to prevent frivolous citizens using all their money on foreign luxury goods. All of the prohibitions were, to the annoyance of the government, unsuccessful. King Gustav IV announced that his citizens were such “scoundrels” that they would not stop drinking coffee no matter what. However, the wartime in the beginning of 20th century did put a halt on Finnish coffee consumption. As all food products were sparse, including coffee, every household was only allowed two packs of coffee per year. Finally, coffee run out completely and Finns were forced to drink supplements made of dandelion roots and chicory. The coffee packages were labelled with the text ”does not contain coffee”, which probably depressed Finns even more than the war itself.

The year 1946 brought some relief though. Finland was waiting for a ship, s/s Herakles, to arrive from Brazil. The captain had had one order only: to bring with him as much coffee as possible. When the ship finally returned, the Governor of the National bank, three ministers, a film crew and a crowd of over thousand citizens were waiting at the harbour. A chain of police officials was needed to hold the excited crowd back. As the coffee beans were loaded into trains, the caffeine deprived people picked every loose bean from the ground to take home with them. A similar cargo of sugar had arrived a year earlier but it had not attracted nearly as much attention as the cargo of coffee did.

In many countries, coffee is strongly associated with cafés. In Finland however, because urbanization is a new phenomenon and café culture is still young, 70 % of coffee is usually enjoyed everywhere else but in cafés. It is not common for Finns to throw large dinner parties but instead, coffee with buns, pastries and cakes are at the centre of the celebration. Coffee accompanies every major life event from weddings to funerals but also fuels the ordinary day to day work life. Even the Finnish collective labour agreement specifically says that all work shifts lasting over six hours should have at least two coffee breaks. This makes Finland the only country where the right to have coffee has been legally recognized.

The Coffee Etiquette

The Finnish coffee parties used to have a tight coffee etiquette. Old and funny as the etiquette may seem, many of the rules (but thankfully, not all) continue to live today. Perhaps the rules are universal and you find many that you have unintentionally followed yourself?

  • When the host announced that the coffee was ready, it was considered greedy to rush to the table immediately. Instead, guests were expected to wait for the host to ask at least a few times first.
  • The first piece of the cake was reserved for the highest-ranking guest, usually the minister.
  • A guest was expected to only take three pastries at a time and all of them a different sort.
  • It was considered bad manners to cool coffee by blowing. Stirring with a spoon was acceptable, provided that the spoon was set back at the coffee dish before taking a sip.  
  • When taking a sip, the cup had to be lifted together with the dish.
  • The host offered a refill to the highest-ranking guest first, then to the second highest and so on. It was sometimes difficult for the host to know what the order of rank was.
  • An acceptable amount of refills was three cups. Any more was considered greedy. The last coffee cups had to be only halves. (“More coffee, madam?” “Well, maybe just a half a cup, thank you.”)

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Anna Ventola grew up in a small town in southern Finland. She is doing her Master´s degree in geography and is interested in wellbeing and sustainable ways of living, which she believes are often connected. She gets excited by creative collaborations that broaden our understanding of the world and encourage positive change. She is an advocate for equality, courage and building bridges through communication. Like a stereotypical Finn, she does not do small talk well but thrives in deep meaningful conversations. On her spare time, Anna tries to balance her longing for outdoor adventures with her desire to stay indoors reading, writing and dancing. Anna believes in joy, humour and taking care of each other. If you catch her procrastinating, it is because she has found a cute dog video.

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The project ‘Nordic Reading Corner’ is financially supported by The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade www.norveska.org.rs