February 27, 2023

Are Nordic specialty coffee roasters still as innovative as they once were?


There is no denying the influence of Nordic roasters on specialty coffee as we know it today. Thanks to pioneering industry professionals in countries like Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland in the late 1990s and early 2000s, specialty coffee has become popular in more and more countries around the world.

The global reach of Nordic coffee culture is partly attributed to the high rates of coffee consumption in these countries. In fact, in 2016, out of the six highest coffee consuming countries per capita, five of them were Scandinavian countries.

Moreover, Scandinavia’s rich history of coffee consumption – along with Nordic consumers’ overwhelming preference for higher-quality and sustainably-sourced coffee – has only continued to drive innovation in the international coffee industry.

However, at the same time, it’s becoming increasingly evident that other countries also have a significant influence on the global coffee industry. Most notably, these include the US, Australia, and certain countries in Southeast Asia. 

Ultimately, this highlights an important question: do Nordic roasters still have as much influence as they used to?

To find out, I spoke to Tim Wendelboe and Klaus Thomsen – two of the most prominent roasters in Scandinavia. Read on for more of their insight.

You may also like our article on the future of espresso.

Pictures of coffee barista, Tim Wendelboe, at his coffee roastery in Grüners gate 1 in Oslo, Norway.

How did Scandinavian roasters help pioneer specialty coffee?

Before we explore how Nordic roasters have shaped specialty coffee, we first need to briefly look back at the history of coffee in Scandinavia.

Like many other consuming countries, coffee was first introduced to Scandinavia in the late 17th century. Following an alcohol prohibition in Norway in the early 1900s – as well as high taxes on alcoholic beverages in other Scandinavian countries – Nordic people started to drink more coffee.

In turn, coffee became a staple of Scandinavian culture. To this day, it’s still customary in Nordic countries to brew coffee for visitors and guests. 

As part of this, many Scandinavians also partake in traditional coffee breaks, which are known by a number of names depending on the country:

  • Fika is popular in Sweden, which is when people gather to socialise and enjoy a coffee with sweet baked goods.
  • In Iceland, Kaffitímar is when people stop to take time out of their day to relax and drink coffee.
  • Kaffepause in Denmark is the social tradition of taking a spontaneous coffee break.

Nordic countries & specialty coffee

It’s widely believed that the term “specialty coffee” was first coined by Erna Knutsen in a 1974 issue of the Tea & Coffee Journal. However, it’s also commonly accepted that certain Scandinavian roasters played a key role in pioneering specialty coffee during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Klaus Thomsen is a co-founder of Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

“For a long time, Scandinavian countries have been buying more washed arabica than robusta to brew as filter coffee,” he says. “This has helped to establish a consumer base that largely prefers cleaner-tasting coffees.

“In Denmark, people were introduced to more aromatic and acidic Kenyan coffees earlier on compared to other markets,” he adds. “Meanwhile, in Norway, prominent roaster Solberg & Hansen has been buying complex and flavourful coffees for some time.”

Tim Wendelboe is the founder of roaster Tim Wendelboe in Oslo, Norway. He also agrees that Solberg & Hansen played a key role in shaping the Nordic coffee market, noting that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the roaster was purchasing significant volumes of coffee from Cup of Excellence auctions.

At that time, Solberg & Hansen also supplied coffee to most of the coffee shops in Oslo. In turn, many of them were serving high-quality coffee, too.

“Nordic countries showed an early interest in ‘coffee with an address’,” Tim says. “By the early 2000s, it became more common for roasters to buy single origins than blends.”

Establishing the World Barista Championship

Tim explains how the Norwegian coffee sector helped to establish the first-ever World Barista Championship – one of the most prestigious events in the coffee industry.

“Norwegian Alf Kramer had the idea to hold the first-ever Nordic Barista Championship, which took place in 1998,” he tells me. “In 2000, the first-ever World Barista Championship [was held in Monte Carlo].”

Norwegian competitor Robert Thoresen placed first at the competition, with Icelandic and Danish baristas coming second and third, respectively. 

“This helped to establish the Nordics as a leading region in the global coffee industry,” Klaus says. “In 2007, after competing in the WBC and gaining more experience, Tim and I established our own roasters, and Koppi Roasters opened in Sweden.

“We all shared a similar ethos of trading directly with producers, establishing long-term working relationships, and roasting to lighter profiles to showcase the coffee’s flavours in the best possible way,” he adds.

Tim, meanwhile, emphasises how important collaboration was in developing the specialty coffee market in Scandinavia.

“We were all hungry for knowledge, and the only way to gain more was to work together,” he says. “There was a lot of interaction between different roasters, and we were more like colleagues than competitors. 

“It was all about knowledge sharing and learning together,” he adds.

The exterior of Nordic specialty coffee store Coffee Collective.

The global influence of Scandinavian coffee culture

Today, in many coffee shops around the world, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the influence of Nordic roasters. This includes information on packaging detailing who grew the coffee and where it came from, café design, and a growing consumer interest in filter coffee.

“Nordic roasters’ support of Cup of Excellence auctions, as well as our willingness to pay more for those coffees, showed other roasters around the world that it was possible to profitably sell these coffees,” Tim tells me.

Klaus agrees, saying: “Direct trade, long-term relationships with farmers has inspired others to do the same.

“The first two coffees Coffee Collective ever bought were from two farms in Guatemala and Brazil,” he adds. “We still work with those two farms 15 years later.”

A penchant for light roasts

Arguably, one of the most significant influences that Nordic roasters have had on the global coffee industry is roasting to lighter profiles. However, Tim explains that it wasn’t always this way.

He tells me that when he opened his roastery in 2007, they would roast to darker profiles.

“An exporter brought coffee samples into the roastery that tasted amazing, but our coffee tasted burnt,” he says. “I then had a revelation that we needed to change our roasting style.”

After competing in Nordic roasting competitions using light roast profiles, Tim says he noticed other coffee businesses following suit.

On a similar note, Klaus points out that not all Scandinavian roasters use similar roasting profiles.

“I’m not particularly fond of the term ‘Nordic roast’ as I think there can be huge differences between Scandinavian roasters,” he explains. “However, our approach to roasting as light as possible without underdeveloping the coffee has been very influential in the global coffee industry.

“It’s more about trusting your own taste, rather than trying to accommodate a more general preference,” he adds. “We trust that if we like the coffee then others will, too.”

Roasted coffee beans in black packaging.

But is it still as influential and innovative?

While we must give credit to Nordic roasters for helping to pioneer specialty coffee culture, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other countries have influenced it, too.

Many prominent US and Australian roasters – including Onyx Coffee Lab, ONA Coffee, and Proud Mary – have a clear impact on shaping trends in the international coffee industry. For example, a growing number of Australian roasters freeze roasted coffee to preserve freshness and improve grind size distribution. In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of roasters, coffee shops, and consumers start to do the same.

Moreover, over the past few years, it’s become more common to see WBC competitors from countries like the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Taiwan take part in the final rounds.

Ultimately, this begs the question: are Nordic roasters still having as much influence as they once did?

“In my opinion, Nordic countries are still pioneers in the specialty coffee sector in some respects, like with roast profiles,” Klaus says. “However, we’re not when it comes to coffee competitions anymore.

“I think the influence is now more global, rather than specific regions or countries,” he adds. “Innovation in specialty coffee can be many things – from improving your batch brew to tweaking a roast profile.”

Understanding what we mean by “innovation”

“However, it’s also about coming up with ideas for new products that can change the experience of coffee,” Klaus says. “But I think Scandinavians are a bit more sceptical and question whether a new product or brewing method really does provide benefits, or whether it’s more to do with marketing.”

He adds that innovation in specialty coffee also has to extend much further than this.

“It’s also about innovation on the ethical side of coffee,” he says. “How can we support farmers to add more value, how can we lower our environmental impact, and how can we create better work environments?”

Tim agrees, saying: “I think people forget that coffee is an experience, not just a product.

“Some people are always looking for the next big revolutionary thing, but I think it’s still about serving excellent coffee and creating high-quality customer experiences,” he adds. “However, there is a limit on how much you can do that.”

A coffee roaster holds Nordic specialty coffee in their hand.

What does the future hold?

With roasters and coffee shops in other countries helping to drive trends in specialty coffee, will we still look to Nordic countries for inspiration?

Klaus foresees that in terms of sustainability, Scandinavian roasters will continue to be influential.

“I think more roasters will continue to focus on being more sustainable and transparent with their buying practices,” he says. “In line with this, they will hopefully also be more transparent and publish the prices they pay to farmers.”

Tim shares the same belief as Klaus, saying: “I hope that more roasters, including multinationals, start paying more sustainable prices for their coffee.

“Moreover, I hope that more coffee can be grown in sustainable ways, such as regenerative farming,” he adds.

Klaus tells me that he anticipates the Nordic specialty coffee market will also continue to grow in the coming years – which could further drive innovation across the world.

“We’ve seen a lot of micro roasters opening up across the Nordics in recent years,” he says. “I think we’ll see more specialty coffee shops opening – not only in bigger cities, but also in smaller towns.”

Tim believes that Nordic consumers also play a key role in driving innovation.

“Scandinavian consumers are generally willing to pay more for high-quality coffee,” he says. “Our economy is stronger than others, which means people can spend more money on coffee.

“In turn, this means roasters can afford to keep buying high-quality coffees,” he adds.

Specialty coffee as we know it today owes a lot to Nordic countries. However, at the same time, it’s evident that other countries are also shaping the specialty coffee sector in new and different ways.

Regardless of which countries are responsible for the “most” innovation, it’s important to acknowledge that each one plays a crucial role in influencing the global coffee industry.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether we need to rethink the relationship between grind size and coffee extraction.

Photo credits: Dorothee Brand, Benjamin A. Ward, Coffee Collective

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