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 four we meet one of the first real coffee geeks in Norwegian history, and learn about his take on what makes a good cup of coffee.
As coffee became more and more prevalent in the mid-1800s, so did opinions on how it should be prepared and enjoyed. One of the more prominent voices of the time belonged to that of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen.
For those of you not familiar with him, his noteworthiness is in evidence above. His most well-known achievement is his role in the collection of folk tales. In the 1840s, he and his collaborator, Jørgen Moe, went around homesteads in rural parts of southern Norway to listen to and collect folk tales, many of which would undoubtedly be lost today without their efforts. For many Norwegians, the exploits of characters like Espen Askeladd—a mischievous protagonist of many folk tales—represent a cultural treasure.
Asbjørnsen was also a noted polymath. Among other things, he introduced Darwin’s theory of evolution to Norway, two years after On the Origin of Species was published; wrote on topics ranging from a cookbook to travelogues from Egypt; discovered a new species of Starfish (brisinga endecacmenos); as well as find the time to study zoology, botany and forestry.
On top of all this, he was arguably also Norway’s first coffee geek. In 1861 he published a 70-page pamphlet, that—in keeping with the times—was less than succinctly titled Om Kaffeen: Dens Nytte, Værd, rette Behandling og Forfalskning samt de saakalte Surogater eller Nødmidler for samme, såsom Sikhorie, Hvedekaffe, Ertepuf, Løvetand, m.fl. (On Coffee: Its Uses, Qualities, Proper Treatment and Falsification as well as the so-called Surrogates or Adjuncts for the same, such as Chicory, Wheat, Peas, Dandelion, etc.).
In this pamphlet, he more or less lays out the state of coffee knowledge as he knew it: where coffee comes from, what varietals exist, what flavours there are, nutritional value, and so on. He also debunks myths and does his best to champion coffee over its many imitators. He does all this with the humour and a sharp tongue of a well-intentioned gadfly; if he was writing today, he probably would have blogged.
His insights and recommendations—and occasional errors—offer a fascinating insight into to what it was like to go looking for a good cup of coffee 150 years ago.
In any proper household there will be a natural inclination towards purchasing unroasted coffee, thus allowing one to inspect and ascertain what one is, in fact, purchasing. Roasted and pre-ground coffee is, as a rule, both the most expensive and lowest quality one can purchase: at this stage it is beyond the average man to learn anything from inspection; not even smell or taste can be of any assistance.
Even here, in Christiania [Current day Oslo], all pre-roasted coffee on sale is, without exception, carbonised, charred or burnt. The characteristic, pleasant aroma of coffee has never been present in the pre-roasted, pre-ground wares on offer here; only the burnt smell, that prime indication that the volatiles and aromas, the very things that make coffee what it is, were all stripped away during roasting. Because of this, one is cheated out of the very parts of coffee that provides one with that enlivening effect.
Upon being confronted with this, as the author has undertaken to do on several occasions, purveyors of this coffee all say: “People all want what they know. When they roasted it themselves, they always charred it.”
He goes on to offer explanations for why this wouldn’t be the case: perhaps they were in possession of a profoundly underdeveloped sense of taste, or, more charitably, that the coffee had been purchased by various domestic servants, to whom he attributes the general attitude that coffee is coffee is coffee.
Keeping in mind his stern admonitions on what not to do, how would he go about roasting his coffee?
The more the beans are roasted, the less they retain of their aroma and enlivening effects. Each individual bean will increase in size as it roasts, however it will lose weight. One rarely hears that coffee is too raw or roasted too lightly; more common is that it is too dark, why almost black, because one often holds the misguided opinion—or thrust it upon others—that the darker the coffee, the stronger the brew. But this will turn out only as a disappointment and mistake, if not worse, after this intense roasting removes not only the volatile aromatic oils, but also brings about a charred, burnt, stinking oil with a terrible flavour, in addition to reducing the bean itself to coal. It is some kind of coffee, yes, that—if you were to go by colour alone—would look both dark and strong, but that in the end will lack every single quality properly prepared coffee possesses.
At a temperature not to exceed 160c the coffee is to be roasted until it is a light brown, and has developed this particular strong but fine, characteristically clean coffee aroma, devoid of anything foreign, burnt or charred.
Asbjørnsen gets into more specifics, stating that the weight loss of roasted coffee (as opposed to the green beans) should be around 15%, and that 20% is too much and 25% will have become undrinkable. He does not go into details on other aspects of the roasting process, but states that good coffee should have a reddish brown hue—something we see a lot in coffee these days. He is not far off the mark, though these days we roast even lighter than he did!
In my experience, merchants will use grandiose advertisements to mislead people into thinking that new, fresh coffee is the preferred choice. But, it is a commonly held truth that every single coffee varietal, without exception, will improve in aroma and flavour the longer it is warehoused. And frequently, merchants will purchase lesser, cheap american coffees and warehouse them for 10-15 years, at the end possessing a coffee that in aroma and flavour will stand up to the very best of the Turkish offerings.
This peculiar attitude could reflect the state of coffee back those days more than an appreciation of aged coffee over fresh. After all, it would be preferable to have a coffee that that was woody than one that had a “peculiar, almost mouldy aroma, akin to that of an old sack”, something he accuses Indonesian coffee of being particularly guilty of. This might also account for his advice on how to grind and brew coffee:
The coffee beans must be ground as finely as possible, just ahead of when they are to be used. Second to roasting coffee too dark, nothing is a waste of coffee like mediocre coffee grinders that crush it into coarse chunks more than it grinds them; if ground to a powder, a full quarter more will be extracted than from the coarser coffee. It doesn’t matter if your beans are roasted well if you have no idea how to brew them properly. Brewing it this way might be more involved, but keep in mind if it should feel like a bore, that you will receive a 25% bonus.
In this country one often subscribes to the belief that good coffee is best achieved by boiling [immersion brewing] it; one dismisses other brewing methods—like percolation or filtration—out of hand.
Keep in mind that Asbjørnsen had spent years travelling around Norway collecting folk tales, and had probably had more coffee brewed for him by more people than most. His advocacy of the very fine grind probably has to do with his preference for aged coffee.
Normally the ground coffee is placed onto the fire with warm water or “klaring” – a thin brew made from steeping old grounds, then clarifying it with fish skin. The pot then sits there until it reaches the boil, and is left for a while to finish. More often than not, it is allowed to be at the boil for quite some time, and there are those who think that it should be kept at the boil for an hours’ time, so as not to be “uncooked.”
He mentions in passing that boiling it for an hour is tantamount to roasting the coffee with butter or egg whites, which can only be read as another practice he disapproves of: “The only thing one accomplishes by boiling the coffee for longer is that the bitter compounds created during roasters become fully dissolved into the water. This is the reason that most immersion brewed coffee tastes bitter.”
While he doesn’t go into much detail about his own preferred brewing method, he does give some indication of what modern day parallel it would have:
When the water reaches the boil, no more is poured onto the coffee than needed to wet the grounds, and, after a few minutes, while the water is still boiling, the rest is to be poured on in a couple of movements. With this, one will retain all the qualities and enlivening aspects that were present in the coffee grounds.
Knowing he championed filter brewing over immersion brewing and reading this description, it seems strikingly familiar—similar to a number of contemporary brewing methods.
For readers today, his approach might seem a little self-sure and slapdash, so to offer a bit of context for his writings, here is a coffee brewing recipe published 30 years later, in 1891. Written by Dorothea Christensen, Kogebog for Folkeskole og Hjemmet (Cookbook for Elementary School and the Home) became a classic and was reprinted many times. It was meant by the author to inculcate young women in the virtues and methods of a good housewife.
Recipe for Immersion Brewed Coffee
1 litre of water
2 tablespoons whole coffee beans
[an average of 8 grams per spoonful]
A pinch of fish skin
Finely grind the beans and bring the water to the boil. Add the coffee and fish skin to clarify, leaving it at the boil until all the grounds have sunk, approximately 10 minutes. Take the coffee off the fire and add a heaped teaspoon of dandelion (a surrogate that is both healthy and flavoursome), leaving it to steep for a few minutes before serving.
Every third day the grounds should be cleared, which is to say that one fills the pot with water and boils it — without adding new coffee — with the old grounds for approximately 15 minutes. The brew is then reserved, while the grounds are discarded. In this clarified coffee-water, which is brown but has little flavour, one now prepares a new pot, this time using slightly less coffee. Every time the grounds are discarded, the interior of the pot should be washed.
This recipe probably represented the status quo of coffee brewing at the time. One can’t help but notice the addition of dandelion. So-called coffee surrogates were a big deal back then, and Asbjørnsen spends a fair bit of time deriding both their existence and continued use.
In our Century and especially in recent decades, coffee surrogate factories and adjunct institutions have popped up like mushrooms after rain, and are now flooding the world with their pitiful produce and wretched “products”. Not only that, it has unfortunately gotten to the point where millions use these terrible adjuncts to the exclusion of coffee!
He goes on, railing against economists, penny-pinching zealots, bumpkin policemen and women simpletons for continuing to use them. Asbjørnsen wasn’t holding back.
Chicory root is probably the most well-known coffee substitute. Historically, it was the most popular surrogate in Norway, and in 1857 alone, four years before Asbjørnsen wrote On Coffee, 250 tons of it was imported to Norway. But chicory root was not—by far—the only ting used as a coffee surrogate. For many people at the time, coffee was a brownish liquid with a strong, burnt taste; with those criteria, a great many things can (and were!) thought to do the same job, without having to import exotic beans from faraway places!
Asbjørnsen listed those he could think of: barley, wheat, rye, lentils, beans, horse beans, peas, sugar beets, carrots, chestnuts, horse chestnuts, seeds of a plant known as “Swedish/Continental coffee”, grape seeds, date kernels, potatoes, asparagus seeds, rose hip, juniper berries, bits of bread crust, almonds, corn kernels, sunflower seeds, gooseberries, red currants, hemp seeds, buckwheat, dandelion roots, and a fair few others that defy translation.
In other words? Whatever was on hand and could stand a good roasting.
While Asbjørnsen was extremely influential in other areas, it unfortunately remains hard to see how he influenced actual coffee consumption among the general population. As it is today, those of us who take our coffee extremely seriously are few and far between. Nonetheless, he had valuable insights for his time.
In the next part of this series, we’ll take a look at how Norwegians moved from roasting and grinding their own coffee (or “coffee”, as it were) to ending up buying pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee, entirely contrary to the admonitions of Asbjørnsen.