The first time I took my American husband to Norway, he was amazed at how much coffee Norwegians drink. Not only for breakfast, but once again before lunch, then after lunch before dinner and most importantly; after dinner, accompanied by a wide array of cookies and cakes. When you go for a visit at someone’s home in Norway, it is guaranteed that the host/hostess will offer you coffee along with whatever baked goods they have in the house. This is regarded as customary and is a big tradition and sign of hospitality in Norwegian homes. I recall a few years ago when I brought my college roommate and dear American friend Andrea to Norway and she was flabbergasted at how often we would eat, drink and just sit around the coffee table for hours every day. We had just about finished breakfast before walking over to my sisters and were served a smorgasbord of cookies, cakes, puddings and dessert… What the… ? Then only a couple of hours after that it was time for dinner and then again a “snack” before the coffee hour at night. Of course this doesn’t happen during the regular every day week year round, but is normal and expected on weekends, special occasions and holidays.
According to my husband, all Norwegians should be super wired all the time (not to mention overweight!), but observing most people in that country they are still pretty reserved and mellow and have yet to catch up to Americans in size. Everything in moderation (except maybe coffee).
Personally I no longer drink coffee at night unless I’m visiting family and friends back home. I prefer other beverages, but nothing can really substitute that “cozy” evening coffee with all the wonderful baked goods found in the country. This phenomenon led me to research a bit as to why Norwegians are among the top coffee consumers in the world, delving into the history and background of the popularity of this beverage in my own country.
Coffee arrived to Norway already at the end of the 17th century, but really didn’t become a hit until around 1850. Many people believed this was the case because in 1842, liquor became illegal in Norway and coffee replaced the void. “The consumption of hot drinks, especially coffee, has increased, while liquor has decreased,” some doctors in Norway reported. Around 1860, several reports of excessive consumption and “abuse” of coffee arrived. Essentially, people had replaced alcohol and tobacco with coffee, and this was a big concern for the medical community, especially since children also were drinking coffee. Some people enjoyed this beverage so much, they gave up other household groceries in order to be able to buy more coffee. Coffee was considered a necessity even for poor people, and stories of “women drinking coffee night and day” were often heard. Because of this increased devouring of coffee, the amount of meals went up as well, since the morning and afternoon coffee were accompanied by bread and butter. During the second world war, there was a shortage of coffee, and at one time imports completely ceased. This was because coffee was being exchanged in dollars, a currency that was lacking in Norway. The solution was to trade dried cod (abundant in Norway) for coffee with Brazil. To this day, you will find all kinds of regional “bacalao” dishes in Brazil, as a result of both the Portuguese and Brazilians trading dried cod with the Norwegians.
Norwegians have always had a restrained relationship to alcohol due to the aforementioned restrictions. Where other cultures might relax with a glass of wine after work on a weekday night, we usually resort to the coffee pot. This is slowly changing with the new generation, however, as wine and spirit consumption is slowly gaining ground and getting more accepted as a beverage not only to enjoy on weekends or holidays.
Some modern statistics from today: Last year, 40 thousand tons of coffee were imported to Norway, i.e. around 20 lbs per person. This translates into each person over the age of 15 years drinking on average 4 cups of coffee daily. This is 0.5% of all coffee being produced in the world. Not a bad number for a country of barely 5 million people! Every household spends on average $120 a year on coffee. There is a popular saying that goes “Without coffee, Norway will cease to function”. As Norwegians are getting wealthier, coffee consumption is growing in conjunction with people’s higher incomes. I should also mention that the rest of Scandinavia can also boast a high consumption of coffee – in 2010 Finland was the one who imported the most, translating into 33 lbs per inhabitant, compared to 21 lbs per person in Norway.
Coffee remains an extremely important part of every day life for Norwegians, as can be seen in the explosion of new coffee shops being opened around the country. This year Starbucks opened its first store in Norway at the airport in Oslo, with more stores planned in 2013. A lot of people I spoke with were excited to see this happening, while others cringed at the thought of Norway becoming more “Americanized” and dominated by chains. Only time will tell if this will be detrimental to the survival of all the cute little independent coffee shops in existence now, or if Norwegians are thirsty enough for coffee to be able to support both outlets.
So far, my fellow country men are showing no signs of stopping their caffeine habit – there are way too many cold and dark days in the year for hot, caffeinated drinks to lose popularity and drop out of fashion.