🇸🇪 Fika

A historical look at Sweden's tumultuous relationship with coffee, and the origins of a social ritual known as Fika

Credentials: I'm half Swedish, have relatives there, and lived there 2008-2009

What is Sweden?

It's a Nordic country. We can say with some certainty it is also not Switzerland

🇸🇪 Recognizable Swedish Exports

Some companies, musicians and other products that originated up north:

Swedes also have some fun cultural traditions you may recognize

Part 1/2

Ottomans, Taxes and Twins

A short history of coffee and the origins of Fika in Sweden

17th Century

1657

Swedish King Karl X Gustaf sends a statesman—Claes Rålamb—to Constantinople to negotiate with the Ottoman Sultan.

The trip doesn't go super well, but Claes becomes maybe the first Swede to drinking coffee. He writes:

Where coffee is a cooked drink of beans, which they drink hot instead of brandy, and if you don’t soak it up eventually you get burned badly, so he warned me to look at him and drink like him.

It’s very bad tasting, like it was made of fried peas

1685

The first shipment of coffee first arrives in Sweden, likely into Gothenburg.

It probably was coming from Mocha, a port in Yemen that dominated coffee trade, reselling beans from Ethiopia.

Late 1600's

Coffee is available for purchase in pharmacies, but it's expensive.

Coffee is initially used for medicinal purposes, and stockpiled by pharmacists to treat disease.

It begins to become popular among wealthy members of society. Mainly men are dranking coffee.

The Northern War

1700 - 1721

The great Northern War. Sweden has an empire and is briefly kinda badass.

Sweden isn't known for empire, but in the early 18th century it had territory in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

After Sweden gets a new young ruler in 1697—King Carl (Charles) XII—the Tsardom of Russia (allied with Denmark-Norway) senses opportunity to contest Swedish empire. Eventually they win.

🇸🇪 Swedish Alliance

  • Carl XII, Sweden
  • Holstein-Gottorp, Denmark/Germany
  • Polish Nobles
  • Cossacks, Ukraine
  • 🚫 Anti-Swedish Alliance

  • Frederic IV, empire of Denmark-Norway (literally his cousin)
  • Peter the Great, of Russia
  • Augustus II, Saxony (Poland-Lithuania)
  • The Battle of Poltava, the largest and last major battle in the Great Northern War. The Swedish empire officially ends.

    1709 - 1714

    After being defeated at the Battle of Poltava by Russian forces, The Swedish empire is officially over. Swedish King Carl XII flees in exile to the Ottoman empire, where he lives for 5 years.

    He first goes to Ozu Castle (present day Ukraine) and then later invited by the governor of Bender (present day Moldova) to take refuge there.

    He basically bums it there for 5 years—so long that they actually build an entire Swedish village outside of Bender called Karlstad ("The Second Stockholm").

    The Ottoman empire pays for his 5 year stay

    [Charles XII's] expenses during his long stay in the Ottoman Empire were covered by the Ottoman state budget, as part of the fixed assets (Demirbaş in Turkish), hence his nickname Demirbaş Şarl: "Fixed Asset Charles"

    1713

    The Skirmish of Bender. Merchants and locals in Bender get tired of Carl XII's BS—running up huge debts, trying to convince them to attack Russia.

    Townsfolk and Janissaries attack him. He kills at least one ottoman soldier sword-fighting. He is captured, and put on house arrest.

    1714

    Carl XII returns to Sweden, with a group of Ottoman soldiers and escorts (who he promises to pay back).

    He also brings with him a Turkish coffee maker and the new custom of drinking coffee. This helps coffee's popularity grow among the Swedish people.

    Interestingly, he also brought back a Turkish recipe for meatballs which eventually became Swedish meatballs.

    18th Century

    1710

    The first coffeehouse opens in Stockholm.

    In 1728 there were some 15 cafés listed in Stockholm.

    Sundbergs Konditori, Stockholm's oldest running coffeehouse (1785)

    1746

    The Collegium Medicum warns against excessive use of tea and coffee.

    The next year the government imposes a heavy tax on coffee products.

    Failure of coffee and tea drinkers to confess themselves and pay the tax resulted in a heavy fine and ‘confiscation of cups and dishes,’ seizure of the paraphernalia supporting the use of these psychoactive intoxicants.

    King Gustav III also ascends to power, and he really doesn't like coffee

    He may have been paranoid that coffee gatherings brewed anti-monarch sentiment.

    In addition to convincing the Swedish botanist and avid coffee drinker Carl Linneas to write a dissertation on the negative effects of coffee, Gustav commissioned what is now jokingly called “Sweden’s first clinical study.

    🔬 Carl Linné Trash Talking Coffee

    It seems to cheer up the dull and sharpen the stupid, but by depleting the brain and nervous system it weakens the body and causes premature age-ing

    [it may have potential for] those who are dull, dehydrated, phlegmatic and obese

    Carl Von Linne, Swedish scientist and father of modern taxonomy

    💊 "Sweden's First Clinical Trial"

    To prove the ill effects of coffee, Gustav III commuted the death sentence of identical twins.

    On the condition that one would drink three pots of coffee every day for the rest of his life, and the other the equivalent amount of tea.

    The physicians who monitored their health passed away first.

    Then, King Gustav III.

    Both subjects of the study lived into old age, and the coffee drinker outlived the tea drinker by several years.

    1756

    A ban on drinking coffee is introduced in Sweden, after elites outlaw home distilling of grain liquor.

    There was a grain shortage in the country at the time and the nobility, clergy and burghers had pushed through a ban on the production of spirits.

    This outraged farmers and farming representatives in Parliament, who in turn pushed for a ban on coffee, believing it to be a beverage for the elite.

    The ban lasted for 10 years. Punishments included fines, having one’s cups and saucers taken away, and later, imprisonment.

    Special "coffee police" chased offenders who were heavily fined or even flogged.

    19th & 20th Centuries

    1799-1802

    Coffee is banned again

    The monarchy and ruling government still thinks coffee is a little sus.

    1817-1823

    Coffee gets banned, one last time

    During the last prohibition, a guild, also known as a coffee guild, arose, with people who refused to put down their cups and secretly went into the woods to drink coffee.

    In total, coffee was banned five times in Sweden between 1756 and 1823, before the government gave up

    You can get coffee in the meanest peasant's house, and it is always excellent

    - Dr. Thomas Thomson, British Traveler to Sweden, 1812

    1809

    Sweden makes it legal to brew small amounts of liquor (brännvin) for personal consumption.

    1855

    The Swedish government backpedals. and decides people are brewing too much alcohol, and outlaws brännvin.

    This makes more room for coffee to have a central role in Swedish life.

    Mid 19th Century

    The term "fika" allegedly originates,

    It may simply have a bastardization of the Swedish or dutch slang for coffee (kaffi and koffie respectively), but popular legend is that it originated as a code word used during the coffee prohibitions.

    while there was no longer a need to drink coffee in secret, this code word proved popular and long-lasting.

    Coffee starts to become less of a bro club, and fika becomes more a formal social ritual—organized by women.

    Baking also becomes more popular with the arrival of the iron stove

    One might say that the fika phenomenon emerged around the middle of the 19th century, when the tradition of coffee breaks came into being, coffee breaks being a female activity where women socialised by offering coffee and cake.

    "Kafferep" starts to develop as an elaborate social ritual centered around coffee and cake

    The recommended order to eat cakes:

  • Wheat bread (roll or length)
  • Light sugar cake
  • Dark sugar cake
  • Light, dry biscuit
  • Dark, dry biscuits
  • Filled biscuit
  • Pastry
  • Early 20th Century

    Coffeehouses start to combine with bakeries and patisseries

    Fika's and coffee are now firmly a part of Swedish culture. It's not uncommon to put on your Sunday clothes and go fika.

    Today

    Sweden reliably ranks in the top 5 countries on earth for per capita coffee consumption

    🌃 One Theory as to Why

    The countries that drink the most coffee also tend to sit the further North, and have colder, darker winters.

    Antidepressant use seems to correlate with average hours of sunlight per year.

    Coffee may be helping Swedes weather theantidepressant of choice 😂

    Part 2/2

    Fika, Explained

    Drinking coffee and eating sweets is relatively easy. Intentionally slowing down is harder.

    What is Fika?

    Fika is a social coffee break ritual that has become one of Sweden's best known culinary traditions

    Fika is one of those words that can be difficult to translate. Loosely it means a “coffee and cake break” but that hardly captures the social significance of the term.

    Overview

  • A social activity where you drink coffee and eat sweets
  • Fika is both a noun and a verb
  • You can fika, or take a fika
  • Fika during the day, or after a meal
  • An excuse to slow down, enjoy the present moment, and strengthen social ties
  • Swedes fika multiple times per days
  • What I’ve come to enjoy about Swedes is that there is rarely any rush or agenda behind their coffee drinking.

    …The fika experience is a time of stillness amid my roller-coaster ride. I used to go sit in a coffee shop to write, or check things off from my to-do list. But the true nature of the fika is to enjoy time and company with no plan or purpose. To fika is not to do, but simply to be.

    Yael Averbuch, American writing for NYT in 2013

    How to Fika

    🕙 Fika Starts With Taking a Break

    Usually once mid-morning at 9AM, and again around 2PM

    So ingrained in the Swedish psyche is the custom that some companies add a clause to contracts stating that employees are entitled to fika breaks. A clever move, since a spot of fika can be therapeutic, promoting wellbeing and productivity.

    Even the mighty Volvo plant stops for fika. All Swedes consider it important to make time to stop and socialise: to take a pause.

    The Swedish obsession with Fika reminds me of the French's famously long lunch breaks

    🪑 Sit Down & Slow Down, Wherever You Are

    Fika is not something you do while you're moving

    I've heard my aunts and uncles joke more than a few times about Americans carrying around coffee travel mugs.

    To them, the idea of chugging coffee alone and on the go is humor-worthy.

    Wrong

    Okay

    Good

    ☕️ Drink Coffee & Eat Sweets

    Preferably strong bitter coffee, and baked goods

    Coffee

    Swedes typically drink strong, bitter coffee from a french press. You can drink tea, but that's less common.

    Sweets

    Baked goods and cookies. Things like buns (similar to cinnamon roll)

    💬 Fika Is a Group Sport

    Sorry, but you can't fika alone at your desk

  • Fika Is a way to strengthen friendships and relationships
  • You can fika with just about anyone— your coworkers, boss, friends, grandma
  • Fika is also a way to meet people (some people will go on fika dates—similar to American coffee dates)
  • Fika cannot be experienced at your desk by yourself. That would just be taking coffee and cake.

    The important part is that you’re not alone and have a cup of coffee in-hand.

    Some real examples, grabbed from twitter

    A Culture of Fika

    Pressbyrån

    The Swedish equivalent of 7 Eleven sells fika deals (coffee and a pastry)

    Sveriges Järnväg

    The Swedish national train system has cars where they sells coffee & sweets

    7 Eleven

    Even American chains like 7/11 in Sweden cater to Sweden's appetite for fika

    IKEA

    Everyone's favorite furniture store loves to fika too

    Fika Mirrors Larger Swedish Cultural Norms

    The idea of "Lagom"

    Lagom is a word that roughly translates to "not too much, not too little."

    It's an idea that permeates many aspects of Swedish society. Lagom means living sustainably, taking breaks, avoiding greed, and achieving balance.

    The archetypical Swedish proverb "Lagom är bäst", literally "The right amount is best", is also translated as "Enough is as good as a feast",or as "There is virtue in moderation".

    Equality & Non-Hierarchy

    Swedes are generally known for modesty and egalitarianism, both socially and economically.

    They don't use titles like "mr" and "mrs", and being ostentatious or boasting is culturally generally frowned upon. This modesty comes with benefits and drawbacks.

    They also have famously high taxes, and less wealth inequality than most countries.

    Taking Breaks

    Swedish law ensure that all Swedes get a lot of vacation and paid leave.

    Under Swedish law, after working at a company for 12 months all Swedish citizens are entitled to a minimum 25 days of paid vacation, regardless of age or type of employment.

    Traditionally, Swedes would take four or five weeks off in the summer, head to their country houses (usually in July), and the country would more or less shut down.

    Swedes also get 240 days of paid parental leave, per parent. Despite the time off, Swedes have a per capita income similar to the US.

    What Can Fika Teach Us?

    To slow down, enjoy the moment and those around us

    A note about this tweet

    Authentic Swedish Fika

    I haven't been, but if you want to sample Swedish baked goods and live in San Francisco, my quick research indicates that Kantine may be a good place to go