The Sami Coffee Ceremony: An Interview with Anne Wuolab

The Sami Coffee Ceremony: An Interview with Anne Wuolab

By Chris Kolbu
CULTURE/LEARN

Anne, a self-described cultural entrepreneur, is travelling around the Nordic region putting on Sami coffee ceremonies. They are a wonderful glimpse into a ritual with deep roots. For many Sami, making coffee is synonymous with a feeling of home—a precious thing for the indigenous, nomadic people of Northern Scandinavia. We caught up with her to ask about the Sami coffee ceremony and her motivations for sharing them.

wuolabAnne was born just south of Narvik, in northern Norway. These days, she is based in Lycksele, Sweden on a homestead where she lives with her husband and two children. She has a dog, a cat—and reindeer. Anne has training as a barista and a wealth of coffee knowledge amassed through her years as a cultural entrepreneur.

There are around 50-80,000 Sami, predominantly in the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Around 40,000 of those are settled in Norway, both in the North and further south as far as Hedmark county in Norway (there is a distinction between Northern and Southern Sami). There were Sami settlements in the northern area before either of the four nations had been established.

Traditionally, the Sami have herded reindeer, fished and had smallholdings, though this way of life is growing increasingly rare. These days, most Sami in Norway live in cities, like the rest of the population. The Sami language belongs to the Uralic family, and is closer to Finnish than any other Nordic language.

How did you come to focus on Sami coffee culture?

I grew up with it. It was always around me: at home, in the mountains, by the reindeer enclosure and while visiting relatives. It’s a natural part of my life — I only condense it down to its essential parts and present it for people unfamiliar with it, through coffee, stories and settings.

The Sami coffee culture wasn’t as conceptually clear to me when I started my café in Lycksele. While there, I noticed how different people would sit and drink their coffee. Sami customers stood apart with their slow, ceremonial way of interacting with both the coffee and their table mates. Since then, I’ve studied our cultural history and spoken with young and old, all to better understand the essence of Sami coffee culture.

I arrange coffee experiences that are based in Sami coffee culture. That is to say, I talk about how the Sami prepare and drink coffee while listeners are being served coffee prepared in the same manner—with coffee cheese and dried reindeer meat. I put on these events outdoors with a fire, and indoors, be it in a café or another setting. I’ve also done them as coffee breaks at conferences and business meetings.

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Would you say there are established mores concerning hospitality during a coffee ceremony?

Sami will normally know when they are being served, and act accordingly. If they are asked to help out, they will. Not being offered a coffee is tantamount to being given a cold shoulder. With that said, it is very rare; one rarely wishes to cause someone else to lose face in front of others. The coffee is prepared according to the preferences of the host.

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What does a normal ceremony consist of?

At its most fundamental, it is a quiet affair with immersion brewed — or steeped — coffee, cheese and dried reindeer meat. Often with an open fire and someone serving. It is primarily a social ritual. To better understand what goes on, it is helpful to imagine a Japanese tea ceremony. It is important that the proper amount of time is taken while drinking coffee, to better create a contemplative and relational mood. To me, Sami coffee culture is the polar opposite of a short, two-sip espresso or a takeaway coffee.

The stories being told might be mythical, rooted in Sami spirituality, or comedic. Normally, it is more a talk about how our coffee culture came to be like it is, rather than a set repertoire of individual stories.

What type of cheese is served with the coffee?

Coffee cheese. It isn’t necessarily specific to the Sami — it exists in other reindeer herding cultures as well, and perhaps also in other cultures that make cheese from goat or cow milk. The consistency of the Gáffevuostá is like haloumi, and is meant to keep its shape even in hot coffee — though it will become softer. Good gáffevuostá should squeak between your teeth. This blog post has a good photo of one.

The Sami started drinking coffee in the late 19th century, shortly after it had become pervasive in the southern parts of the Scandinavian countries. While initially used as a complement to reindeer broth, it soon became viewed as a drink in its own right. Serving it with cow or goats’ milk, as well as coffee cheese and dried reindeer meat both was and is still normal to this day.

In his book Fire: Flame and Embers — The Sami Art of the Campfire, Yngve Ryd details a number of important considerations in lighting a fire and preparing coffee.

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He writes that Sami normally have a separate kettle or pot used specifically for coffee — one that sees harder use and more soot than normal cooking vessels. This kettle is normally in its own cloth bag so as to not dirty up everything else in the backpack. In the book, he quotes reindeer herder Johan Rassa on the importance of cookware and heat:

Coffee tastes best when it is prepared in a tinned copper kettle. When the aluminium kettles came around, many complained that the coffee tasted off, and even that anything else prepared in them was bad. These days, aluminium kettles have been around for so long the difference between them is being forgotten.

It is fair to say that coffee tastes better when it is made on a fire or cast iron stove, and worse when prepared on an electric stove. When a cast iron stove is lit in the morning, it takes a while for it to heat up and bring the coffee to a boil. It boils too quickly on an electric stove, so the coffee has no time to release its flavour. There are older people who don’t put their electric stove on the highest heat, but rather one level below it, to make sure it doesn’t come to a boil too quickly. Steeped coffee is better if it is placed in cold water and if it takes a little while before the stove heats up, so the coffee has more time to release its flavour. If coffee is added after the water has boiled, it has to boil for quite a while. Besides, the coffee will sink more easily if it is properly boiled.

When coffee is made with a fire, water heats up fairly slowly as the kettle is stood on the ground and is only heated on one side by the flames; it never reaches a rolling boil like on a stove. It doesn’t matter that you have to wait a little bit longer for your coffee. While it’s brewing, you can sit down, relax and eat dried meat and bread. If you are in a rush, hold the kettle above the flame suspended by a wooden stick and it will reach a boil faster than on an electric stove, if you have dry firewood.

While some of what he is saying doesn’t necessarily agree with what we think today, this attention to detail surrounding coffee goes to show how important it was to him, and is something we could all still learn a lot from.

Sami fires are made by placing firewood in parallel to each other on top of a couple of perpendicular logs, forming a dense, raised rectangle that will have good oxygen flow but burn slowly. The coffee kettle is always to be placed on the ground by whichever of the longer sides have the strongest fire going.

Having lived in the northern parts of Scandinavia for all your life, what would you say the differences between the Sami and other Nordic coffee cultures are?

I feel like there’s a bigger difference north-south than in nationality. Up north, coffee is vital for social events and relations.

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Guksi (or Finnish: kuksa; Swedish: kåsa), is a traditional Sami drinking vessel. It is normally hand carved from birch burl.

You’ve written online about wanting to start a nomadic café. Can you expand a little bit on that concept?

To me, a nomadic café is a concept wherein I would travel to Sami festivals, weekend events and markets to set up a kind of “pop-up” shop. The coffee would be presented in the Sami style, but there might also be a cultural element to it: an exhibition or a mini concert, for instance. I would make coffee using immersion and hand brewing methods.

Thank you!

While the way Sami relate to coffee in some respects differ from the traditional Nordic ways — like having savoury accompaniments to the coffee instead of sweet — most aspects are expressions of much the same functions. There is the ubiquity, or ever-presentness, of coffee; the way the process of having or brewing a cup becomes a realm onto itself, separated from the motions of everyday life yet somehow also marking the passage of time. It would be natural that a nomadic people, used as they would be to an ever-shifting horizon, would extend this tendency and in turn create for themselves another anchor — a temporary but fixed point — in which rest, interact and feel at home, before moving on. The nature of Anne’s coffee ceremonies capture this.

For more information and photographs, check out Anne’s Facebook page.

The top photograph is used with permission from Flickr user Snapperjac; the portrait of Anne and the fourth photo are used with her permission; the portrait of two Sami (1890-1900) used with permission from the Flickr feed of the National Library of Norway; the fifth photo taken by Erik F. Brandsborg used with permission; the last photo (Guksi) used with permission from Flickr user Erik Schepers.

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