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The History of Fika: Swedish Coffee Break

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In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: The history of Sweden's long relationship with coffee.

Coffee from Food52

Whether hot, iced, or doused in cream, coffee provides an essential jolt to many a morning routine. While we often enjoy the beverage at the same time each day (and, for many, at repeated intervals throughout), the American coffee ritual is largely one of convenience and efficiency: to-go cups and mid-commute slurps. Undoubtedly, the recent rise in artisanal coffee production and bean-to-cup enthusiasts may have encouraged more of an appreciation for “coffee shop culture,” but we’ve got nothing on the ritualized drinking habits of the Swedes.

In Sweden, the coffee break holds an exalted status with a special name: “Fika” (pronounced fee-ka). The word is an inverted syllable slang term derived from “kaffi,” the 19th century word for coffee. Whether used as a noun or a verb, (one can “fika” or take part in “fika”), it describes the institution of social coffee consumption, most often accompanied by a snack of sorts. Edibles can include a sweet treat, such as a traditional cinnamon roll or cookie, or a savory bite, like a “smorgas,” (open faced sandwich). Fika is a way of life in Sweden, with colleges often breaking for half an hour in the morning and again in the afternoon to enjoy a communal coffee break. Fika is thought of as the “non-date date” -- a relaxed gathering of friends with no pre-determined agenda or romantic implication, but rather a leisurely meeting over a much-loved beverage.

Boller from Food52

While Swedes are avid coffee drinkers today, the country’s history with the beverage is not such a simple one. Originally introduced in the mid-17th century, coffee didn’t gain popularity until the early 18th century, where it became the beverage de rigueur among the society elite. However, King Gustav III, the reigning monarch at the time, was strongly opposed to coffee; he disapproved of its importation as a luxury good, convinced of its negative health effects and paranoid that coffee shop gatherings brewed anti-monarch sentiments. He worked tirelessly to eliminate the beverage by heavily taxing it, fining citizens who consumed it, and even confiscating coffee cups and dishes. 

Ultimately, coffee was outlawed, but the King continued his crusade against it, ordering a twin study of its negative effects to be carried out by court-appointed doctors. A set of twins was summoned, both criminals who had previously been condemned to death. In exchange for participation in an experiment, the King offered them life imprisonment instead of death, with the caveat that one consume three pots of tea per day for the rest of his life, and the other three cups of coffee. But the coffee-fearing king would never learn coffee’s harmless truth, as both doctors died prior to the conclusion of the experiment, and Gustav was assassinated before any results were made final. As it turned out, the tea-drinking twin died at the ripe old age of 83 (practically ancient in those times) -- but was outlived by his coffee-drinking twin.  

Since Gustav’s time, the Swedes have embraced coffee more than most, “Fika-ing” any chance they can -- a tradition from which we could learn a thing or two. So, next time you slug down your 8 AM latte, take an extra minute (and perhaps a croissant) to enjoy it...even if you’re at your desk. 

What are your favorite ways to enjoy coffee? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Food History