Bitter sump oil, ersatz, latte, and Starbucks - Finland's long love-affair with the coffee bean
Riitta Forsman, Liisa Allas, and
By Jaana Rinne
Finland’s first coffee shop was established 260 years ago.
Around 60 years ago, the Paulig roasting house came up with the Paula Girl as its icon and advertising gimmick. In six weeks’ time the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, the American Starbucks, will make landfall in Finland.
As coffee is considered the “national drink” of Finland and the Finns are comfortably the heaviest coffee consumers in the world, Helsingin Sanomat decided to take a look at the history of the Finnish coffee culture and interview three people to find out what makes their coffee moments special.
First, a bit of Finnish coffee history
Finland’s first-ever coffeehouse, or Kaffehus by its Swedish name, is established in Turku, the then capital of Finland, a Grand Principality of the Swedish Empire.
Influences have been sought from Stockholm and the mother-country.
Swedish and German are spoken in the more upscale coffeehouses in Helsinki, the capital of what is now an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.
Professor, historian, and politician Baron Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen came up with the Finnish name kahvila for coffeehouses in 1861.
Fredrik Edvard Ekberg opens his Kaffekammaren Gropen in the basement of the Kiseleff House [on the Senate Square in Helsinki] in 1862.
Ekberg serves up to 300 cups of coffee per day to the city block’s civil servants and university types.
In 1876 Gustav Paulig establishes a colonial stores in Fabianinkatu and sells 303,000 kilograms of raw coffee in the first year of operations.
Several international café-restaurants are set up in Helsinki.
Karl Fazer’s Russian-French patisserie is opened.
In the early 1900s the country’s coffeehouses are classified as first-, second-, or third-class cafés, depending on the quality and the opening hours.
The first-class cafés have tablecloths, the third-class ones do not.
There are several small roasting factories in Helsinki, all of which will have to discontinue their operation because of the shortage of coffee caused by the First World War.
Danish entrepreneur Julius Nissen opens a coffee shop in Helsinki in 1906.
Pekka Väyrynen, who has learned the tricks of the trade in the United States, launches Primula in 1908.
In the 1920s the Primula corner café opens a separate room for female customers. In the Akkala (“hen house”) the female sippers can enjoy their coffee in peace.
The Café Ekberg, which has now moved to Bulevardi, receives its present interior design. The place is favoured by journalists and writers.
A Fazer patisserie, café, and restaurant opens in Kluuvikatu. In the spirit of the time the premises feature a domed ceiling and a functionalist mural decorates one wall.
Sweet cream toffee cake (Kinuskikakku, originally a Russian candy dessert) and dark potato pastries are everybody’s favourites.
The English Tearoom in Unioninkatu is ahead of its time. It serves barista espresso as early as in 1934.
Coffeehouses can employ only people of good standing with "no infectious diseases of any kind".
The waiters are instructed to appear in a “black suit with long sleeves, a collared white shirt, and cuff-links”.
In the autumn of 1939 the threat of the Second World War causes coffee to be rationed.
During the rationing period, coffee surrogate enters the market, in which grain and dandelion roots have been added to real coffee.
A citizen is allowed to buy a couple or packets of real coffee per year, but by 1943 all the warehouses are empty and an ersatz substitute is offered up that contains no coffee whatsoever.
Real coffee is reintroduced to general jubilation in 1946 when a cargo ship, the S.S. Herakles, arrives in Turku from Brazil.
The Paulig roasting house introduces the Paula Girl as the company’s icon.
Originally just a drawn figure on the packages dating back to the 1920s, from 1950 Paula goes "live", with real girls, who appear in advertisements and tour around Finland, advising the Finns on how to make a good cup of coffee.
In the 1950s and 1960s they are hugely popular, on a par with beauty queens. Some suggest the idea was borrowed from the "Betty Crocker" images, as used by General Mills in the United States.
Parliament passes the new Act on Alcohol in 1968. The law allows the selling of mild beers in cafés between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Bingo halls spread into Finland from Sweden.
Monetary prizes are forbidden. Instead packs of coffee are handed to the winners.
Espresso starts to become more and more popular in Helsinki from the autumn of 1980.
Robert Paulig sets up the Robert’s Coffee gourmet roasting factory in Katajanokka in 1987.
The Strindberg café is launched on the North Esplanade in 1991.
Cappuccino and latte establish themselves in the menu assortments of Finnish coffee houses.
Towards the end of the decade the trendy American-style cafés land in Finland. Wayne’s Coffee arrives in the country via Stockholm in 1999.
What once was just "coffee", black or white, is by this time being sold under a dizzying variety of names, most of them ending in -o.
2000s and 2010s
Latte Art, or coffee foam art, various more and less affected forms of coffee purism, and "cupping" or coffee tasting events increase in popularity.
The number of small roasting houses grows in the country.
The American Starbucks, the world’s largest coffeehouse chain with 19,435 stores in 58 countries, announces it will finally land in Finland in April 2012 by opening two coffee shops at the Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport.
In 2010, Finns drank - well actually no, but they bought - 53,800 tonnes of roasted coffee, and with a population of roughly 5.4 million, this boils down to roughly 10 kg of coffee per man, woman, and child in the country.
Needless to say, Finland blows away the rest of the field when it comes to coffee consumption per capita.
We positively swig the stuff down.
The Norwegians try their best, and so do the good people of Iceland, but they don't even get close.
The Swedes and the Danes are also in the world top 10, so you can draw your own conclusions.
Finns do not, however, drink instant coffee to any great degree.
Why would they?
Three coffee-drinkers explain their habit
Manual labourer’s morning fix in an atmospheric yesteryear coffee shop
Snow clearance workers meet before 7 a.m. at the café patisserie Wanzetta in Helsinki’s Kruununhaka neighbourhood. The labourers enjoy their first cups of coffee for the day in silence, taking in the 1970s’ mood of the establishment that has even featured in a film by Aki Kaurismäki.
“You cannot start your day without coffee and an open sandwich with egg and anchovy on it. We meet here, launch the day’s duties, and disperse to various location around the city”, explains foreman Markku Timonen.
Psyched up by a jolt of caffeine, the men will today be doing something a bit different: repairing roof structures weakened by woodworm.
Timonen, who started working on rooftops at the age of 14, has enjoyed coffee all his life.
“Seven cups a day. With all the trimmings.”
Timonen enjoyed the best coffee of his life while on a beach holiday in Portugal.
“I cannot remember what it was called, but I was hooked from the first sip. That coffee was soft as velvet with lots of warm milk in it.”
In Wanzetta specialty coffees are not served, and in all honesty Timonen does not miss them here in Finland. The simplicity of the establishment appeals to the workingman, who has grown tired of the strangely odourless and soulless atmosphere of the outlets of various multinational coffeehouse chains.
“This place has the same yesteryear atmosphere as the late Alku Bar that once operated in Kirkkokatu. Wanzetta also handily doubles as a post office, into which one can order for example a spare headlight for a bucket loader.”
Hooked on espresso
In the chic Brooklyn Café in Helsinki’s Punavuori quarter, a jazz version of the evergreen Pennies from Heaven oozes from the stereo system.
Musician Tommy Lindgren breathes in the aroma of his espresso macchiato. A chocolate coin in a golden wrapper gleams on the saucer.
“I am not a fanatical purist when it comes to coffee. I am not overly concerned about what kind of coffee beans were used, but I do notice if the taste is too bitter.”
In Lindgren’s opinion, the most important thing about the Brooklyn Café is its ambiance. “More like the Café Nervosa from the television series Frasier and less like Starbucks”, Lindgren summarises the atmosphere of the coffee shop run by the Todd sisters, who have moved to Helsinki from New York.
Lindgen was in upper secondary school when he developed the taste for coffee.
“I have to have my coffee in the morning and in the evening.”
Lindgren blames his addiction to the black stuff on the free periods that he used to have in between classes when attending the upper secondary grades at the Normal Lyceum of Helsinki, as well as the exchange student year he spent in California in the mid-1990s.
“If 14 hours passes since my last cup of coffee, I will get a screaming headache that I will then find difficult to get rid of even if I have coffee or take strong painkillers.”
“I have been toying with the idea of a guidebook or a blog containing a list of Finland’s best espresso bars for those who tour the country for a living. Good coffee makes a roadie’s life that much more pleasurable.”
In Helinä’s company, anything goes
The lunch break is over when Helinä Kantola hands coffee cups to Liisa Allas and Riitta Forsman in the Karl Fazer Café in Kluuvikatu.
Both women have been coming to the fashionable domed coffee room for coffee and portions of ice cream since they were little girls.
”Gentlemen with their walking canes with silver tops. And palm trees”, reminisces Allas, a third-generation Helsinki native.
“And the grand piano, naturally”, Forsman adds.
In the course of the decades the red velvet sofas and the dark wood have been replaced with plastic-coated tables and imitation leather chairs.
Fortunately there is still Helinä, who has been pouring coffee in the establishment for 40 years.
“Helinä is the reason why we still come here. The coffee is of no importance, so long as we see a familiar face when we walk in.”
The hamburger generation, who have grown accustomed to standing in a queue during their visits to various fast food joints, wait patiently for their servings of Paulig’s Dark President Coffee or Fair Trade Coffee Mundo in front of the most delicious-looking pastry cabinet in town.
Allas and Forsman look disparagingly at the self-service people.
Coffee served to the table in beautiful porcelain cups tastes so much better than the take-away coffee served in tall mugs.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.3.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
Starbucks coming to Finland in April (1.2.2012)
Ho-hum. Finland continues to have highest per capita coffee consumption in the world (28.3.2011)
Coffee price hike digs into pockets of Finns (28.2.2011)
Price scale for a coffee and doughnut is... well... surprisingly wide (31.5.2011)
List of countries by coffee consumption per capita (Wikipedia - figures are for 2008 and are somewhat higher than those available from Finnish sources)
Coffee as a Finnish institution (a 2010 research paper from the University of Tampere)