In this series of articles, we’ll be taking a trip through Norwegian history as it pertains to coffee, stopping here and there to shed light, briefly, on important personalities and formative events. In part five, we chart the development of the coffee that the vast majority of people in Norway enjoy today.
Part four of this series revolved around Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and his views concerning what made a good cup of coffee. Not a man to mince words, he described those who purchased pre-roasted or pre-ground coffee as being in possession of a profoundly underdeveloped sense of taste. History, as it turns out, was not on his side.
By the 1880s, only twenty years after Asbjørnsen shared his views—admonitions, strictly speaking—almost every single grocer in Christiania (what is now Oslo) was offering pre-roasted coffee. In 1890, Friele—the merchant who struck gold combining the trades of dried cod and coffee—opened a dedicated roastery with machines imported from Germany; with that, purchasing unroasted coffee in Norway was on its way out.
Consumption was rising steadily: in an 1888 national consumer survey carried out by the government, it was determined that the average yearly adult consumption countrywide was 3.95kg. Tenant farmers, being poor, had the lowest consumption, while industrial workers were at the top with almost 6kg per year. The south-east part of the country (where Christiania/Oslo is located) had the highest average consumption.
Between 1916 and 1927 Norway was under prohibition. The temperance movements had swelled in the preceding decade and by then had a member base comprising 10% of the entire population! Alcohol had become a social taboo; in many areas it was so maligned it was considered rude to even bring up the subject.
To dispense medicinal alcohol, a governmental monopoly of alcohol stores was opened in 1922. Known matter-of-factly as “Vinmonopolet” (the Wine Monopoly), it is still operating today, and remains the only outlet for alcoholic beverages above 4.7%.
It is worth mentioning that during prohibition, distilleries would offer their prospective customers pre-made prescriptions they could take to a doctor and have filled. A single doctor is known to have filled 48 000 prescriptions in one year. That’s one every other minute, all day, all year!
By now coffee consumption stood steadily at 6.5kg per person, again filling in for its intoxicating counterpart. Brazil ruled the world of coffee, representing 75% of total world production. Coffee was abundant and relatively cheap.
Until it wasn’t. And shortly after, there was virtually none to be had.
By 1939, the political turbulence in the wake of the second world war was impacting trade, and that of coffee in particular, as it was literally sailed from one end of the world to the other.
From September 1939, Norway was under occupation by German forces. That year, coffee was rationed at 50 grams per week. Two years later, the ration had been reduced to 10 grams per person, 1/12th of average consumption before the war. By the end of the year there was nothing left. The main reason for this was that coffee as a commodity was—and still is—traded in dollars, something Norway was also short on.
In time, a solution was agreed upon: all the coffee merchants in Norway agreed to pool their resources and acquire coffee by bartering: salted dried cod for coffee. A deal was struck with Brazil, and the coffee trade started up again.
That’s not to say that the deal meant abundance: Norway was stuck with rations for many necessities until as late as 1952. In the period after the war, coffee was considered so important to the well-being of the nation that it was heavily subsidised by the government (to the tune of 44% in 1949) and was, in many cases, cheaper to purchase in Norway than in Brazil!
During this time, coffee surrogates—that bane of Asbjørnsen’s existence—had, by virtue of necessity, become quite popular. There were more people than ever drinking coffee, and much less to go around. A common practice when people got together was that each guest brought a small amount of their coffee ration; it was then pooled together and brewed to serve all the guests.
Weak, adulterated coffee (like the recipe reproduced in part four) had more or less become the norm. Due to the frugality instilled in everyone after the war, it persisted for much longer than it perhaps needed to.
By European standards, post-war Norway still remained a poor country with small currency reserves, so the joint trading agreement with Brazil was kept in place until 1960. After was dissolved, Norway swiftly moved into a period where coffee was controlled by a small number of increasingly dominant coffee houses.
With the exception of Friele, that had started roasting as early as the 1890s, all the other Norwegian coffee behemoths came onto the field in the 1960s.
Salted cod drying on traditional wooden racks in Reine, Moskenes (1924). National Library of Norway
This 20-year joint trading agreement with Brazil is the main reason Norwegian coffee to most people is synonymous with blends that feature a majority of Brazilian coffee. If you are curious as to what coffees go into the blends of major coffee houses, the statistics kept by kaffe.no offer an insight: 50% of all coffee imported to Norway is from Brazil, with 25% from Colombia and Guatemala; the remaining 25% is spread across all remaining coffee growing countries.
It was now, in the 1960s, that coffee in Norway became what most people know it as today: cheap, purchased at a supermarket, pre-ground for immersion or percolator brewing, and with a consistent taste year after year.
After decades of rationing, this combination of availability and predictability was irresistible to most people.
By the 1980s, there were fewer coffee drinkers: younger people weren’t drinking as much as before, and the large coffee houses were worried that the next generation wouldn’t view coffee the same way as them: as a ritual and a social marker that separated the child from the adult, and as a ubiquitous part of any social gathering.
Despite its far-flung origins, coffee had become anything but exotic. In the eyes of the young, it had become invisible, or worse, boring.
In the next part we’ll look closer at the twists and turns of the renaissance of coffee, and reflect a bit on the state of coffee today.
The next article will be published shortly
Wine Monopoly catalogue image found at Cognac Fan