Sweden’s Coffee History Began in Gothenburg

In 1657, King Karl X Gustaf sent the politician Claes Rålamb to Constantinople for various negotiations with the Sultan. That trip did not go so well, but Claes Rålamb may have been the first Swede to have tried coffee in connection with that trip, describing the drink in a book as follows: “Where coffee is a cooked drink of beans, which they drink hot instead of brandy, and if you don’t soak it up eventually you get burned badly, so he warned me to look at him and drink like him. It’s very bad tasting, like it was made of fried peas.”

Claes Ralamb smakade på kaffe i Konstantinopel
Claes Rålamb

But despite this, it took many years for coffee to find its way to Sweden.

After coffee found its way to Europe in 1616, it took about 50 years to reach Sweden, the first shipment arrived in 1685 and the honour of receiving the entire shipment of one pound, 425 grams, was bestowed on someone in the port city of Gothenburg. The price for this was 50 daler copper coins.

To read more about coffee’s journey around the world, see the article on The History, Origin and Distribution of Coffee.

Coffee was introduced through customs as a medicine, as it was thought to relieve several ailments such as headaches, stomach aches, shortness of breath, kidney stones and fainting.

In 1687, coffee was available for purchase in pharmacies, but as it was very expensive, it was initially drunk only by the wealthy members of society, and it was mainly men who drank coffee.

Kopparmynt. 1 daler. 1715
Copper coin, 1 Daler from 1715.

However, it was during the first half of the 18th century that coffee came to be properly promoted in Sweden, after King Carl XII returned from Turkey where he and his men learned to appreciate this black drink. When Carl XII returned to Sweden, he brought with him a Turkish coffee maker and the new custom of drinking coffee, with this grew the popularity among the Swedish people.

There were some who did not like coffee as much and opposed its popularity and development in the country. One of them was Carl von Linné, who was critical of the effects of coffee and the habits it brought, while others were concerned that coffee imports were causing a lot of money and silver to leave Sweden.

Carl Linnaeus said: ‘It seems to cheer up the dull and sharpen the stupid, but by depleting the brain and nervous system it weakens the body and causes premature ageing’. At the same time, however, he saw the potential of coffee as a medicine for “those who are dull, dehydrated, phlegmatic and obese”.

Kung Carl XII lärde sig dricka kaffe i Turkiet
King Carl XII

In the 1750s, coffee was still rare in Sweden.

Between 1756, a ban on drinking coffee was introduced in Sweden and anyone caught paying a fine. From 1756 to 1823, there were five occasions when coffee was banned in Sweden.

Interestingly, the reason for the ban in 1756 was a revenge action, as there was a great shortage of grain in the country at the time and the nobility, clergy and burghers pushed through a ban on the production of spirits. This outraged many farmers, who in turn pushed for a ban on coffee, believing it to be a beverage for those of higher social status.

The 1760s saw a breakthrough for coffee and a sharp increase in coffee imports.

In 1794-1796, what was to become Sweden’s last Ordinance on Abundance was introduced, imposing several restrictions to regulate the consumption of luxury goods in Sweden, including coffee.

Subsequently, two more bans on coffee were introduced in 1799-1802 and 1817-1823.

During the last prohibition, a guild, also known as a coffee guild, arose, with people who refused to put down their cups and secretly went into the woods to drink coffee. If you think that the bans reduced coffee consumption in the country, you were wrong, once the bans were lifted, it turned out that consumption had increased significantly.

A guild is a group of people who come together to protect each other, you can think of it like this: in the Middle Ages it was brotherhoods, in modern times it is associations.

Gothenburg was the city where most coffee was consumed and by the mid-19th century it was estimated that about half of all Gothenburg households drank coffee, in Gothenburg coffee was no longer a drink for people of high status, it had spread to all social classes. This gave coffee the status of a kind of national drink in Sweden.

Göteborg Södra Hamngatan 1880-talet
South Hamngatan 1880s

1855 was a winning year for coffee. A ban on distilling one’s own spirits was introduced, which meant that coffee became a bigger part of everyday life for the people than spirits. That said, it was also popular to combine the two into what is known as kaffegök or kaffekask, coffee mixed with spirits.

One might say that the fika phenomenon emerged around the middle of the 19th century, when the tradition of coffee breaks came into being, coffee breaks being a female activity where women socialised by offering coffee and cake.

The 1870s saw the arrival of the iron stove, which made an impact on baking, and towards the end of the 19th century the traditional sweet coffee loaf was introduced, which also became an important part of the coffee rope.

In 1891 Bergman and Bergstrand AB was opened in Gothenburg, a trading house for colonial goods. In 1934, the company purchased its first large-scale roasting machine from Germany, thus becoming the first large-scale roastery in Gothenburg. The company is now known as Bergstrand’s Kafferosteri.

The word fika and its meaning of drinking coffee can be traced back to 1910. Exactly how the word came into being doesn’t seem to be entirely certain, but it is said to have originated in a secret language in Sweden where the letters of the words were moved around. In the case of fika, it may have come about via a mixture of the Swedish word kaffe and the Dutch word for coffee which is koffie (“coffee”)… kaffe… mix… kaffi… move letters… fika.

During the First and Second World Wars, it was difficult to transport goods between countries and coffee became a luxury product. Coffee came to be rationed and so people tried to find other raw materials to replace it with, for example roasting and grinding chicory root or dandelion root and pretending it was coffee.

However, the concept of the coffee roast remained and the coffee roast made its big impact in the 1930s, a popular activity that continued into the 1940s but then began to wane. The coffee rehearsal then became a tradition of eating different types of coffee bread and cakes with the coffee, which were eaten in a predetermined order according to the texture, sweetness and size of the pastries. According to tradition, the order of eating was as follows:

  1. Wheat bread (roll or length)
  2. Light sugar cake
  3. Dark sugar cake
  4. Light, dry biscuit
  5. Dark, dry biscuits
  6. Filled biscuit
  7. Pastry (often containing almond paste, alternatively a toast cake)

Then cake, but it was optional for those who can stand it.

Kafferep utanför Sylstugan 1898
Coffee break outside Sylstugan 1898

Around the middle of the 20th century, coffee shops could be found even in the smallest towns, ranging from patisseries for aunts with fancy hats to trendy youth cafés with jukeboxes and workers’ cafés where old men could find cheap coffee to drink between shifts.

But as coffee became more common in the home and brewing coffee began to replace cooking coffee in households, many evening coffee shops were forced to close again as more and more people began to spend their evenings at home in the living room with coffee in a “TV pot” on the coffee table.

It took until the 1990s for cafés to regain popularity, when coffee chains inspired by American coffee chains began to appear, serving espresso, caffe latte and cappuccino, among other drinks. Admittedly, these originated in Italy, but it didn’t catch on in Sweden until the US had built up the trend. American films and TV series that showed hip Americans in big cities walking around with take-away coffee cups may also have had some influence.

Cafe Kaffehus med Kafferep alkohol och sju sorters kakor 1900-tal
Table representing Coffee House around 1900

Since the 2000s, but especially since the 2010s, the coffee trend has taken new forms, with the public becoming increasingly aware and interested in coffee. Micro-roasters that roast exclusive “fine coffee”, so-called specialty coffee, have become increasingly popular and with this has come the emergence of cafés that specialize in this type of coffee. Many niche cafés also have various trendy brewing methods that are reminiscent of older ways of brewing coffee, when coffee was brewed by hand by pouring hot water over it. This kind of coffee can be expensive and again you could almost say that coffee has become a trendy status marker, a bit like when coffee first came to Sweden. Coffee competitions such as barista competitions have become popular at both national and international level. More and more Swedes have taken an interest in coffee, and coffee tastings have become one of the activities you can attend to learn more about coffee and taste the difference between different types of coffee.

kaffeprovning, göteborg, handbryggt kaffe, v60, specialkaffe
Hand brewing filter coffee with Hario V60