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Pandemic fails to cool Finland's centuries-old passion for coffee

As restaurants and cafes shut down during the crisis, grocery retailers reported a rise in coffee sales to households.

Korona coffee from the 1950s
The presciently-named Korona coffee was manufactured and sold by the present-day S-Group's SOK cooperative in the 1950s. Image: Seppo Louhivuori / Vilkkimäen Kahvimuseo

Since Finns met and fell in love with coffee 300 years ago they have remained faithful to the black brew, including through war and times of scarcity. Major food retailers say they’ve seen a rise in grocery sales and local coffee experts believe that come this time next year, statistics will show that not even the coronavirus pandemic has been enough to dry up their thirst for the liquid gold.

Finland’s storied devotion to coffee is well-documented: consumption is still the highest per capita in the world as the nation downed about 10kg of light roast coffee per capita last year (in Finnish). Coffee is held in such high regard in Finland that it is an integral part of special occasions and family gatherings: birthday parties, weddings, confirmations, and funerals.

Marleena Tanhuanpää, director of the Finnish Food and Drink Industries Federation (ETL) told Yle News that while it may still be too early to tell, she doesn’t think the coronavirus crisis has affected coffee drinking habits in Finland overall.

"We have heard of people working remotely having virtual coffee breaks where they meet online and perhaps share what their favourite coffee mug looks like," Tanhuanpää told Yle News.

She acknowledged that sales of coffee would have declined at cafes and restaurants that closed during the country’s partial lockdown from mid-March to the end of May. However she said that the custom of meeting for coffee at a restaurant or cafe is more common in the capital region than in provincial areas, where long distances might make the practice more difficult.

According to Rami Kuusisto, commercial director with Finnish coffee maker Paulig, Finns have tended to consume more rather than less coffee over the years.

"Coffee consumption in Finland has doubled over the past 100 years. In 1920, consumption was five kilograms per person per year, today it is 10 kilograms. That's plenty of coffee packs per person," he commented.

Firms cook up state of emergency "cloud coffee"

Kuusisto told Yle News that Paulig employees were encouraged to have "pilvikahvit" or "cloud coffee" sessions when the epidemic caused many people to work remotely.

"It was a drastic change to have to work remotely and to lose the social connections we had at the workplace. In the beginning they played an important role as an unofficial channel to discuss everyday life and other topics," he said.

Kuusisto added that although the coffee sessions have a great deal of meaning for office teams, they initially felt different as they were not as spontaneous as workplace breaks, partly because they had to be scheduled.

"When people got used to it the tone got lighter and more relaxed. One of the interesting topics we discuss is what blend of coffee people are drinking at home," he commented, adding that he had recently been experimenting with novelty coffees.

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Kahvikuppi ja tietokone pöydällä.
Some firms took their coffee breaks into the cloud to maintain social connections among employees. Image: Minna Heikura / Yle

Nikolas Elomaa, a director at Tela, the pension firms industry group, said that when employees began telecommuting due to the epidemic, coffee breaks quickly went online.

"People needed to hear each other’s news. Not only about work but also the situation at home. It was also good that directors joined the breaks because it was important to tell personnel how they planned to organise work. And the situation in the beginning was so critical, that it was good for everybody to share their concerns collectively," he said.

According to Elomaa, company coffee breaks also took on a different character .

"It was a different feeling. Some people who were normally very quiet were more active in the virtual breaks. Some people also described the breaks as more equal compared to ”normal” ones. And it was easier to listen to everyone -- not just the people with the loudest voice!"

Retail sales grow during crisis

Yle News checked in with major Finnish retailers, S-Group and Kesko, who jointly control over 80 percent of the grocery trade in Finland, to find out whether Finns were still sold on coffee during the epidemic. Both reported a higher volume of coffee sales at their supermarkets during the high point of the crisis.

Jussi Mannila, category manager at S-Group’s SOK cooperative network, said that mid-March to 1 June when the bulk of emergency measures were in force is a short period to evaluate retail coffee sales. He added that many other factors affect consumer demand for the black brew, such as price changes, campaigns and the fact that "all Finns have some coffee in stock for 'a rainy day'". Nevertheless, he estimated that retail sales rose during that short period compared to one year earlier.

"Altogether, I would say that the consumption of coffee through retail has grown 5-10%," he told Yle News via email.

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Outdoor coffee break.
Time for an al fresco coffee break. Coffee is an integral part of everyday life as well as special occasions in Finland. Photo courtesy Vilkkimäki Coffee Museum. Image: Seppo Louhivuori / Vilkkimäen Kahvimuseo

Over at the Kesko Group, purchasing and sales director Aki Erkkilä described similar results.

"During the period from 12 March to 31 May coffee sales increased by approximately four percent (compared to the same period last year). When campaigns are not included (since coffee is often bought during different kinds of campaigns), 'basic sales' increased by 15-20 percent," Erkkilä said, also via email.

He added that coffee capsules were also more popular during the partial lockdown than before, with sales of the often-flavoured products growing by more than 30 percent.

A love affair that began in the 18th century

Seppo Louhivuori of the Vilkkimäki Coffee Museum in Lieto, near Turku in southwest Finland, explained that Finns have always found ways to enjoy a brew regardless of the circumstances.

"Well all of the coffee shops and restaurants have been closed, so there was no chance to visit them for coffee. But I believe that things did not change at home. Coffee is cheap in Finland," he told Yle News.

Louhivuori is the chair of the Lieto Coffee Museum Association, which in 2013 opened up the small gallery full of memorabilia related to coffee and coffee drinking in Finland. He said that Finns have maintained their love affair with the brew ever since it was first introduced in Turku via Stockholm back in the 1720s. At the time, it was a drink favoured by the bourgeoisie, but over the next 100 years, it slowly filtered into everyday life across the country.

While coffee lovers today can easily brew up a cup at home, grab one to go at a drive through or supermarket or pour a mug from the dispenser at work, there were times in Finland's history when it was difficult to come by.

"During the [Second World] War, there was a shortage and the government ruled at the time that precious foreign exchange should not be used to buy imported coffee. So any coffee that was sold came from whatever was in storage," Louhivuori explained.

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Chicory packets.
Packets of chicory (sikuria in Finnish) sold as a coffee substitute. Photo courtesy Vilkkimäki Coffee Museum. Image: Erkki Sillanpää

This meant that consumers could no longer buy 100-percent coffee products. Rather, coffee sold in shops comprised 25% of the real stuff and 75% coffee substitute. "Then it became 15 percent coffee and by the 1940s there was no more coffee and it was all substitute," Louhivuori added.

One popular substitute was chicory, a root that was washed, sliced, roasted and ground for the beverage. "Almost anything else" was used, Louhivuori said, including dandelion roots, peas, beans, rye and barley, all of which were roasted and ground like coffee.

Coffee habit survives scarcity

Even 15 years of wartime and post-war coffee rationing (content in Finnish) failed to quench Finland’s thirst for the beverage. During those lean years everything in grocery stores was rationed, with everyone entitled to 250 grams of coffee per month.

"Even children had a coffee ration card. So if you had a family with 10 children, they would altogether have 12 coffee vouchers, while someone living alone would have only one," the coffee historian explained.

Naturally, this opened up opportunities for a brisk trade in ration cards, where families with a surplus of coffee vouchers could sell them for cash or trade them for other valuable goods.

Louhivuori said that in times of scarcity, water was repeatedly added to used coffee grounds cooked in a coffee pot over a wooden stove to conserve the precious commodity. Part of the museum lore also relates how people living in the Turku archipelago added seawater to their coffee to ensure they wouldn't drink too much of it. As a bonus, it was also believed that it helped replenish the salt lost in labourers’ sweat as they toiled.

Cream or sugar?

As coffee culture grew and evolved in Finland, so did the ways people enjoyed the beverage. For example, some people who preferred a sweet cuppa didn't dissolve granulated sugar in the brew. They used sugar cubes or a special set of scissors to break off a piece of sugar from a hard block known as loaf sugar or "toppasokeri".

"They held it between their [front] teeth, poured the coffee into the coffee cup and then into the saucer before slurping it from the saucer," Louhivuori explained.

In the post-war years Finns lived in relative poverty as the country strove to pay off reparations to Russia. Sugar was also a rationed commodity and it eventually became customary for people to take their own sugar supply with them when they visited others. They carried their sweetener in small containers made of tin or wood to avoid further imposing on their hosts’ hospitality by using their sugar as well as their coffee.

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Coffee selection at Vilkkimäki Coffee Museum.
Coffee culture has evolved over many years in Finland. At lower right is a rare Matador drum-shaped coffee roaster manufactured in Dresden, Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Photo courtesy Vilkkimäki Coffee Museum. Image: Studio Kukka

The addition of cream was an innovation that became trendy in the 1950s. At the time, households used cream made from cow's milk as well as a fatty mixture known as "pullokerma" -- roughly "bottle cream" in English -- so called because it came in a glass bottle. Ironically, authentic cream from cow's milk was not considered good enough for guests, who were instead offered "pullokerma".

Louhivuori pointed out that for Finns, while coffee has always been associated with everyday life and with significant milestones, it has played an important role in welcoming others -- through thick or thin.

"Even when it has been scarce, guests have always been offered coffee," he noted.

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