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. Part three explores the mid-19th century, the point in time at which coffee became available to the vast majority of the population.
Coffee consumption skyrocketed in the 1840s and -50s. The practical reasons for this are twofold: the import duty on coffee—which was reinstated after the end of the Danish-Norwegian union in 1814—was reduced by 70% in 1839. At the same time, the price of coffee was going down rapidly, due to increased exports from Brazil and Java (which was then part of the Dutch East Indies).
This rise in Brazilian production was quickly mirrored by explosive growth in Norwegian imports. In 1853, the combined imports amounted to 1 tonne of coffee—a pittance. However, the very next year a Bergen-based merchant by the name of Friele decided to send a ship loaded with dried and salted cod down to Brazil, and load it with coffee for its journey home. Imports that year amounted to 393 tonnes. The next year? Over 900 tonnes. This close link between coffee and dried and salted cod would become very important during World War Two and in the decades after. That merchant family went on to found what has become one of the largest coffee roasters in the country.
By this time, the Lutheran clergy no longer worried themselves much about coffee. But doctors did. In an Oppland county report from 1859, it is reported that “Coffee consumption is estimated to have risen to, frankly, extreme levels.” One could argue that Norway was on its way to becoming a nation of Balzacs!
Since 1856, a national report on the overall health and medical condition of the Norwegian people has been published annually. Throughout the 1850s and 60s, they were riddled with admonitions and worried remarks relating to coffee. Among other things, doctors were worried that the coffee consumption among children was interfering with their intake of milk; some peasants were even selling off their milk to dairies—presumably in order to buy more coffee!
This often extreme preoccupation with coffee was noted by a number of people. In his 1861 book Wild Life on the Fjelds of Norway, raconteur Francis M. Wyndham shares a few scenes that illustrate how coffee was consumed, and how it was made:
According to the invariable custom in Norway, at about six next morning, a servant brought us a cup of coffee and some biscuits […] In Norwegian houses, the kitchen invariably adjoins the dining-room; and, considering that the tea and coffee always remain in the kitchen, it is certainly a convenient plan for the lady of the house, who there filling the cups brings them in to the dining-room, taking them back herself to be replenished when wanted. (p. 55)
I was told that a Norwegian peasant in the neighbourhood had carried coffee-drinking to such an extent as to be scarcely able to eat anything, and it was said that he subsisted almost entirely upon coffee. (p. 136)
Coffee in Norway is made in small copper kettles, in which it is boiled till it rises up in a thick froth; it is then stirred, and, some isinglass, or merely fish-skin, and a bit of red-hot charcoal having been thrown in, it is let to stand by the fire till clear. Thus prepared coffee is much superior to that prepared in any other manner. (p. 126)
While more and more people wrote about coffee, most recipes were handed down unquestioningly, and were variations on the last quote above. But there was one man hell bent on changing that.
In Part Four, we’ll spend some time getting to know a Norwegian legend, who, as luck would have it, was also fanatic about his coffee.
The topmost photo is taken from Friele’s official page.