Iceland is known for the northern lights, the midnight sun, glaciers, and… coffee? Yes, really! The Nordic nations are some of the biggest coffee drinkers in the world and Icelanders are no exception. The Icelanders’ love of the magic beans is evident by the sheer number of cafés in Reykjavík.
The first written documentation of coffee in Iceland is from the 18th century, when the tradition was brought to Iceland by way of Denmark, our overlords at the time. For some years, coffee drinkers were limited to the elite who had connections to Denmark, but in the 19th century, most average Icelanders had had their first taste of coffee (although it was still a luxury item). By the 20th century, however, coffee was an integral part of the household and every farm in Iceland was roasting and grinding their own coffee beans. Serving strong coffee and lots of it was a point of pride, especially since coffee beans were relatively expensive, categorised as “colonial goods,” and revered appropriately as such. Any offer of coffee was likely to be met with a polite and humble, “Sure, just ten drops, please.”
In 1958, Café Mokka opened its doors on Skólavörðustígur in Reykjavík, when the city was just beginning to blossom into the cosmopolitan city it is today. It was a turning point in Iceland’s coffee culture, as it was the first café in Reykjavík to serve Italian-style espresso drinks. Today, of course, most cafés have a large gleaming espresso maker, although some coffee aficionados swear by the more traditional methods of brewing.
Speaking of Italian-style coffee drinks, the caffe latte is surprisingly controversial in Iceland, in some ways as a direct result of Café Mokka. Mokka has, ever since it opened, allowed artists to display their works on the walls and attracted an accordingly artistic crowd. It became synonymous with the experimental, modern art of the time it opened, which was hugely controversial for the newly independent nation. To this day, the caffe latte is a symbol of the rift between the hardworking, drip-brewed-coffee-drinking farmer and the cerebral, latte-sipping artist.
Whichever group you identify more with, getting a cup of coffee in Iceland – whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or after dinner – is highly recommended (and don’t be afraid to get a latte if you want one).
Coffee & something with it
Coffee is good on its own, but coffee and something sweet to go with it is even better! Getting invited for coffee at someone’s home usually means that you get a spread of pastries to go with your cup.
Traditional Icelandic pastries are usually on the simpler side, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious! Try kleinur (a cardamom-flavoured twisted donut), pönnukökur (crepelike pancakes served either plain with sugar or stuffed with whipped cream and jam) or waffles (that also get the jam/cream treatment). Most cafés also serve slices of hnallþóra (fancy cakes, named after a character from Icelandic literary history famous for serving a multitude of huge cakes at coffee time) that go great with a cup of coffee.