We live on Planet Coffee. From Gothenburg to San Francisco, at major chains and small independents, there’s a dizzying array of coffee styles to choose from (although purists might question whether almond-milk latte or skinny soy flat white can actually be described as coffee).
The Swedes have had a strong relationship with the bean. According to figures from the International Coffee Organization, Swedes drink 8.2 kilograms of coffee per person, per year. For them, coffee is a social lubricant in the same way tea is for the British. And while you can get a fancy latte in Stockholm, there’s a growing movement among Swedes for a simpler approach to making coffee – relying on the quality of the beans and the skills of the person making it.
“There’s always been a strong culture of coffee here,” says Jacob Hölmstrom, from the Gastrologik restaurant in Stockholm. “In fact, we’re one of the world’s biggest consumers of the stuff. I’m from the north part of Sweden and my grandparents used to make coffee on a stove: there was no coffee machine. And it was always strong.”
Rebecca Konradsdal, barista at the Robin Delselius bakery in Stockholm, says a lot of thought goes into making the perfect cup. “You need a good-quality bean and it has to be a good roast as well,” she says. “And then you have to put effort into how you grind the coffee, press it and brew it. You also have to make sure that your machine is up to speed. And then when it comes to the milk you don’t over-steam it or double-steam it. Fresh, cold milk makes a better coffee.”
Coffee first arrived in Sweden in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that Viennese-style ‘konditori’ cafes appeared, bringing coffee together with pastries. From there, fika – widely translated as ‘taking a pause’ – grew. It’s a vital part of the Swedish way of life, uniting generations and social classes.
“The traditional fika is something like a cup of normal brown coffee with a cinnamon bun [aka kanelbulle in Swedish],” says Rebecca. “There’s nothing too fancy. It’s traditional, like it was in the 1950s.”
Los Angeles is a fair distance from Stockholm, but the Swedish way of coffee is making inroads there, too. At The Boy and The Bear – named after a Swedish nursery rhyme – in Redondo Beach, Andrés Piñeros (originally from Colombia) and Emily Svedner (a Swede), bring Colombian beans together with Swedish coffee-making know-how.
Andrés fell in love with fika when he lived in Falkenberg, Sweden – so much so that, when he moved to Los Angeles, he opened The Boy and The Bear as an homage to Swedish coffee culture. He sees the cafe as a part of the ‘third wave’ of coffee, which places importance on the quality of the beans, where they’re grown and how the drink is made. It’s more like wine tasting than regular coffee drinking.
Above and main image: LA’s The Boy and the Bear cafe is a homage to Swedish coffee.
“We encourage our customers to drink their coffee black,” says Andrés. Emily explains: “You don’t want to mix it with sugar and milk because you don’t get the flavours you can experience with good-quality coffee.”
One of the drinks that marks out The Boy and The Bear is a ‘gesha’, made from coffee beans Fed-Exed from Colombia. At $10 a cup, it’s one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
Making it takes around seven minutes and involves using a Chemex jar – an hourglass-shaped coffee-maker which was developed by Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1950s. The Chemex is considered such a design classic that an example of one is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
“This process is super-important,” says Andrés of what it takes to make a perfect cup of gesha coffee. “We have to grind the coffee right at the time we’re going to brew it. Coffee has a life of probably five minutes, so that way you don’t miss all the aromas, all the fragrances, all this fruitiness.”
Another key factor in making any sort of decent coffee is the roasting. “We use a 5kg roaster,” says Emily. “It’s the smallest one in the industry. That actually gives us more control, so we can make hand-roasted small batches every single time.”
Back in Stockholm, thoughts turn once more to how Sweden looks at the modern world, stripping things down to their key components, and making sure they’re as good as they can be. Something that’s as true in coffee as it is in design or car making.
“When you order a coffee in a lot of the world’s great cities, you’re going to be offered skinny lattes and cappuccinos and all that,” says Jacob from Gastrologik. “But in Sweden I like to think that it’s just about simple, great coffee. Nothing more.”
Apart, of course, from a delicious cinnamon bun. It wouldn’t be fika without it.
Click here to read the rest of our June I Roll stories.