Coffee in the Arctic, Rich in Pride and Traditions

In Greenland, every happening in life is celebrated with coffee from a boy’s first successful seal hunting expedition to the start of the new school year. In Arctic neighbour Iceland, it’s common to start off dinner with coffee before cocktails. Since the earliest explorations of the Arctic regions of Greenland, voyagers have brought  coffee with them to help endure the long and frosty periods spent on the inland ice, and to this date coffee culture lies deep with the Viking ancestors of the ultimate Norse people.

By Maja Wallengren

When a boy in Greenland catches his first seal, it’s tradition for the family to throw a lavish coffee celebration with multiple offerings of Danish pastry, bakery and desserts. From the more exotic celebrations for a seal and reindeer hunt, to family events like birthdays, the coffee celebration known as kaffemik serves as the key ritual in every aspect of life in this remote part of the Arctic region.

“We just love coffee and for so many generations it’s been an essential part of our culture so we really can’t imagine doing anything without coffee,” Malene Egede, local district chief in the tiny fjord (a narrow inlet coastal stretch of tiny fishing villages with houses scattered out over a wide area) of Igaliku in southern Greenland, told Tea & Coffee Trade Journal during a recent kaffemik in this remote outpost.

From café culture and souvenir shops to a popular children’s book about the 12-year-old Inuit boy Tobias preparing for his first seal hunting expedition, coffee is at the centre of local life in Greenland. And wherever visitors come they can expect a good cup of strong and perfectly brewed drip coffee.

“Greenlanders are particularly keen coffee-drinkers,” said Chris Coubrough, a New Zealand-born chef whose chance encounter with Greenland led to the four-part food show Taste of Greenland on UK television, in which he recommends tourists to seek out the opportunity to experience a kaffemik.

“There is always an excuse for a kaffemik, but in particular children’s birthdays, confirmations, weddings and other special occasions are celebrated, such as when a child has caught his first seal or reindeer, and in these cases, the kaffemik will be a particularly memorable occasion,” Coubrough said in a blog post.

Seal-hunting traditions in the Arctic region from Canada to Russia can be traced back over 4000 years and in Greenland, the native Inuit people traditionally have relied on seals for most of their daily livelihood. From the pelts and bones to oil and food, every part of the marine mammal is used and seal meat is of major importance to the daily diet thanks to the high nutritional value of protein, iron and vitamins A and B.

With seal hunting to this day still a vital part of the daily subsistence of the Inuit, it’s easy to see how that ritual bas been adopted into the culture of the kaffemik, a name based on a mix of the Danish word for coffee and the Greenlandic word for social gathering.

It is not known exactly how early coffee arrived in Greenland – which has been under Danish rule since 1380 and to this date remains an overseas territory of Denmark – but since the beginnings of Arctic expeditions in the early 18th century coffee is mentioned as a staple used by Inuit seal hunters.

When Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen went to Greenland on his first mission there in early 1882, coffee was already a well-established part of the local culture and drinking coffee was an essential part of the preparations for Inuit hunting trips.

“In the days of old they took merely a drink of water at this time, but they now take one or, if possible, two, cups of coffee,” Nansen wrote in his account, The First Crossing of Greenland where he recounts what was to become the world’s first successful crossing of Greenland inland ice in 1888. Crossing the polar icecap on skis, Nansen describes with marked impression that Inuit hunters, “will go the whole day” on the one or two cups of coffee, even if they don’t succeed in catching any seal or other food.

Ken Taylor, a Scottish academic and kayak-enthusiast turned modern explorer, includes multiple coffee memories in his book, Kayak Hunting in Illorsuit, about his time in the isolated fishing town of Illorsuit in West Greenland in 1959.

Once “the formalities were over, it was time to party. First there was a kaffemik and everyone in the village showed up, in relays, to enjoy the coffee and treats. It was a lot of hospitality and it was all kinds of fun,” wrote Taylor.

Experiencing Greenlandic Kaffemik

It’s mid-August in southern Igaliku when T&CTJ visits and across the tiny settlement with 55 permanent residents, people are getting ready for the kaffemik as the new school year starts. Over the years, Malene Egede has held multiple jobs from district leader to mayor, school principal and owner of the fjord’s only shop. This year she is particularly busy with the new school year as the population is set to double.

“We are all excited because two new children will start primary school together. It’s so rare to get two children starting together and that will increase the number of students at the local school to four so the Kaffemik this year is going to be special,” said Egede.

Everything here comes in small measures and transport is mostly on foot or by boat as Greenland in general has no road infrastructure, except for a few gravel roads in some of the larger populated centres.

“The weather is often cold and wet and we walk a lot so we always have an appetite for coffee,” she laughs. Most of these tiny hamlets stretched out across the fjords in southern Greenland will have one local shop or supermarket. Apart from a wide selection of basic daily groceries, visitors can buy anything from seal skins and motorbikes to baby accessories, assorted clothing, and construction tools, in addition to – of course – a good selection of premium roast and ground coffee brands. Fresh produce such as milk and yogurt, which is brought in by air freight from mainland Denmark over 3,500 kilometres away, is among the priciest found anywhere in the world, with a litre of milk costing about USD $8. Many of the coffee brands sold in Greenland claim to be specially adapted to the soft water in Greenland, which is one of the purest water sources in the world as it comes directly from the ice cap where it has been frozen and preserved in perfect purity for more than 100,000 years, according to geology findings.

Travelling further north to the capital of Nuuk, which in Kiwi chef Coubrough’s words is a city “fuelled on fresh air, strong coffee and diverse personalities,” exploring food and coffee culture is a never-ending adventure. From the exotic cuisine to the long list of unique tourist attractions in a modern yet rural setting, Greenland’s capital may qualify as the ultimate city of urban Arctic living.

Souvenirs here are as diverse as the culture and its people, varying from coffee pot warmers made of seal skin to cups and mugs in all kind of shapes and colours that often integrate some of Greenland’s unusual mix of rocks, quartz-gold or precious stones and crystals. Excursions for whale sighting and the northern lights rank among the top tourist activities, and so does the opportunity to take part in a kaffemik, which is recent years has become a top tourist attraction.

“As a guest on a kaffemik tour you will get an authentic look at Greenlandic life. You will visit a local’s home, and gain insight to what it’s like to live life as a Greenlander,” said Norwegian Arctic cruise providers Hurtigruten in Tromsoe, Norway. “The host impresses with a huge selection of homemade cakes and sweets, which finishes a meal of reindeer, seal, whale, muskox meat, fish soup, and other specialties. And you will always find a fresh pot of coffee.”

Iceland Imports Only Arabica

Good coffee follows travellers across the extreme North Atlantic, from kaffemik in Greenland to Viking history in Iceland where as early as 1760, coffee was reported a common product on the tiny volcanic island with most households counting a roaster and grinder for personal use, according to a blog post at Nordiccoffeeculture.com.

“The original purpose of coffee in Icelandic homes was treating visitors – especially the clergy – with due hospitality. Gradually people started drinking coffee on Sundays and other holidays until it, by the mid-19th century, had become a daily habit,” it said.

What the population of 330,000 in Iceland lacks in overall coffee drinking volume, it makes up for in per capita consumption. The Icelandic people rank together with Finns and Scandinavians as the world’s highest per capita consumers, gulping down between 9 and 10 kilograms worth of green coffee per person per year, according to the London-based International Coffee Organization, adding that Iceland’s green coffee imports rose 25 percent to 6.614 million pounds in 2015 from 5.291 million pounds in 2001. Quality is key, said Iceland’s Sonja Bjoerk Grant, an international judge and trainer who has been involved with the World Barista Championship since 2000, at which time she was working with local the coffee shop Kaffitaar in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.

“Overall, we drink good quality coffee. In Iceland, only Arabica beans are imported and in every gas station you can have a cup of great specialty coffee, roasted by the specialty roasteries in Iceland – this is what our culture is all about,” Grant told Swedish coffee blogger Pawel Murawski in an interview in 2015.

Such is the popularity of coffee in Iceland that local coffee lovers will have coffee before cocktails at dinner “just to get in the mood” for the dinner and rest of the evening, marvelled US writer Adam Gopnik in a piece in The New Yorker in 2015.

From ancient Viking history and active volcanoes to ice glaciers, geysers and hot springs, attractions and natural wonders in Iceland’s lava-covered landscape have aided Iceland’s quick surge to the top of the international tourist chart in recent years. But as coffee culture continues to explode worldwide, the growing number of coffee lovers found among the tourist arrivals in Iceland are equally happy to find good coffee so easily available across the Arctic island. And locals are only too happy to share where they get their favourite coffee whenever the craving for a shot of caffeine comes along.

“I get coffee at least three times a day, sometimes more,” said street musician Joe Dubius who T&CTJ met on the bustling main street of down town Reykjavik. “The best coffee to me is at Kaffitaar, this is why I always play at this corner here, right across from the café.” To coffee lovers, the best thing about Iceland may just be the coffee – and that is no small compliment.

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