Dispatch from Finland #4: Coffee

August 13, 2017

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Not a single to-go cup . . .

After a few days walking the streets of Helsinki, I began noticing something strange . . . whether people are walking, driving, or taking public transportation, there is a conspicuous lack of travel mugs, to-go cups, and those huge Dunkin’s iced coffees. I saw a water bottle here and there, and more than a few cans of beer or cider consumption in the parks (it is legal after all), but no coffee.

IMG_1106Yet the coffee here is some of the best I’ve had; plus, Finland leads the world in coffee consumption per capita; some studies claim the average Finn drinks up to a liter and a half a day. That’s a staggering 50 ounces, an amount made more astounding since they’re not consuming it on the go. I set out to determine how, where, and why the Finns manage to drink so much.

  1. Prohibition. When Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917 (Happy 100th Birthday Free Finland!), the new government wanted freedom not just from Russian rule, but also Russian vodka. Alcohol was banned, and while the country dealt with a similar period of lawlessness like America did during almost the same time, prohibition also gave rise to coffee culture where guests were treated to coffee rather than booze or beer.
  2. IMG_1051

    Even giraffes at the Zoological Institute of Helsinki drink coffee.

    Friends in High Places. Rumor has it that Urho Kekkonen, Finland’s president from 1956-1982 (yes, that is ridiculously long to be “president,” but that’s a topic for another time), pushed legislation through regulating that coffee beans be more lightly roasted, and thus less bitter than the dark-roasted Russian beans Finns had been forced to drink thus far. Even Henry Kissinger mentions Kekkonen’s love for coffee in his memoirs, while also claiming Brezhnev hated the stuff. Cold War or Coffee War?

  3. Water. Finland is renowned for terrific water. There are even signs in public bathrooms letting you know it’s okay to drink the tap water; it’s that good. Anyone who makes coffee on their own knows how vital it is to begin with good water.
  4. Treats. As coffee became part of the fabric of Finnish life, kahvi ja pulla (coffee and a bun) became a standard in the workplace, when hosting guests at home, and now in the cafe. Pastries I’ve tried thus far are the korvapuusti, which is a tidy little cinnamon bun, and the mustikkapiirakka (yes, I just pointed when I requested that one in the cafe), which is basically a blueberry kolache or danish. Yum.
  5. Cafés Instead of Take Aways. There are even more cafés within walking distance than there are record shops, and people linger with their coffee instead of just refueling on the run. While it might have more to do with summertime–maybe in winter everyone carries a to-go mug for warming the fingers as well as the belly–I prefer to think it has more to do with taking the time to enjoy a cup (or 10) and relaxing before the caffeine kicks in.

So I’ve determined Finns don’t need travel mugs because they prefer savoring a drink they’ve spent more than a century perfecting. . . and I also have determined that I both endorse and hope to emulate their efforts. Kippis!

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2 Responses to “Dispatch from Finland #4: Coffee”

  1. Jon said

    Nice reporting on a great country! Have you tried the salmiakki koskenkorva yet? One of the more unusual liqueurs out there. You could also put salmiakki in your coffee I suppose. I hope you managed to watch a few Kaurismäki films as well.

    A geeky fact about Finnish – it was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Quenya, the language of the high elves. When I was 12 I intended to learn Finnish and Welsh (the basis for Sindarin), Tolkien’s favorite languages. Haven’t got there yet.

    • Have not tried the liqueur–will add it to my list. My daughter was intrigued by the language connection you mentioned–she’s studying linguistics and has a far better ear than I do, and of course loves LOTR and conlangs. When we were in Ireland last year, we visited the Burrens, another inspirational spot for Tolkien. Welsh isn’t on Em’s list of languages to learn, but we do plan to eventually get to the international book fair in Hay-on-Wye one year soon!

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