Ask about Norway and coffee, and the first thing that will come to most people’s minds—Norwegians included—is that the consumption per capita rates among the highest in the world.
But that’s not the full story. How did a small country with no real mercantile or colonial power manage to become one of the most avid consumers of coffee back when it was a hard-to-get luxury? And more recently: how did Norway manage to become a world leader in specialty coffee?
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.
To understand why and how coffee was adopted as quickly as it was, and what historical, cultural and social factors came into play to eventually develop a national taste for lighter roasted coffees, it is necessary to start at the beginning.
Coffee took its sweet time making it up to Norway. After crossing the Turkish Bosporus strait into Europe, it would take close to 150 years to slowly snake its way up through the continent, and longer still to make it up to the Northern tip.
The first recorded mention of coffee in Norway was in 1694. In an inventory list detailing the possessions of a high-ranking customs official in Christiania (Oslo), one of the items was a kaffekiele, or coffee pot. So it began.
During the first half of the 18th century very few people—mostly wealthy merchants and nobility—enjoyed coffee with anything even resembling regularity. It was relatively rare and quite expensive, comparable to fine wine.
At the same time–and much less comparable to fine wine—it was sold at pharmacies as a laxative (with obvious potency, as anyone who drinks coffee regularly will tell you). In continental Europe at the time, coffee was also thought to suppress erotic thoughts and to promote impotence, and was often prescribed to priests and monks as a sort of celibacy aid.
A common activity for the wives and daughters of these wealthy merchants and nobles to pass the—presumably plush, but boring—days was to go on so-called visits to each others’ homes, to chat and socialise.
Some might make it to ten of these visits in a day, and as they invariably had wine at each of them, it is hard to see how they could avoid becoming intoxicated and lethargic after a marathon of that duration.
Enter coffee. A shift took place foreshadowing developments that would only take proper hold a hundred years later: coffee had begun to edge out alcohol as a social lubricant.
Motiv fra Ludvig Holberg: Barselstuen by Wilhelm Marstrand, 1845.
In his 1722 play The Lying-in Chamber (Barselstuen), famed playwright and satirist Ludvig Holberg wrote of this practice, indicating its prevalence:
“I’ve noticed, dear Neighbour, a curious effect of these roasted beans. I’ve seen many a Wife and Daughter sitting so still and so proper at Gatherings, as if they were in Church. But, as soon as this roasted Devil’s Brew crosses their lips, their mouths start chattering like Pepper Mills. And not only that, Neighbour, after three or four saucers [people would—and some places still do—pour their coffee onto the saucer to cool it] of it, they are overcome with a desire to play Cards; I’ve seen this again and again, so there has to be some Wretchedness in those very Beans.”
Act 1, Scene 6, author’s translation
Only 60 years later Norway was consuming more coffee per capita than any other country without a coffee growing colony. Between 1780 and 1795, an average of 200-350 grams of green, unroasted coffee per person was imported every year (population at the time: around 750,000).
Today, this is equivalent to the weekly consumption of the average Norwegian, but keep in mind this was still considered somewhat of a luxury. England, at the time a colonial superpower, averaged around 30 grams per person—less than three cups of coffee a year!
At this point, you might be wondering how Norway, quite poor, two hundred years away from striking oil, subsisting primarily on fishing and farming—with a whopping 3.3% arable land—could afford all this exotic luxury?
Quite simply because Norwegians could get coffee at a discount, in a way that still has relevance: through duty free shopping!
As Norway was ruled by Denmark at the time, it benefitted from Denmark’s control over a so-called free port located in St. Thomas, in what is now the Virgin Islands: goods imported through this free port to Denmark or Norway was considered domestic trade, and was therefore exempt from duties and taxes. At the time, 90% of the coffee making it into Norway came through Copenhagen, at a price well below the European average.
Entrepreneurial types even took it upon themselves to smuggle coffee into Sweden by way of boat, an amusing reversal of the modern Swedish-Norwegian border trade.
At the end of the 18th century, coffee had still not established a foothold in the districts, but in larger port cities like Christiania and Bergen its availability was such that the everyman could afford it. For instance, coffee had become quite popular with seasonal workers, who splurged in order to impress women.
While it might seem like coffee was embraced by any and all and well on its way to becoming the all-encompassing presence it is today, it was about to meet with a bit of opposition.