June 9, 2021

What is fika? Exploring a Swedish coffee tradition

Coffee is incredibly popular in Sweden. Statista estimates have the country as the third-largest coffee consumer per capita, behind Finland and the Netherlands.

A huge part of this is down to Sweden’s unique coffee culture, which among other things, includes a tradition known as fika. Fika can be defined as a coffee break, a social ritual, a concept, or a state of mind, depending on who you speak to, but it is inherently social and generally associated with a good cup of coffee.

To learn more, I spoke with two experts about the concept. Read on to find out what they told me!

You might also like our article on adding salt to coffee.

What is fika?

Fika can broadly be defined as a “break” where you enjoy a coffee and a chat with other people. It is also common for Swedes to enjoy fika with traditional sweet pastries known as fikabröd (fika bread). 

Christian Gullbrandsson, founder of Morgon Coffee Roasters in Gothenburg, Sweden, says: “Fika is where you meet over a cup of coffee, and have something [to eat] with it, like a cinnamon bun or cookies.”

While people commonly meet for fika in a café, the break can take place anywhere, including parks, meeting rooms, or even at home. 

“It can be before [or] after lunch, it can be in the evening, whenever.” Christian says. “It could be ten minutes, but it might also be an hour and a half.”

For many in Sweden, fika is a daily tradition, whether it takes place during work, at home, or with friends. Many Swedish companies also actively encourage fika as part of their culture; some even mandate it. 

What makes it different to a normal coffee break?

So, on paper, fika might seem like a normal coffee break – but it’s more than that.

As well as being used to describe a coffee break and a ritual, fika can also be defined as a concept – the idea of slowing down and taking the time to appreciate the coffee in front of you, among other things.

The fika “state of mind” also encourages you to take the time to drop whatever you’re doing and appreciate the people around you while you’re taking the break.

“It’s how we meet each other and socialise,” Christian says. “It could be a business meeting, it could be friends or family [having] a cup of coffee and talking together.” 

Matt Mitchell is the founder of Fika Coffee Roasters in Durham in the UK. He first discovered fika when he befriended a couple of Swedish tourists while travelling in Cambodia. After returning to the UK, he named his roastery after this Swedish tradition. 

“The whole idea of fika is to take that step away, and take some time for yourself to socialise,” Matt tells me.

What sets fika apart is that you aren’t trying to gulp down coffee while filling out paperwork or with your eyes glued to a screen. Instead, fika allows you to break away from what you’re concentrating on to savour a moment of quality time with coffee and friends. 

At its core, fika is both a coffee and a social break. These two traits go hand-in-hand, and you can’t have one without the other – this is what makes fika unique. 

A brief history of fika & coffee in Sweden

Coffee first arrived in Sweden some time in the late 17th century. At first, it became popular very quickly across the country, but locals soon became concerned that its rapid growth in popularity would undermine the sales of locally-brewed beers.

In response, a royal edict was issued in 1746, levying heavy taxes on coffee and tea consumption. Failure to pay the taxes was met with confiscation of cups and dishes. Coffee was banned outright ten years later in 1756, but Sweden’s citizens continued to drink it nonetheless. 

Some time later, King Gustav III, believing coffee to be a public health issue, organised a study with two convicted murderers as test subjects. The first was ordered to drink three pots of coffee a day, while the second was ordered to drink three pots of tea a day, every day for the rest of their lives. 

However, both the doctors in charge of the study died before either of the convicts could, and Gustav was then assassinated in 1792. There were some further attempts to ban coffee by the Swedish government, but these subsided by the 1820s. Coffee consumption skyrocketed during the 19th century, and the rest is history.

As for the origin of fika? According to the Hej Sweden blog, the myth claims that coffee lovers would still meet up in secret to share a cup. However, thanks to the national ban, they were unable to announce that they were going for a coffee. 

Instead, they used the word kaffi (instead of the normal spelling, kaffe) which would later become commonly used as a slang alternative in the 19th century. Fika is almost an anagram of kaffi, which is supposedly where the tradition gets its name from. 

Fika and specialty coffee

As fika is such a key part of Swedish coffee culture, there are a few interesting questions to consider. Chief among them: does it have a place in specialty coffee?

Sweden is a key specialty coffee market, as are other Scandinavian countries. But Christian says that despite this, “the [larger percentage] of Swedes still see coffee as a commodity”.

However, he adds that people are eager to learn more about specialty coffee, and it is growing at pace in the country as a result. 

“I’ve been working in the specialty coffee industry for 15 years now, and when I started it was pretty new, there weren’t any specialty coffee roasteries. People didn’t really know what specialty coffee was,” Christian says. 

“Today, however, we have so many roasteries all over Sweden… altogether, they help communicate specialty and quality.”

Matt says that he thinks fika provides a chance for consumers to spread the story of coffee, from farm to cup – something which is a key part of third wave coffee culture.

“It’s the brewing of the coffee…. you start to appreciate the different origins, the different processes, and so on.” 

Practising fika, he says, can be a great time for home brewers to learn more about coffee and improve their craft, even if it’s just doing little things like thinking about the flavours they can taste in the cup.

“Some people are starting to take little notes and logs of what coffees they’re drinking – and that’s fantastic,” he says. “Again, it takes your mind away from work.

“It’s exposing people to specialty coffee.”

What does the future hold?

So, what does the future hold for this unique ritual? Christian says: “The fika culture will always be in Sweden.”

Matt, however, says that he wants to see fika become more widespread around the world. “It would be fantastic if other countries took it on.” 

He adds that many workers today avoid breaks out of the fear that it might give off a bad impression about their work ethic. Instead, he thinks that companies should play their part in encouraging these small social breaks, rather than being opposed to it.

“It’s not a culture that we want to see in the future where people think it’s wrong to stop and socialize,” Matt mentions. “People’s productivity would be far better if fika was introduced more widely around the world.”

Christian adds that he hopes specialty coffee will have a larger role in fika going forward. “I hope that people will [use it as an opportunity to] learn more about the coffee itself.”

In conclusion, Christian tells me that the most important thing about fika is just that you take a break. “Sit down, and just enjoy the company that you have… just relax, enjoy the moment, and enjoy the coffee itself.”

Fika is a concept rooted in wellbeing. It reminds those who practise it that despite how hectic the daily schedule gets, it’s important to take a step away to decompress, socialise, have fun, and really, just enjoy a good cup of coffee.

You might also like our article comparing filter coffee and espresso in the US and Europe.

Perfect Daily Grind

Photo credits: Fika Coffee Roasters

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!