By Olivia Burton
“This is so stereotypically Icelandic of me. I’m late, I’m listening to the new Björk, and I’m in a coffee shop,” says Ólafur Ólafsson, a senior at Yale, as he sits down at Blue State Coffee. Though he has lived in New York since age seven, Ólafsson makes regular trips back home to Iceland to visit his family. During his visits, he frequents Reykjavik Roasters, a coffee roasting company and consultancy with a coffeehouse in the downtown area. While Europe’s most sparsely populated country has international chains such as KFC, Dominos, and Taco Bell, Starbucks has never opened a chain in Iceland. Instead, the country is home to an innovative community of baristas in independent coffeehouses and roasteries such as Reykjavik Roasters. Two small coffee chains, Te og Kaffi, or Tea and Coffee, and Kaffitár, fulfill the need for convenience without sacrificing the quality of specialty coffee that Icelanders have come to expect.
Ólafsson attributes Iceland’s high quality of coffee to the country’s natural spring water and organic dairy, which he claims to be some of the best in the world. Tumi Ferrer, co-owner of Reykjavik Roasters, described a more cultural difference: “What Icelandic coffee culture brings to the table is similar to what other Nordic countries do: the idea of coffee as an essential part of hospitality and an appreciation for good, strong filter coffee.”
The atmosphere of Iceland’s independent coffeehouses reflects the country’s unique mixture of traditional hospitality and modernity. Almost all coffeehouses in Iceland offer free wifi, which Ólafsson described as a strange contrast with the old-fashioned furniture and record players. “The coffeehouses all use home furniture from the ‘60s and ‘70s, so it makes people my age feel like they’re having coffee at their grandmother’s house,” said Ólafsson. “You don’t get the sterile feel of stores where everything is the same.”
But order a vanilla bean frappuccino from a Starbucks in the United States, Turkey, or Spain, and it will taste like any other vanilla bean frappuccino from a Starbucks in Vietnam, Chile, or Poland. With 21,878 stores in 66 countries, Starbucks may live up to its claim to offer products that transcend cultural differences. Yet Starbucks might be sacrificing local culture through its attempts to transcend it. In contrast, Iceland’s coffeehouses balance globalization and local culture while maintaining a sense of individuality and innovation. While Starbucks offers a nearly standardized experience regardless of location, Iceland’s coffeehouses reflect the country’s location at a crossroads between Europe and North America. “Icelanders have a sweet tooth like the US but want to easily taste strong coffee flavor like their fellow Nordic nations,” said Ferrer, winner of the 2011 Icelandic Barista Championship.
Within the small community of baristas in Iceland, an elite few stand out in their dedication to quality and innovation in the coffee industry. Pàlmar Þór Hlöðversson stumbled into the coffee business in 2007 and won the Icelandic Barista Championship one year later. Now a two-time winner of the Icelandic Barista Championship, Hlöðversson co-owns and operates Pallett Kaffikompaní, a multi-roaster café in Hafnafjörður. “I’m not tied to any one roaster, so I just use what I feel like is the best and most exciting coffee available at that time,” he said.
In addition to specialty coffees, Pallet Kaffikompaní has recently started offering Icelandic craft beer. Icelandic craft beer is, according to Olafsson, a fairly recent trend; prohibition of beer was not lifted in Iceland until 1989.
Hlöðversson said that he serves Icelandic craft beers to appeal to a broad demographic of people who appreciate specific flavors. “When people are very much into one kind of flavor, they tend to be very much into everything else that has some flavor to it, be it wine, cheese, beer, chocolate, or bread,” he said.
Of course, Iceland’s specialty coffees and top-quality coffee houses are not unique to the country. Even in Manhattan, which contains nine Starbucks per square mile according to the Wall Street Journal, it is not difficult to find an independent coffeehouse. The difference is that it is almost impossible to find bad coffee in Iceland. Icelanders will accept nothing less than the best. “All the gas stations even serve specialty coffee,” said Hlöðversson.
Olivia Burton ’18 is in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above: Reykjavik Roasters (courtesy Tumi Ferrer).