Coffee As a Finnish Institution

Coffee As a Finnish Institution
Taija Ojaniemi, Spring 2010 (US)
A FAST-FIN-1 (TRENAK1) Finnish Institutions Research Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

The people of Finland are among the biggest coffee consumers in the world. Finns consume an average of 12 kilograms of coffee per capita yearly, which is over twice the amount of most other Europeans. Coffee cannot be grown in Finland, so why is it that Finns drink it so much? What has made this beverage such an inseparable part of Finnish culture?

There are many customs, rituals and superstitions related to coffee in Finland. What are these customs, and how are they changing? In what kinds of situations do Finns normally drink their coffee, and what kind of coffee do they prefer? How has this changed over time?

Over the years, Finnish coffee consumption has also been restricted by legislation, economic crises and periods of warfare. How have these affected the availability of the beverage? What did Finns do when the "real deal" was not available or when they could not afford it?

Coffee's Journey to Finnish Tables

Coffee arrived in Finland in the early 18th century, a time when Finland was under Swedish rule1. It was introduced almost simultaneously to Western and Eastern Finland — to the west through Sweden and to the east through Russia (Voipio 18-19).

Some people regarded the new beverage with suspicion while others praised it as a medicine that would cure almost anything from headaches to heart disease and depression. At first, coffee was only sold at pharmacies, which indicates that it was considered to be more of a medicine than a refreshment (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 24).

The first people to take up the habit of drinking coffee were upper and middle class urban Finns who wanted to keep up with European trends (Voipio 25-26). During the 19th century coffee-drinking gradually spread to lower social classes and more rural regions (Voipio 18-19), albeit hindered by high prices (Saarinen 9).

At first, the expensive beverage was only served on holidays, but in the 1870s people started to drink it on weekdays as well. By the turn of the century, people drank it as often as three times a day (Saarinen 9).

The first café of Sweden — of which Finland was then still a part — was founded in Stockholm in 1708 (Kuusanmäki 254). The first cafés to be located in the present-day Finland were started in Turku at the end of the 18th century (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 44).

A prohibitionary liquor law was in force during the 1920s, and coffee replaced alcohol in many situations (Boström et al. 93). This might be one of the reasons why coffee has established itself as an integral part of dinners and meetings.

Finns as the Biggest Consumers of Coffee Worldwide

Throughout the 20th century, Finland ranked among the biggest coffee-consuming countries, and in the 1970s Finns surpassed Swedes as the biggest coffee drinkers in the world (Voipio 74). The only thing stopping Finns from achieving this status earlier is the fact that coffee-drinking was restricted by high taxation, wars and prohibitions until the end of World War II (see the chapter on Coffee Prohibition and Rationing).

Finns' desire for coffee has continued in the 21st century. According to the International Coffee Organization's Coffee Market Report (September 2009), Finland's yearly coffee consumption from 2004 through 2008 was approximately 12 kilograms per capita. Only Luxembourg exceeded this number, with an average consumption of 16.82 kilograms. One might think countries like Italy or France would be at the top of coffee consumption charts, since they are famous for their high quality coffees. However, the French and the Italians only consume an average of five kilograms of coffee per year (International 7).

Nowadays coffee is an integral part of Finnish culture: it is seen as a commodity that everyone is entitled to, and coffee consumption is little affected by income levels or coffee prices (Voipio 144). The fact that Finland is the only country in the world that has made coffee breaks at work statutory2 (Paulig 3) illustrates how strongly Finns feel about the drink. Coffee gives energy to the hardworking Finns, but it also plays a center-stage role in the most important events and festivities (Saarinen 9).

The Finnish Particularity of Light Roast Coffee

Paulig's Juhla Mokka, Finland's most popular coffee blend.
Source: Juhla.
Not only do Finns drink more coffee than other nationalities, but they also prepare it differently. In Finland, coffee is roasted lighter than in Southern and Central Europe (Sipilä 9). In fact, the Finnish coffee is known to be the lightest roast in the world: as light a roast is only available in Northern Sweden (Kaaria). The most popular coffee brands are these light roast coffees (Kahvikaupan), although a wide selection of medium to dark roast coffees, both Finnish and foreign brands, are also available at practically every supermarket or grocery store.

According to Finnish coffee roasteries, the popularity of the unusually light roast can be explained by the softness and good quality of Finnish water, as it extracts the flavors of light roast coffees very well. Moreover, as Finns use the highest-quality coffee beans and water for making coffee, the coffee beans do not have any taste defects that should be hidden by roasting them darker (Kaaria).

The preference for light roast coffee could also be a remnant from the post-war period, when coffee was scarce: the green coffee beans lose some of their weight when they are roasted, but roasting them lighter results in a smaller loss in weight than normally. Therefore light roast beans give more coffee than dark roast beans (Kaaria).

Finnish Coffee-drinking Habits

An average Finn drinks around 4-5 cups of coffee per day (Kahvi juomana). While in other countries coffee is often served in a glass, Finns enjoy the beverage almost without exception from a mug or a cup — the exception being espresso-based coffees like lattes, which are often served from tall glasses at cafés (Boström et al. 26). Most Finnish families have at least one set of coffee dishes that are meant for guests or special occasions. When friends and relatives are visiting, coffee is usually served from these fancier cups (Laakkonen 90-91), but at home and work, Finns usually drink their coffee from a mug.

Pastries have always been an essential part of the Finnish coffee culture. However the consumption of pastries has been on the decrease since the 1970s, as a result of improved health education. In the past, one Finnish peculiarity has been to dip the pastry in the coffee. Nowadays, however, the dipping habit is becoming less common because of internationalization (Saarinen 10-11). Due to increased traveling and exposure to other cultures, it may be that the younger generation has adopted foreign coffee-drinking customs and has therefore given up the dipping habit.

In any event, dipping the pastry in the coffee is how most Finns try coffee for the first time: it is not unusual for a Finn to have tasted coffee for the first time as a baby (Saarinen 10). Sometimes children are also given a dessert-like portion of coffee mixed together with cream or milk and a bun (Laakkonen 85). However, children's coffee-drinking has always been restricted: before, it was due to the drink's availability, but after the 1940s for health reasons, as people became informed about its harmful effects on children (Saarinen 10-11).

There is also another difference that exists between the coffee drinking habits of younger and older generations: some elderly Finns have the habit of first pouring some coffee from the cup into the saucer — in order to be able to enjoy the hot drink faster, as it cools off more quickly — and then sipping it from the saucer through a lump of sugar placed between their lips. Young Finns, on the other hand, almost never drink coffee from the saucer; exposure to international influences is likely the reason for this, as well.

Another sign of young Finns beginning to adopt the international coffee culture is the growing popularity of flavored coffee drinks and cardboard take-away cups (Boström et al. 29). Because of globalization, Finns have gotten exposed to specialty coffees and coffee trends (Boström et al. 3), and an increasing number of cafés now resemble those of Europe and the United States (Boström et al. 25). This change plays an essential role in changing people's tastes and habits, and younger generations are very interested in trying out new coffee drinks (Boström et al. 26-29).

Furthermore, the situations in which Finns drink coffee are now more diverse than before. Especially young Finns are starting to enjoy their coffee more and more outside of home and work: cardboard cups are taken to lectures, and cafés have become popular meeting places (Saarinen 11). An average university student, for example, would drink regular filter coffee at home when eating breakfast, but go to a café in the afternoon to meet friends — and opt for a latte or an espresso.

Middle-aged Finns, on the other hand, have gotten more used to drinking normal light roast filter coffee, and will therefore not be as likely to try out specialty coffees. Therefore they usually do not go to cafés just to meet friends or to spend time: coffee-drinking is mostly restricted to home and work. An average middle-aged Finn drinks most of his or her coffee during the statutory coffee breaks at work. These breaks are important social events that maintain the employees' working morale and group spirit (Ojaniemi). At many Finnish workplaces, the coffee is free and workers can drink as much as they like.

Coffee-preparing Methods

Before the mid-20th century, it was more common to buy green coffee beans instead of roasted ones (Boström et al. 117). The beans were either roasted in a cast-iron coffee roaster or a regular frying pan (Pulla 79). Before the 20th century, only the more affluent households could afford to buy all the necessary coffee-preparing appliances; they used a manual grinder for the roasted beans, while the common people had to grind their beans with a stone or a glass bottle (Pulla 75). After the grinding, the coffee was prepared by boiling the grounds in a pot which was typically made of copper (Pulla 64, 67).

An old cast-iron coffee roaster from the early 20th century.
Photo by Heli Ojaniemi.

In the 1950s, the electric coffee pot and the percolator were introduced to Finnish homes (Boström et al. 98). Nowadays most Finnish homes have an electric coffee maker with automatic drip-brew — although the traditional method of heating the grounds together with the water in a pot is still preserved in some situations, like at summer cottages or on camping trips where no electricity is available.

Despite the high consumption of coffee and the fact that it takes time to brew it, Timo Voipio states in his thesis on the economic and social history of coffee, tea and cocoa (141) that instant coffee has never gained popularity in Finland: its share of the total Finnish coffee market is only one per cent (Voipio 141), while in the UK, 80 per cent of the population drink it (Starbucks). The fact that instant coffee is generally not regarded to be of as good quality as normal coffee (Moon 37) could explain why it has not succeeded in the Finnish market.

Furthermore, the demand for decaffeinated coffee is almost non-existent in Finland. Finland's leading coffee company, for instance, does not have any decaffeinated coffee in their selection. One of the reasons why Finns prefer their coffee with caffeine may be their Protestant work ethic: coffee's stimulating effect has been linked to productivity and efficiency (Tuomikumpu and Lehto).

Coffee Prohibition and Rationing

In the 17th century, when Finland was still a part of the Swedish Kingdom, new exotic commodities like spices and sugar began pouring into the country (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 26). In 1716, a luxury tax was imposed on many of these things, including coffee (Voipio 26). The new drink roused suspicions: coffee was seen as deteriorating the citizens' working ethics and the country's productive capacity, and it was even speculated that drinking coffee would reduce fertility. Moreover, concern emerged over the amount of money wasted on coffee, silverware and broken porcelain (Voipio 22). However, as even taxation could not cut down the consumption of coffee, in 1756 the drink was prohibited (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 26). Coffee was banned altogether four times in the 18th century on the grounds of its negative effect on the national economy, public health and work ethics. Each prohibition period lasted from two to five years. However, the prohibition did not stop bootleggers from smuggling coffee into the country or people from drinking it. Finally, Sweden's King Gustav IV Adolf gave into his subjects' will, and the fourth and final ban was removed in 1801 (Voipio 21-22).

During World War I, the imports of coffee stopped almost completely because of transportation difficulties as well as the fact that Finland began to regulate the amount of coffee imported into the country. The imports were deregulated in 1919, but due to a lack of currency, they did not recover fully until 1921 (Sipilä 16). In 1939, the beginning of World War II led to a severe rationing period. The import of foreign goods into the country, coffee included, decreased dramatically. A sudden need for coffee substitutes emerged, and Finnish roasteries established an organization to promote the farming and drying of chicory, the distribution of which was not regulated in any way (Sipilä 119). In 1941, the selling of real coffee was prohibited altogether, as all the available coffee was used to make ersatz coffee (Sipilä 16), which was a mixture of real coffee and coffee substitutes (see the section on Substitutes and Ersatz Coffee).

In 1945, the first batch of coffee since the beginning of the rationing period arrived in Finland (Pulla 79), but it was allocated to loggers in hopes of speeding up post-war reconstruction and in order to get lumber with which war reparations could be covered. In 1946, the first batch to be distributed to the general public arrived at Turku harbor, receiving unprecedented attention (Jaatinen 40). However, as the importation of coffee was rationed, the imported amounts were small at first, and coffee could only be bought with ration coupons (Sipilä 19). The rationing did not end until 1954 (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 52), when the importation of coffee was deregulated (Sipilä 58).

The prohibition and rationing periods seem to have made coffee even more desirable for Finns: coffee has never been as valued as it was during the strictest rationing period (Saarinen 11). Therefore the fact that coffee has been a "forbidden fruit" so many times may actually account for its popularity (Voipio 23).

Substitutes and Ersatz Coffee

In addition to prohibition and rationing, the price of coffee has always limited its consumption. Not only have luxury taxes been imposed, but wars have also limited its availability.

However, as people wanted to drink coffee anyway, cheaper coffee substitutes were developed (Sipilä 9). These substitutes were also promoted by scientists who believed that coffee had a detrimental effect on people's health. In response, substitutes were invented from home-grown produce like peas, beans, malt, and dried bread (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 25-26). A product called rye coffee became particularly popular in the late 1880s, and it was regarded as the Finnish version of coffee (Sipilä 21).

Any particular substitute was not usually used as such, but was mixed together with other substitutes in order to achieve a flavor that resembled real coffee. For instance, the roots of an herb called chicory were thought to imitate the taste of real coffee the best, but as such, its taste was too strong. A mixture that includes coffee substitute as well as real coffee is called ersatz or "replacement" coffee (Sipilä 10).

In the late 1880s, small coffee substitute roasteries were founded in different parts of Finland, and their products were advertised as being much cheaper than real coffee (Sipilä 32). During World War II, coffee roasteries began to manufacture substitutes instead of real coffee due to the strict rationing (Sipilä 61). Many people also made their own substitutes (Jaatinen 53).

Already during the late 18th century, due to the prohibition periods and high coffee prices, it became customary to use the ground coffee twice in order to make the most of the scarce coffee that households were able to buy (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 28). Especially in the countryside, used grounds were often left in the bottom of the coffee pot, and some fresh grounds were added on top of them the next time coffee was being prepared. The ever-accumulating grounds were only thrown away when no more water could fit inside the pot. Records show that this practice was common still as late as the 1950s (Sipilä 29). However, it has since disappeared, presumably thanks to a higher standard of living, a desire for better coffee, and consumer education.

Nonetheless, some elderly Finns settle for lower-quality coffee even today: for instance, they might use less coffee grounds than would normally be required, and add some salt to the coffee in order to make it seem stronger. During the hard times of the war years, these people may have gotten so used to the scarcity of coffee that they still skimp on it.

Finnish Coffee Parties: a Female Domain

Before the late 19th century, the coffee culture of the Finnish gentlefolk differed greatly from that of common people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, smaller and bigger coffee parties were popular among gentlewomen (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 31-32). Women were particularly fond of coffee for two reasons: it did not contain any alcohol, and coffee drinkers were considered to be sophisticated (Pulla 64).

The coffee parties were important social events where the hostess regaled her guests with coffee and a variety of cakes and confectioneries. The women socialized and played games all evening, with the elderly and the most prestigious women seated in the lounge and the young and the unmarried women sitting on benches that were arranged along the side of the walls and in other rooms. Even though these parties were called coffee parties, their main purpose was not just to drink coffee, but to meet friends and to hear the latest gossip (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 30-31). However, the coffee was always expected to be of good quality: if it was not, the guests would make mean remarks about it. Nonetheless, especially in the late 19th century, many hostesses had to resort to ersatz coffee, as real coffee was very expensive (Pulla 74).

Another example of the close relationship between women and coffee are the women's organizations of the 19th and 20th centuries. The meetings of these organizations centered on coffee-drinking and knitting, but important projects relating to things like schooling and the workers' movement were also initiated and put into action by the women. In the 20th century, women from all social classes belonged to these organizations. The organizing of coffee parties became a showcase for many women, and records of these meetings show that many attempts were made to curb the competition over whoever served the most pastries and had the best silverware (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 41-42).

As the 20th century advanced, the coffee cultures of the gentlefolk and the common people became more uniform, and also the peasantry started to have coffee parties to celebrate name days3 and other special days. Serving coffee became an integral part of weddings and funerals of all social classes (Ignatiew-Aukia and Manninen 41). Important guests were served first, and the coffee was brought to them on a tray or they were given their own table in a separate room (Boström et al. 93).

A certain etiquette was also expected from the guests. It was not appropriate to take more than three pieces of pastry or cookies onto one's plate, and guests were supposed to raise their coffee cups by the saucer — not the cup handle — when they were being served more coffee. Pouring coffee into the saucer, blowing on it or drinking it noisily were frowned upon. Cooling the coffee off with a spoon was acceptable, but not leaving the spoon into the cup (Jaatinen 93).

Reports from the late 18th century reveal that guests were served coffee several times a day already then (Voipio 19). The practices have not changed: serving coffee is still regarded as the most important act of hospitality in the 21st century (Saarinen 9), and not serving coffee to a guest may be taken as an insult, especially among older generations (Eihän).

From Homemade Roasts to Commercial Coffee Roasteries

Established in 1876, Gustav Paulig's wholesale business was one of the first in Finland to sell imported products like coffee, sugar and spices. At that time, there were no coffee roasteries in Finland, but people roasted the green coffee beans at home. Mr. Paulig was confident that, in the retail trade, green coffee would eventually be supplanted by roasted coffee, and therefore he decided to start up Finland's first commercial roastery in 1904 (Voipio 68-71). However, Mr. Paulig was not the first person to sell roasted coffee: there had been some coffee shops before Mr. Paulig that roasted the coffee before selling it, but they did not survive the depression caused by World War I (14 Sipilä).

Mr. Paulig's roastery business did not succeed immediately: people were skeptical about ready-roasted coffee for quite long, since they were accustomed to picking out their green coffee beans and assessing the beans' quality themselves (Voipio 72). Knowing how to roast coffee was considered every wife's basic skill. Furthermore, the beans were only sold in 5, 10 and 20 kg packages, which was a big amount of coffee for one household to buy (Boström et al. 117). Hence, it was not until the mid-1920s, when Mr. Paulig started to sell roasted coffee in smaller and more convenient ½ kg packages, that its sales really took off. At the same time, the sales of green coffee dwindled rapidly (Voipio 73). Salesmen also lured Finns to buy roasted coffee by appealing to their price awareness: as roasted coffee weighed less than the green beans, its price per kilogram was lower (Sipilä 24).

The selling of ground coffee began in the late 1920s (Sipilä 16). However, as coffee loses much of its aroma once it has been ground, people opted for non-ground coffee until the 1950s, when vacuum-packed coffee came to the market (Sipilä 53). As smaller roasteries could not afford to invest in vacuum packing machinery (Sipilä 53) and as the nature of the production became more technical, the number of coffee roasteries dropped from nine in the 1970s to three in the early 1990s (Voipio 146). Nowadays, however, several small specialty roasteries have been established, and the number has risen again to about a dozen (Kahvi). Mr. Paulig's decision to sell roasted coffee in small packages proved to be the right one, and Gustav Paulig Ltd is Finland's leading coffee company even today (Boström 117): its share of all the coffee roasted in Finland is approximately 60 per cent (Jaatinen 32). Another big Finnish coffee company is Meira, which roasts around 30 per cent of the coffee consumed in Finland (Meira). Some of the smaller companies include names like Robert's Coffee and Mokkamestarit (Kahvi).

The Paula Girl as a Promoter of Finnish Coffee

Even though coffee cannot be grown in Finland, Finns perceive it as a Finnish product. "Finnish coffee" is something Finns miss when they are abroad, since the kind of light-roast coffee most Finns drink differs a great deal from other types of coffee.

The current Paula Girl, Anni Tarhonen.
Source: Pauligin.

Advertisers have also intentionally wanted to associate coffee with Finnishness. Especially Paulig has aspired to do this with its famous icon, the Paula Girl. Appearing on the side of a coffee can for the first time in 1904 (Paulan), the Paula Girl wore a national costume, giving coffee an air of Finnishness (Jaatinen 34). In 1950, the first live Paula Girl was selected to promote Paulig's products; since then, 16 more Paula Girls have appeared on advertisements and toured around Finland, advising Finns on how to make good coffee. Especially the Paula Girls of the 1950s and 1960s were incredibly popular (Paulan), and people would travel a long way to see the Paula Girl when she came to a nearby town (Koskinen).

One the best-known Finnish brand icons (Paulan), the Paula Girl could be regarded as a Finnish institution in her own right. In any case, she has certainly reinforced the position of coffee as a Finnish institution.

Coffee-related Superstitions and Beliefs

Similarly to other European countries, coffee was first introduced to Finland as a medicine. Tax records from the 17th century reveal that coffee was first sold at pharmacies (Boström 8-9). People believed that the drink would cure headache and dizziness and that it would make blood thinner. Most Finnish scientists, however, backed up the revered Swedish scientist Carl von Linné's opinions on the negative effects of coffee, among which were insomnia, loss of appetite, faint-heartedness and hand tremors. They promoted coffee substitutes, claiming that the coffee plant was poisonous (Pulla 57-58).

Besides being used as a medicine, coffee has also been utilized as a means of fortune-telling. People used to believe that they could foretell the future from the froth that formed on their coffee's surface. If a bubble formed on the drink's surface after it had been poured into the cup, and if the bubble moved towards the drinker, it meant more money. If the bubble moved away from the drinker, it meant they would lose money (Jaatinen 59).

Fortune-telling has traditionally been practiced by the Romany population of Finland (Varokaa 3). In her book Povaustaito ["The Art of Foretelling"], published in the 1940s, a Romany lady named Aini Saga Lindberg gives careful instructions on how to tell a fortune from the coffee residue that has been left at the bottom of the coffee pot. She explains the meaning of a number of shapes formed by the residue: rectangular shapes, for instance, foretell distress (Lindberg 5), and bird figures mean success or sudden fortune (Lindberg 8). However, the habit of telling one's fortune from coffee residue has not persisted, as nowadays almost all Finns drink filter coffee.

Coffee: Undisputedly a Finnish Institution

Since its introduction into Finland, coffee has been a central part of the Finnish culture. From maintaining strict Lutheran working ethics to being an essential part of the most important events, coffee has gained an important role in the Finnish society.

The fact that coffee has been scarce until just a few decades ago may explain its current popularity: it has often been the forbidden fruit that Finns have craved, and its allure has remained even today in times of plenty, making Finns the biggest coffee enthusiast in the world.

Many coffee-related customs persist in Finland: serving coffee to guests is still regarded as the most important way of expressing hospitality, and therefore coffee is served at every occasion. On the other hand, the Finnish coffee culture is gradually changing: new coffee trends are being introduced to Finns by a growing number of internationally influenced cafés, and the younger generations are open to these influences. Nonetheless, Finnish tastes are still far from changing, and the majority of the people still prefer traditional Finnish light roast coffees to darker roasts.

Coffee has persisted for more than three centuries as the Finnish people's favorite drink. With the average coffee consumption of 12 kilograms per capita yearly, Finns are among the biggest coffee consumers worldwide. Finland is also the only country where coffee breaks are statutory, which shows that Finns are prepared to guard their right to a cup of coffee any time. Moreover, Finns now perceive coffee as a Finnish product, as the Paula Girl has given it an air of Finnishness. Due to all these factors, coffee can undisputedly be called a Finnish institution.


  1. Finland was a part of Sweden until 1809.

  2. Coffee breaks are included in collective labor agreements: normally, workers are allowed one coffee break if their workday is longer than four hours, and two breaks if the working time is longer than six hours. Even though they are called "coffee breaks", workers are not required to drink coffee, but they can drink other beverages as well — or nothing at all.

  3. Celebrating one's "name day" is a Scandinavian phenomenon and should not be confused with saints' feast days.

Works Cited

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