Coffee CultureAn evolving obsession with caffeine
With lightly roasted coffees, you can taste the coffee itself more clearly...that's why poor quality coffee is often roasted very dark.
Coffee was first imported into Finland from Russia and Sweden during the 1700s. Since then, its consumption has been steadily woven into the fabric of the country’s customs. While the brewed beverage was initially reserved as a treat for the upper classes, it soon became a commodity accessible to the majority. Served in the tearooms of the higher echelons of society, and the crouched kitchens of the lower class alike, coffee has taken on a multitude of uses over the course of the last three centuries. Utilised as a medicine, a prop in fortune telling practices, drunk at marriages and funerals, and employed as a means of sustaining the Lutheran work ethic of the country’s population, it is an ever-present component of Finnish culture.
According to the International Coffee Organisation’s annual census, Finns consume an average of 12 kg of coffee per capita yearly. That’s around four to five cups of coffee a day. In 1970, Finns surpassed Swedes as the largest consumers of coffee in the world. This transition may have occurred sooner had coffee drinking in Finland not been restricted by high taxation on imported products, and rationing during and after the Second World War. Today, Finland is the only country in the world where the collective employment agreements that stipulate minimum wages and working hours also state that a worker must be allowed a “coffee break” in addition to a lunch break. This single fact alone illustrates the prominence it has in the day-to-day lives of the population.
Despite their obvious affinity for the beverage, some might argue that by viewing coffee merely as an everyday commodity, Finns are missing out on enjoying a well researched, high quality cup of coffee. Kalle Freese, the current Finish barista champion, certainly believes that this is the case. Inspired by his experiences exploring the speciality coffee shops of Auckland and his training at Kaffa, a small Finnish roastery originally based outside the capital, Kalle forms part of a steadily growing wave of local baristas who are seeking to develop their understanding of the product, the chemistry behind it, and how they can use technology to get the most from it. Cereal visited Kalle in his clean, simple cafe on Freesenkatu, a street named after his ancestors. We discussed how speciality coffee can carve a niche within Finnish coffee culture.
What was your first encounter with coffee?
Right before I turned 16, my family moved to New Zealand for a year. It was there that I first realised that coffee could actually taste good. I found myself drawn to the culture surrounding the cafes in Auckland. I loved the buzz, the atmosphere, and people socialising with each other there. It all really inspired me. I began touring the city with a “Best Coffee in Auckland” guide. After a while I started noticing differences; a certain coffee tasting slightly bitter, another tasting smooth. Finns consume the most coffee in the world, but it isn’t regarded as a gastronomic product, and much less consideration is given to the preparation of the coffee. Most coffee sold is pre-ground, prepared with dirty, cheap filter coffee brewers, and then further simmered on the hotplate. It’s little wonder that it isn’t at a particularly high standard.
Did you work in any coffee shops before starting up your own?
A year or so after we got back from Auckland, I enrolled on a barista course to learn the secrets of great coffee. During those few hours, I learnt that it’s not the machine that makes espresso taste great – it’s the person behind the machine. I then went to work at an obscure coffee roastery some 30 km from Helsinki. I labelled bags and packaged coffee. They always gave me a few bags to take home. After five months, Kaffa, this small, two man roasting company, moved to a bigger location in central Helsinki. The new space included a coffee bar and I was hired as their first employee. Following a summer learning from Stockholm based Johan & Nyström, a pioneering quality focused roaster, and two more years at Kaffa, I decided to start working as freelance barista. Last summer, after I got back from the World Barista Championships, I looked for a small space in central Helsinki. The plan was to organise coffee tastings, lectures, and courses. We weren’t really planning on running a coffee shop, but that is how it has turned out.
Tell us about your coffee making process, from start to finish.
We really like to be thorough. I studied food chemistry and milk technology at the university to better understand the science and theory behind our craft. Our approach to coffee is pretty straightforward and pragmatic. Making coffee is chemistry; coffee grounds are the solute, water is the solvent. The better we can use water to extract flavours from the grounds, the better the coffee we get. The water is very important. In Helsinki, we’re lucky to have really good, fairly soft tap water. We start by choosing a lightly roasted coffee. It needs to be fresh – a maximum of four weeks from the roast – that’s when the flavours are most pronounced and vibrant. With lightly roasted coffees, you can taste the coffee itself more clearly, for better or worse. That’s why poor quality coffee is often roasted very dark. The only thing you can taste then is burnt, bitter carbon. Grinding the coffee right before making it is crucial. All the lovely aromas coming from freshly roasted coffee is actually flavour escaping from your brew. Using the right measurements is key to consistent success. We always weigh our beans and water. A good rule of thumb for filter coffee is using six grammes of coffee per decilitre of water. That’s a good point to start experimenting. Finally, the coffee is best enjoyed fresh, and slightly cooled down. That’s when the flavour opens up more. Your mouth only starts tasting things at about 60°C.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be defending my title at this year’s Finnish Barista Championships again in April. Besides that, there are a few interesting projects taking up my time this spring. We’re planning to publish a book about coffee. I basically want to write the book that I wish I had had in the beginning of my journey! I’m also working on creating the Freese Coffee Academy, a non-profit initiative to educate new generations of future baristas. Ultimately, I want to provide people with the same epiphany I had in New Zealand, on the day I was first served a really wonderful, freshly roasted and well-brewed cup of coffee.
- Words & Photos: Robbie Lawrence