Having your tongue repeatedly scalded by a piping hot Americano as you delicately tilt your plastic sippy cup—simultaneously balancing your laptop bag whilst managing to scroll through your Instagram feed—is out. Fika is in. The frantic pace of coffee culture in cities like New York, London, and Copenhagen finds its polar opposite in Stockholm—the Swedish capital and undisputed home of fika: a coffee break.
This daily routine is almost on par with holy traditions in Sweden. It lasts much longer than a 'regular' coffee break and is never taken on the go. It's a very social and relaxed affair. A good accompanying pastry is absolutely vital if you're doing it properly. You take bites of Kanelbullar (cinnamon bun) or a large slab of kladdkaka, a mouthwateringly moist chocolate cake, to break up the slow sips of caffeine.
I know what you're thinking: There's nothing groundbreaking about the idea of coffee and cake. But stay with me, dear reader, because it's the share frequency that makes fika unique. Not unlike the repercussions of a suspiciously cheap kebab in the early hours of the morning, fika, or the need to fika, can strike at any time: at work or at home, in the park or on the train, for 40 minutes or for four hours, and at a minimum of at least three times a day, if not 12. Whilst many of us may try to slip away from prying eyes in the office to get our much-needed hit of caffeine, most workplaces in Sweden provide fika regularly for their workers.
Swedes do coffee culture better than anywhere else, sipping an impressive 1.36 cups of filtered coffee per capita per day. (That's more than famous coffee-loving nations like America and New Zealand.) Those numbers result in an average of somewhere around eight cups of coffee per coffee-drinker per day; close to 7,000 cups a year. When I moved to Stockholm from London to teach English in a city called Uppsala, fika was without doubt (for obvious reasons) the part of Swedish culture that I was most exited about. Although somewhat intimidated by the sheer volume of coffee I would be consuming, I was sure my Londoner's espresso addiction would safely see me through.
My first week in, the famous fika did not disappoint. With an almost limitless number of treats on offer, I ate my way through the A-Z of Swedish konditori (confectionary).
Filtered coffee reigns supreme in Sweden for good reason. (Consuming eight cups of strong, espresso-based coffee would cause some major heart palpitations and day sweats.) Whilst I have never personally been opposed to a good cup of filtered brew, this type of coffee-making can lead to inconsistencies in the cup you consume. I noticed the difference in caffeine almost immediately. My cups were frequently too weak, too bitter, or too flat. But like the illegitimate lovechild of Goldilocks and Bruce Bogtrotte—the cake-inhaling hero from Roald Dahl's masterpiece Matilda—I valiantly ploughed through.
So, why was I having such a hard time finding a decent, strong cup of simple black coffee?
Much like Kylie Minogue's lesser-known sister Danni, the fika package experience ultimately overshadows the emphasis on quality. Maybe fika—and all the wonderfully pastries that go with it—is causing Swedes to prioritise a cosy atmosphere or a seat at the much-sought-after cluster of comfy sofas over a perfectly brewed cup.
Could there be a war slowly stirring between the hardcore, coffee-loving youth and the traditionalists who want maintain fika culture?
Armed with this new theory in hand, I headed to Södermalm, Stockholm's answer to New York's financial district or the trendy cafés in Dalston, East London, to hear from some of Sweden's most highly regarded baristas.
At Drop Coffee, there's not a cosy sofa in sight. Surprisingly, though, there are no treats for sale either—until I edge closer to the till and notice a small number of semlor (a wheat flour bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream). The name of the café makes its mission abundantly clear: Drop your kanelbullar and expectations of the old school Swedish fika at the door, and plunge into a world of full-flavored roasted coffee. There's no weak sauce in sight.
Drop Coffee barista Linnea Vannesjö has a trophy perched up behind the door for her win as Swedish Barista of the Year. (She is also off to Seattle to compete in the World Barista Championship.) Her co-worker, Jakob Adler, explains, "At Drop, we work mainly with flavors. We roast the coffee all the way through, as otherwise it would taste like grass or hay. As the coffee holds such high quality, it's incredibly tasty." Adler, too, has a passion for the beans and direct trade, which runs deep through his veins—there's an espresso cup tattooed on his right forearm. "The farmers get reasonably paid and it is a win-win for all," he tells me, but I wonder: What about his views on traditional Swedish fika culture? "Fika is really only a coffee and a bun. That's it. The quality [of the coffee] doesn't really matter. We want to take fika to another level."
Across the road is Johan & Nyström, the guys who have their fingers behind most of the coffee revolution that's taking place in this country. At their konceptbutik (concept shop), they're selling and sourcing beans, and even offer barista classes. There is a humble offering of confectionaries here. Barista Fatima Wedberg explains that yet again, this is not the main focus of the café: "I'm a huge coffee nerd, I basically only drink coffee, I'm not a big fan of pastries…the coffee is what we stand for."
Does this mean that it's a fika-free zone? "I would be very sad if people didn't come to have a fika as well. I love the atmosphere here and I want people to stay here because it's a nice place to be, but the main focus is the craftsmanship of the coffee."
As Wedberg puts it, "When people have had a specialty coffee brewed and produced in the right way, they can really feel the taste of the bean and I think that is spreading."
Thankfully, Sweden's great coffee revolution is truly brewing, or at least in Stockholm. Its aim is to redefine fika with quality coffee, but the revolution will not be a straightforward one. On my way out of town, I pass Vetekatten, one of Sweden's most famous patisseries and a classic fika spot. The clientele is significantly older, the confectionary selection is beyond all imagination; the coffee is bottomless and mediocre, but I cannot resist popping in for at just an hour or two.