Norwegian Coffee in 1861

Norwegian Coffee in 1861

By Chris Kolbu

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen is a figure known to most Norwegians, and—in more ways than one—a noteworthy individual. In the 1840s, he and his collaborator, Jørgen Moe, went around houses in all parts of Norway to listen to and collect folk tales, many of which would undoubtedly be lost today without their efforts. For most people today, perhaps, he will be known more as the oddly bearded gentleman pictured on the 50-crown note.

In 1861, Asbjørnsen wrote a 40-odd page long 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, et al. ). One paragraph in particular struck me as very interesting:

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, carbonized, 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.”

We have come far since 1861, but that does not mean that we can—or should—rest on our laurels. Some of his objections still hit very close to home. Having an active attitude toward coffee, in the sense that you would go as far as to be informed, and even inspect what you were buying, is an attitude that has been mostly lost in this age of super markets and convenience.

Food for thought.

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