Why do we drink coffee? Is it to wake up? Is to revel in the flavour? Is it for a jolt of caffeine? Is it for the ritual? Coffee may have different meanings for all of us, but there is one thread to coffee that tends to tie us all together: it’s social. It’s a reason to gather, an excuse to make a date with a friend. Look at any culture that drinks coffee, and more often than not there is a social ritual tied to it. Not just how you serve it, but what you serve it in and who you serve it to. Coffee brings us together, no matter where we are.
Of course, in an ever-growing culture of takeaways and coffee pods, we’ve lost some of that. Instead of being something that bringing us together, the ritual that we sit down and take time for, coffee is now too often the thing we squeeze into our everyday busy routines – it’s as quick as pushing a button, a fleeting moment we barely acknowledge.
Perhaps as a nod to our desire to bring back some of the social side of coffee, in recent years the Swedish tradition of fika has grown in global popularity. Used as both a verb and noun, fika is essentially the Swedish word for coffee break, a moment to take a break, drink a cup of coffee and eat something along with it.
Of course, the Swedes aren’t the only ones with a special coffee break or a ritual surrounding coffee. Each country has something and we’ve all sought them out when travelling. In fact, if you break it down into its essential parts – a cup of coffee, a treat and a few minutes’ break – fika isn’t revolutionary. It is after all, just a coffee break. But talk to Swedes who have moved abroad, or anyone who has visited Sweden, and people hang on to fika as if it was the most essential of rituals.
“Fika culture is what you miss most when you move away,” says Sadaf Malik, founder of Fika, a Swedish café, restaurant and bar on London’s Brick Lane. “It is distinctly different from the pub culture of England.”
It seems fika has infiltrated anglophone culture because we crave a moment to slow down. We want to take a break. We want to sit down and enjoy our food and drink, even if it’s only for a handful of minutes. As Bronte Aurell, the owner of Scandinavian Kitchen in London, says, “Most problems can be solved with coffee, cake and a good old chat.”
The rise in the popularity of fika comes at the same time as the rise in the dominance of the Scandinavian countries in the speciality coffee world. In Europe, some of the most well-known names in speciality coffee come from the Nordic countries. “The Scandinavian style of roasting has probably grown to be popular because it’s so different from what you have seen before,” says Anne Lunell of Koppi, a speciality roaster located in Helsingborg, southern Sweden.
But just because the Scandinavian countries have made a name for themselves, it doesn’t mean the path to more quality coffee has been a smooth one. It would be easy to assume that this embracing of the coffee break has made people more conscious of the quality in their cup, but that’s not so according to Lunell. “Since coffee has been so cheap for a long time, the Swedes have been consuming enormous amounts of coffee without paying a thought to where it comes from and how it has been produced,” she says. “As long as it is cheap and strong, they will drink it.”
Things are slowly changing, however, as roasters such as Koppi and Stockholm’s Drop Coffee Roasters build a market for speciality coffee.
“Swedes aren’t very spontaneous. If they do something, they like to think it through carefully. How to drink and what to drink is a strong tradition,” says Joanna Alm, head roaster at Drop Coffee. “Still, they care a lot about sustainable trading and growing. Therefore, I think it’s easier to change the coffee beans rather than brew method.”
The standard brew method in Sweden, like in many places, has been filter coffee – and lots of it. “As a Swede, it’s the three coffee breaks during your workday that you look forward to, and at home you invite your friends and family over for a cup of coffee. No matter the occasion, you can be sure there’s coffee,” says Alm. “Everyone has a strong idea about how they’d like this coffee and as this way is now changing since the introduction of speciality coffee, the potential for the speciality coffee scene is enormous.”
Coffee is clearly at the root of the fika tradition, but ultimately fika isn’t just about the drink and the treat. It’s about the break from the daily routine. “I think it’s a quite lovely tradition to take a short break from work or school just to enjoy a little treat,” says Lunell. “For me, a fika break means I take a step back, relax and enjoy a beautiful cup of coffee on my own or with friends or family.”
Fika isn’t a new concept. Anyone who has travelled to Sweden in the past 50 years would have encountered it. Globally however, it’s getting a bit of time in the limelight. There are fika-inspired cafés around the world, from Sydney to Seoul to London, and in Sweden you can now buy mugs, trays and paper napkins all marked with the words “fika” as if the country itself were falling back in love with the time-honoured tradition.
As a culture for slow coffee builds, perhaps it’s no surprise that we have a newfound interest in fika. It’s not the particular Swedish custom that we fall in love with, but rather what it stands for. A moment to slow down, a time to take a break from the routine. A moment with friends or a moment alone, but at the very least a moment disconnected from all the chaos that everyday life brings us. A moment to just sit and be in the now.
“It’s a culture all generations have and it creates a platform where we Swedes can meet, no matter the age of the person,” says Alm. Aurell agrees, emphasising the social component that’s so important. “People fall in love with fika because it is such a lovely, informal way to meet. It’s not like meeting in a bar – this is at a café or at your house, and there’s cake and coffee. It doesn’t require you to dress up or prepare. It’s for any age group, any gender. And, again, there’s cake involved and buns. And lots and lots of coffee. What’s not to love?”
We love fika because we understand it, because we crave that social connection. “Any excuse to enjoy good coffee or tea while in good company is irresistible,” says Malik. “The roots of traditional fika bare similarities to many cultures, which is why it’s an easy concept to grasp and relate to.”
“Once you have tried it, it’s a tradition hard to get rid of,” says Charlotta Zettersröm of Fabrique, a Swedish bakery located in London’s Shoreditch. Of course, besides the tradition, if there’s one thing that pulls Londoners in it’s the cinnamon and cardamom buns. “It’s hard not to love them,” says Zettersröm. “They are baked with a lot of real butter and sugar, and with cardamom or cinnamon.”
Ultimately, fika is more than a coffee break, it’s an approach to life. Who doesn’t want more fika in their day?
London’s Fika hotspots
Where to take an authentic Swedish coffee break in the capital
Bageriet 24 Rose Street, WC2E 9EA; bageriet.co.uk
Fabrique Arch 385, Geffrye Street, E2 8HZ; fabrique.co.uk
Nordic Bakery 14A Golden Square, W1F 9JG; nordicbakery.com
Scandinavian Kitchen 61 Great Titchfield Street, W1W 7PP; scandikitchen.co.uk