Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1987. A very cheap bottle of wine costs 800 ISK ($12). It is no surprise that no tradition of casual drinking has developed here. Instead, coffee is the drink of choice. Ironically enough, coffee-drinking is one area where the Icelanders are not highest “per capita” (the Finns have achieved this honour), but coffee drinking and coffee culture are staples of Icelandic society.
The magical energy-giving treats known as coffee beans have been around a long time. Ever since their first discovery in what is now Ethiopia, and the subsequent realization that these beans tasted best when roasted, ground and blended with hot water, coffee has been a stable drink and societal lubricant. Today, the coffee industry employs 20 million people worldwide, and coffee is the second largest commodity in the world after oil.
The world’s most popular drink is also universal in Iceland. It may not be mentioned in the sagas, but it must have appeared on this island a long time ago. In a land where the only alcohol, brennivín, was reserved exclusively for getting very,very drunk, coffee was the tipple of choice to farmers, fishermen, and pretty much everyone else too. For visits, weddings or any celebrations, coffee, usually in a strong and bitter form, was always served.
Egill Helgason, television personality and enthusiastic commentator on Icelandic society and culture, notes that coffee was even crucial to politicians: “(They) had to drink it on every farm when campaigning in the countryside, and not drinking it would be considered rude or outright strange.” Apparently local priests could also fall victim to heavy coffee consumption from regular parish visits; their stomachs often became ulcerated from years of ingesting the heavy local brew.
Alongside the more questionable Icelandic food items (putrefied shark, anyone?), coffee has traditionally had pride of place in Icelandic homes, and it was not unusual for Icelanders to bring their own coffee supplies with them on holiday abroad. (After all, who thinks Mediterranean Europe serves better espresso than Iceland??) There is also a rumour that one of the most popular coffee houses in Reykjavík in the 1960s used to serve coffee from Sweden that was past its expiration date. Icelanders found the flavour just right.
Coffeehouse culture is now alive and thriving in Iceland, particularly Reykjavík, and coffeehouses have become major gathering points, competing only with hot pots for the best place to meet your mates for a good chat. For young people, there are no age limits for visiting coffee houses, and the vast majority have a wide selection of reading material and wireless internet connections. The coffeehouses really took off just over 15 years ago, especially after beer was legalied, and many establishments began selling both coffee and alcohol. Many coffeehouses in Reykjavík are just bar-bistros with lots of fancy javas, but there are also specialized cafés, which serve a selection of pastries and cakes. The influence is distinctly Mediterranean (must have been all those holidays), and the Starbucks concept of one major chain with an offering of approximately 5 million varieties of coffee has never really taken off here.
One of the most well known coffeehouses is Kaffi Mokka, Reykjavík’s oldest. It opened in 1958 and the interior is exactly the same as on opening day. Kaffi Mokka is proudly the home of the first Italian espresso machine in the country, imported by owner Guðmundur Baldvinsson from Italy after he completed a classical music course there but realized that the real money was in coffee. The patrons – college kids, intellectuals and artists (that is, about 90% of the Icelandic population) – sitting in the dark room chain smoking, look a lot like they probably would have looked in 1958. Guðný Guðjónsdóttir, co-owner, says that with the rise in popularity of coffee houses, Kaffi Mokka is less busy than it used to be: “People used to have to wait for tables, but they don’t anymore.” She shrugs. “That was pretty boring for them anyway.”
Beyond the places for consuming it, coffee terminology has also made its way into the Icelandic lexicon. “Bara tíu dropar” (just ten drops) is still an expression for I’m-just-asking-for-a-little-but-really-I-want-another-full-cup. The expression blávatn – literally blue water – meaning someone is a weakling, comes from the thought that weak coffee looked like blue water.
So why is coffee so important on this island? It’s not that Icelandic coffee tastes any different than coffee in other countries – except that it is very strong. It’s not that the coffee shops are any different than in other places – although, again, Segafredo Reykjavík must be one of the only places in the world when you sit outside on the terrace snuggling in the free blankets they provide to keep you warm! The crucial thing is that coffee is a focal point for social gathering, a link between generations, and a uniting force between urban and rural (surely worthy of some sort of Nobel Prize). It’s so important here that, although it is usually possible, you will rarely see anyone ordering a coffee “to-go” from a shop. Some hapless souls may order “kaffi í götumáli”, but Guðný from Kaffi Mokka laments this. “I pity those people. They have no time to sit and drink their coffee slowly and enjoy it”.
Which is hopefully what you’re doing right now while reading this article.
Places for Coffee
There’s a huge selection of coffeehouses and cafés in Reykjavík, so far be it from us to tell you where to go, but here’s a few we’ve highlighted for one interesting reason or another.
Best for People Watching:
Kaffitár; Te og Kaffi – at least I should think so. They each have judges in the annual World Barrista Championships!
Café Konditori (many branches)