It’s hard to miss that Icelanders are big coffee drinkers. They drink a lot of coffee. In fact, the average Icelander consumes 8.3 kilograms of coffee beans per year, which makes them the world’s fourth largest coffee consumers per capita.
With Iceland’s lack of big commercial chains like Starbucks, smaller businesses have had a chance to flourish. Small coffee shops or cafés can be found on nearly every street corner in downtown Reykjavík. Not counting pubs and restaurants, there are seventeen places selling coffee in just a 700-metre radius around the downtown streets Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur.
Not only do Icelanders drink a lot of coffee, but they also claim that it is amongst the best in the world. But are Icelanders just caffeine fiends and braggarts, or is the coffee really as good as they say it is? David Noble, who opened the organic coffee bar Litli Bóndabærinn in 2011, thinks that the top-notch coffee has to do with Iceland’s small community. “Competition is very high and if one place offers high quality coffee, the other ones have to catch on,” he tells me over a cup of the black stuff.
From beans to roasteries…
Of course there’s nothing Icelandic about coffee itself. Most of the beans come from Columbia, Brazil, Indonesia, and other countries in the southern hemisphere. But the beans’ origin coupled with the local roasting methods can make or break a cup of coffee, and Iceland’s baristas seem to have caught on to the fact.
Most cafés, if they don’t happen to roast their own beans, get them from Iceland’s two leading speciality roasteries, Te & Kaffi and Kaffitár, which began operating in Reykjavík and its surroundings, respectively in 1984 and 1990. They are, economically speaking, small compared to international standards—each operating around ten shops. This means that the focus is less on quantity and more on quality when it comes to beans and roasting techniques.
More recently, a third boutique roastery, Kaffismiðja Íslands, opened its doors in 2008 and is already making a name for itself through its cosy coffee shop vibe and its highly skilled baristas. Upon entering their shop you won’t miss their lovely pink roaster, which they put to work every weekday.
Pálmar Þór Hlöðversson, a barista and trainer at Kaffismiðja Íslands, as well as two-time winner of the Icelandic Barista Championship, explains how roasting is one of the most important parts of making a good cup of coffee: “With every roasting, the coffee will taste a bit different,” he says. For instance, Kaffismiðja does one of the lightest roasts in town, and thus the coffee even features a bit of a fruity flavour.
…to preparation techniques
Once the roasted beans make it to the coffeeshop (unless you’re at Kaffismiðjan), the importance shifts to the preparation techniques employed. This is confirmed by David of Litli Bóndabærinn, who acted as technical judge at this year’s Icelandic Barista Championship.
Most Icelandic coffees are made according to Italian techniques, and are served as latté, cappuccino, macchiato and espresso. At Litli Bóndabærinn, the latté is the most popular drink. “Perhaps it has to do with the excellent taste of fresh Icelandic milk,” David says. “And then of course the presentation is very important, for example the creamy colours and the contrast of coffee and milk.”
While lattés have also been a favourite at Kaffismiðja and Te & Kaffi, David notes that there is increased interest in black coffee, espresso and coffee made with manual techniques. “People are becoming more experimental and they also prefer to drink it black to appreciate the flavour,” he says.
At Litli Bóndabærinn, in addition to the common espresso machine found in most shops, David experiments with different individual preparation techniques such as cold-brew, pour over, aero press or Turkish brew (ibrik). “Some of those methods may seem old-fashioned, but they are the best way to bring out the subtle flavour of coffee,” David says. “The barista is more in control of the variables—the ways in which your coffee can change, for example making it strong or weak.”
At Kaffismiðja they use an espresso machine and a normal automatic filter and—for those who want something more special—they also brew individual coffees manually by using the aero press or a siphon, which is a vacuum coffee maker.
Those manual techniques need skills and this is where a good barista makes the difference. As Pálmar says: “You will never get the same two cups of coffee from two different baristas.” Just like the careful selection of beans and the roasting process, this plays a decisive role in the cup of coffee you will get.
Competitive coffee making?
Baristas practice and show off their skills in making the perfect espresso, cappuccino, and freestyle coffee drinks at a number of coffee competitions organized by the Icelandic coffee guild, Kaffibarþjónafélag Íslands (“The Icelandic Barista Association”). It was founded in 2001 with the goal of increasing cooperation between coffee shop owners and baristas, to host competitions, and to enhance their skills and knowledge of coffee culture in general.
“The Board comes together at least once a month, sometimes more often, especially around big events,” Pálmar says. “And we try every month to hold a smaller event, like a cupping of the Christmas blend in December, or sampling various Scandinavian coffees from Scandinavian roasters. We also have small latté art throw-downs, one-on-one latté art pouring matches [latté art is where the barista makes a nice shape or image, oftentimes a heart, in the froth of your latté], where the most aesthetically pleasing latté prevails.”
Ultimately, this small, tight-knit community is the reason good, ambitious coffee thrives in Iceland. As Pálmar concludes: “Although not all cafés offer championship level coffee, you can still say that all our cafés serve coffee that’s at least above average.”
FUN CAFÉ FACTS:
Most places offer free Wi-Fi
Some places offer free coffee refills.
This often comes as a surprise to many tourists and newcomers. “This is a unique feature of Icelandic culture,” Pálmar tells me.
Places that offer free refills:
Te & Kaffi
C is for Cookie
Hemmi og Valdi
Almost no places offer decaf
There is simply not enough demand. “We would sell maybe one cup per week and with that amount we can’t guarantee the quality and it is not sufficient to roast,” Pálmar says. The two bigger coffee chains, Kaffitár and Te & Kaffi, offer decaf, but as the barista at Te & Kaffi tells me, “we sell maybe one or two cups a day, and normally it’s either tourists or pregnant women that ask for it.”
Places that offer decaf:
Te & Kaffi