Two Norwegian phenomena worth experiencing above all others? White nights and black coffee.
In the height of midsummer, the sun doesn’t set for months in Norway’s Arctic north — and nearly 11 p.m. in the southern capital Oslo.
Norwegians seize their short summer with both hands.
They head to their cabins, to forest, mountain or fjord, and enjoy alfresco meals topped off with kokekaffe — steeped coffee — prepared over an open fire.
Like their long summer days, Norwegian coffee is a little lighter than the rest of us are used to.
The light roast is a Norwegian tradition. It suits single-origin coffee, and illuminates the fruity flavors and unique characteristics obscured by darker roasts.
As the rest of the world gets serious about coffee origins and roast profiles, the Norwegian way is spreading.
Coffee has “been a huge part of our culture for many years,” says Tim Wendelboe, 2004 World Barista Champion, 2005 World Cup Tasting Champion and owner of the Tim Wendelboe coffee shop, micro-roastery and training center in Oslo.
A light roast reveals more of the coffee’s aromas, he explains, and is best served black and slightly cooled, so that “the sweetness comes through.”
The elegant coffee served at Wendelboe’s — in bespoke ceramics, shaped to coffee type, on handmade wooden trays — is more akin to a tea ceremony than a casual cup of energy-juice.
Iced coffees, such as their Kenyan Gachatha — recipe here — are served cube-free and in wine glasses.
For single-origin purists, creating coffee blends is like mixing an Italian Abrusco with an Argentinian Malbec.
Sure, it tastes fine, but why mess with the unique character?
A light roast also has the side effect of revealing any flaws at origin, exposing old coffee as woody and inferior beans as bitter.
Wendelboe is serious about protecting the quality of his product, from farm to cup.
Last year he bought a farm in Colombia and his Oslo coffee shop stopped serving pastries because he wasn’t happy with the consistency of the product.
If it’s good-quality coffee, “you don’t need to roast it a lot in order to cover up the defects,” he adds.
“I spend so much time trying to improve the quality of the green coffee at farm level so it would be a pity to cover it up by roasting it too much.”
A nation of coffee lovers
A 2013 report by Euromonitor found that Norwegians get through 7.2 kilograms of coffee per person per year — making them the world’s biggest consumers of the dark stuff after their neighbors in Finland.
Coffee drinking flourished in Norway when the country began trading its plentiful fish supplies for American beans in the 1800s.
A period of prohibition, followed by high alcohol prices that remain today, maintained its status as the social drink of choice for many.
“We had to pay a lot of taxes on alcohol; it was too expensive and coffee is still very cheap. That’s why it has stayed as the social drink,” explains Wendelboe.
Modern cafe culture
However, until 20 years ago, says Wendelboe, “coffee was not drunk outside of the home.”
Norway benefited from the same post-Starbucks boom that saw the first wave of Seattle-style coffee shops spring up across Europe in the late ’90s.
Wendelboe started out in 1998 at Stockfleths, a coffee house founded in 1895 but reinvented a century later, and now a citywide chain.
Norway’s position as coffee contenders on the global stage was solidified when Norwegian Robert Thoreson became the first ever World Barista Champion in 2000.
The opening of Wendelboe’s own shop in Oslo’s hip Grunerlokka district in 2007 coincided with the latest boom in coffee appreciation and innovation.
“I’m really excited that now we’re seeing a lot of people opening up roasteries.
“I embrace diversity. I know it’s more competition for me, it sort of keeps me focused on doing an even better job.
But for the consumers it’s a lot more to choose from. Also for the coffee producers it’s great that more and more people are getting into higher quality and willing to pay a little more for their coffee.”
The perfect cup?
And in the era of AeroPress, pourovers, single-origin beans and roasting profiles, what’s the secret to making a good home-brewed coffee?
“It’s not really about actual preparation technique. You can make good coffee on most of them, you just need to learn how.
“Use the equipment that you have, make sure it’s clean, then go to the website brewmethods.com and look at the techniques for that particular brewing method.
“The only thing you need to focus on then is buy good coffee. Also get a grinder, because you need to grind your own beans.”
And if you’re having some “cowboy coffee” kokekaffe on your campfire this summer?
“Just boil the water, put the coffee in the pot and let it steep for four minutes and then pour.
“It tastes incredible. You get all the oils and much more viscosity and also a little bit of grit.”
We asked Wendelboe and his team for their favorite coffee shops around Oslo.
Here are some of the best.
This friendly Grunerlokka micro-roastery is a short walk from Tim Wendelboe’s. Customers might be served by Odd-Steiner Tollefsen, co-owner and the 2015 World Brewers Cup champion.
Says Wendelboe, “It’s a fantastic place, so hospitable. You feel like you’ve been friends with them forever as soon as you step in.”
A cafe, bar and vintage furniture store, Fuglen is kitted out like the ’50s living room of the hip Scandinavian aunt we always wished we had.
The menu sporadically includes Tim Wendelboe Coffee and Juice cocktail and Mountain Crow: rum, bitters, lemon, syrup and crowberries — little black berries native to northern climes.
Java and Mocha
Sister shops Java, in Sankthanshaugen, and Mocca, in Briskeby, are temples to design and to coffee, the twin passions of their owner, Robert Thoresen, a former architect who in 2000 became the first ever World Barista Champion.
They’re supplied by his roastery, Kaffa.
Proving once again that art and coffee are the hallmarks of Scandinavian cool, Vingen is an independent cafe, bar and eatery adjoining Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.
The sail-shaped building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano nods to the museum’s maritime setting on the Oslofjord, where the visual feast outside the gallery is as stunning as that inside.
Lille Toyen Kolonial
Off the beaten track in up-and-coming Toyen — but handy for outings to the Munch Museum or Natural History Museum — this neighborhood cafe and organic grocery store is in the heart of the Lille Toyen Hageby garden village, built in the 1920s to house local craftspeople.
Co-owner Kaja Rambaek Holmboe Bang has culinary pedigree — her husband Esben runs Oslo’s Maaemo restaurant.
Tim Wendelboe recommends a trip to indoor food hall Mathallen, where Solberg & Hansen — Norway’s largest specialty coffee roaster — have a coffee and tea store.
“Then outside of the food hall, one or two years old but doing a great job,” says Wendelboe, there’s cafe-bar Hendrix Ibsen.
Pascal is a French cafe and restaurant famous for its patisserie — Bill Clinton popped into the Henrik Ibsens branch when visiting Oslo in 1999.
At the Tollbugata branch, the retro chrome counter seating is complemented by pistachio-green walls and raspberry-red lampshades.
Gronlokka is Oslo’s answer to Paris’ Canal Saint Martin district: hip, gentrified, and with opportunities for leafy waterside strolls and hanging out at artisan eateries.
Friendly and informal cafe-bar Liebling serves blondies with cute butterfly motifs and — true to its German name — seems popular with a local German language meetup group who use the cafe as a hangout.
Citywide chain Stockfleths is “where everyone starts out,” says Julia Richardson, barista at Java.
Fellow Stockfleths alumni Wendelboe agrees.
“For me, it’s kind of nostalgic,” he says. “I prefer the one by the Parliament. They just refurbished it and it’s a beautiful little small space in downtown.”
Stockfleths, Lille Grensen 4, 0159 Norway; + 47 28 51 88 82; stockfleths.as
Founded in 1994, Kaffebrenneriet is a chain of Norwegian coffee shops that sprang up during the first post-Starbucks wave of European coffee shops in the ’90s.
One local enthusiast, Nina, remarks: “It’s not cool to like chains, but Kaffebrenniert is a good chain.”
The legendary Grand Cafe on Karl Johans Gate, where Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen would lunch each day on herring, beer and Aquavit, closed last year after 140 years in business, due to lack of profitability.
It’s due to reopen in the fall following renovation.