From Iceland — In A World Of Coffee, Where Is Iceland?

In A World Of Coffee, Where Is Iceland?

Published July 2, 2014

In A World Of Coffee,  Where Is Iceland?
Photo by
Alisa Kalyanova

This month, the World of Coffee, one of the leading events in the speciality coffee industry, took place in Rimini, Italy. Coffee professionals from around the world came to represent their home countries in a variety of competitions, including the coveted World Barista Championship. However, for the first time since the championships were established 14 years ago, Iceland failed to send any competitors.

Given that there’s certainly no shortage of coffee shops in downtown Reykjavík, this begs the questions: what went wrong and need Icelanders be concerned about the quality of the coffee they’re guzzling down?

Coffee is undoubtedly deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture. No Icelandic get together is complete without a constant supply of freshly brewed coffee, whether it’s a business meeting or a confirmation party. At Háskóli Íslands the break halfway through lectures is specifically termed a kaffipása (“coffee break”), meaning it’s basically obligatory to go and get your coffee fix. Cafés down in 101 pretty much function as second homes for many locals.

Icelanders were instrumental in setting up the world coffee competitions back in 2000 and always scored well in the early years. Their work has meant that speciality coffee—coffee that’s made from beans that can be traced to their origins and have been processed, roasted and brewed so as to make the coffee burst with flavour that is unique, complex and pleasing to the palate—is widely available in Iceland. As a home brewer, you can buy beans from the larger speciality roasteries Kaffitár and Te og Kaffi in most supermarkets. Regulars at Reykjavík Roasters likely have their coffee made by one of the former Icelandic barista champions.

No Funding, No Incentive

However, like so many sectors in Iceland, the coffee industry felt the impact of that pesky kreppa. After 2008, funding for the Icelandic coffee guild Kaffibarþjónafélag Íslands dropped dramatically. In order to hold the national competitions, the guild must be able to pay for the winners to go abroad for the world championships. This year there simply wasn’t enough money in the kitty to hold the national heats.

Furthermore, while some companies provide financial support for their staff to compete, many do not, leaving competitors to bear the costs of sourcing coffee, purchasing the necessary equipment and any registration fees. “I reckon that competitors don’t get enough support during the training process. It’s very difficult to practise if you don’t have any guidance. Competing is nerve-wracking, so I understand that if competitors don’t get enough support they simply won’t bother,” says Ingibjörg Jóna Sigurðardóttir, co-founder of Kaffismiðja Íslands (now Reykjavík Roasters). “You need a boost when things are going badly and someone to be constantly watching over you and tasting your coffee.”

“One day we will have world-class baristas again. With the opening of more interesting coffee shops with character and bold owners thinking outside the box and focusing on good coffee, at some point we will catch up with the best coffee cities in the world.”

Perhaps as a result of these financial issues, only three people registered for the Icelandic Barista Championship, five short of the minimum eight required. Having limited funds inevitably saps away energy and enthusiasm for the competitions, but there could be other reasons for this apparent lack of interest on the part of competitors.  A wider issue, and one that isn’t unique to Iceland, is a lack of formal barista training and qualifications, which mean that the profession isn’t taken seriously. “Baristas are capable of standing alongside wine merchants or chefs,” says former Icelandic Barista Champion Tumi Ferrer, who sits on the Kaffibarþjónafélag Íslands board and co-owns Reykjavík Roasters. “Yet, the trade is not recognised legally as a proper craft. There is very limited barista training in hotel and culinary courses, but that could be the key to inspiring interest in the trade as a professional career.”

In order to get Icelandic coffee professionals competing again, they must be made aware of the benefits. “By taking part in such competitions, the competitors’ experience, knowledge and enthusiasm increases immensely. They return full of passion and new knowledge that they can then share with the industry in their home countries,” explains Reykjavík Roasters co-owner Torfi ¬¬Þór Torfason, who has competed in both the World Barista Championship and the World Brewers Cup. “They also make important connections that help them to learn even more and can be useful if they want to work in coffee in other countries. I’m speaking from my own experience here—I wouldn’t be doing what I do today if I hadn’t decided to start competing. It opened up endless opportunities for me in this industry.”

Stirring Up A Coffee Revolution

Nevertheless, it would be premature to start speculating about the death of good coffee and talented baristas in Iceland. Sonja Björk Grant, one of the pioneers of the competitions and head judge of the World Barista Championships, has seen remarkable changes over her 18 years in the industry. “Nowadays, coffee lovers are very conscious of how they want to drink their coffee. That makes working as a barista more fun and there’s more dialogue between the coffee lover and the barista,” she says. “Production at roasteries has also improved dramatically. There is more exchange between the coffee growers and those that import unroasted coffee, and more is known about cultivation, processing and what happens when the coffee is roasted. As a result, we are drinking better and more traceable coffee in our modern coffee society.”

Icelanders are becoming open to the idea of a more specialist approach to coffee. “There is a growing food revolution in Iceland. Icelanders are starting to look for products of a higher quality and are prepared to pay more for them,” Tumi says. “At the same time, people are becoming more and more aware of traceability in business and have greater respect for raw materials. They are starting to realise that a low price is usually due to inhumane working methods. Coffee is no exception to this. People are also starting to take a sincere interest in coffee and its origin, varieties and processing—in the same way that people do for wine, beer or cheese.”

But will Iceland be able to regain its former glory on the world stage? Sonja for one is optimistic. “I am sure that one day we will have world-class baristas again. With the opening of more interesting coffee shops with character and bold owners thinking outside the box and focusing on good coffee, at some point we will catch up with the best coffee cities in the world. We are a small nation and it’s perhaps unreasonable to aim to compare to London and Melbourne, but I think that we have to use the creativity and courage that we have in abundance even more.”

Competitors can now choose from seven different competitions, allowing them to specialise in a specific field, whether they’re interested in roasting or brewing, latte art or cup tasting. Icelandic coffee companies would do well to support their staff in taking part in these competitions, as it only serves to boost their business. Assuming there is enough money to run the competitions next year, Iceland’s baristas had better make sure that the world is not deprived of their tíu dropar (“ten drops”) again.

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