One of the first things JP told me about Finland is that Finns drink the most coffee in the world, by weight, per capita. He then told me virtually all of this coffee is disgusting. It is, he described, light and weak, which is why they need to consume so much of it–that and the somewhat binary nature of their winters and summers, with brief twilights punctuating darkness and seemingly endless days of light strung together such that you (or I, at least, as a visitor) forgot that there even was such a thing as a dark night. The internet, of course, tells a different story, with pages, blog entries, reviews, and articles dedicated with love, appreciation, and a self-aware pretentiousness of the Helsinki coffee scene. Some of the best baristas in the world, they claim, are from Scandinavia. While, technically, Finland is not a part of Scandinavia, I think they are generally included in this statement. (Note: over 17 years of World Barista Championships, Norway has won twice, and Denmark three times.)
2010 estimates put Finnish coffee consumption at 12.33kg per coffee drinking Finn per year. (Keurig also cites this number (12kg) in marketing materials. Those are my efforts for confirmation.) More than 90% of this coffee (again, random internet article) is “light roast,” and Finnish coffee is considered to be some of the “lightest in the world.”
By comparison, the US drinks about 4kg per coffee drinking American per year. I couldn’t find something on the percent of coffee that is light, medium, or dark roast in the US, but I did learn that a medium roast is also called an American roast.
My experience with US coffee is fairly specific, based in hip, urban areas and my parents’ kitchen. Based on brief visits to gas stations and Wawas, beyond quantity, the US actually handles coffee similar to Finland–there is a “low bar” for the majority of coffee consumed, with “quality” (care or intention are likely better words) raising in cities, college towns, and other places where people Care About Their Coffee. Starbucks has led to a trend for darker roasts–producing a culture where Darker is Better. This is anecdotal, of course, but I feel as though small batch roasters began producing darker (and darker) roasts. More recently, this has begun to change (Stumptown, for example, doesn’t produce a really dark roast, and medium roasts are coming back into vogue), and we are slowly creeping out of these dirt colored beans to a brighter, smoother future.
Back to the story.
When I went to FInland, I was excited to become acquainted with Finnish coffee. I made a list of places I was interested in trying–based on reviews I found on various websites. Before I give some overall impressions, I want to give a bit of a disclaimer:
I’m kind of proud of my sense of taste. This is to say, for someone with only half a functioning tongue (my right half has been numb since a dental surgery in 2011), I can taste things surprisingly well. The start, the middle, the end, the aftertaste, the flavor in the tip of the tongue through the back of the throat. I can’t say anything -intelligent- or -educated- about flavor, I don’t have a refined palate (I, in fact, had to look up how to spell that correctly), and I am very, very easily overwhelmed. I can appreciate complexity and skill, I just don’t like it. My preferences are pretty simple, rather plain, and very childish. My favorite things to eat include cucumber and mayonnaise on otherwise plain bread, yogurt with peanut butter and bananas, and lettuce with oil, lemon, and pepper. And ice cream. Lots of ice cream.
It is with a heavy heart I must say that after going to three of the best cafés, one random place, and brewing my own, mass produced beans, I don’t like Finnish coffee. (Several of the places I wanted to go were closed–I’d like to try more.) Two of the places served beans from the same place.
I could appreciate the coffee, I could identify the interesting flavors in it, and tell you how it was supposed to be good, but I didn’t like it. It was just too dark for me. It was as though Finnish coffee-hipster culture responded to the state of most coffee being “some of the lightest roasts in the world” by burning the beans into a char.
Even sitting at home, with my own coarser grind, and pour over preferences, I find the coffee just too damn bitter.
Still, I almost liked a cappuccino (made with a medium espresso) at La Torrefazione–made with oatmilk and honey to cut through the bitterness. There are more places to try, roasters to consider, and experiments to conduct over coffee in and around Helsinki.