Living in Finland

Can I offer you a cup of coffee?

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You’ll most certainly hear the question “Can I offer you a cup of coffee?” when a Finnish friend invites you to his or her home. In fact, many times a Finn presents such an invitation by asking a person to come for a cup of coffee. And whereas an American might casually say “let’s have lunch” without actually meaning it, the Finnish equivalent is “let’s go for a cup of coffee someday” (mennään joku päivä kahville). We have coffee breaks and coffee break rooms at our workplaces. We always finish our meals with a cup of coffee.

In this blog post we’ll discuss coffee and coffee culture in Finland.

A little background knowledge

Finns drink more coffee per person annually than any other nation. Finns consume almost 10 kilos of coffee per person a year, which corresponds to about 4-5 cups of coffee per day per person. This is a lot! On average, about 89 % of Finnish men and 83 % of Finnish women drink coffee, but among the older generations, these percentages are even higher.

Apparently, the first Finn to ever taste coffee was Axel Käg from Turku. He tasted the drink in Persia in 1637. Coffee arrived in Finland at the end of the 17th century. First, it was used for medicinal purposes. Coffee was an extremely expensive luxury item in the 18th century. The authorities even forbade it in the latter half of the 18th century on four separate occasions. King Gustav Adolf finally permitted it in 1804.

Coffee was first consumed by the upper classes. They first drank coffee only on special occasions, but gradually started consuming it also on Sundays. Little by little its use spread both in terms of geography and social class. By the time we get to the 20th century, also lower classes consumed coffee several times a day. Poorer households, though, used the same coffee grounds several times over. 

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Coffee in the life of Finns

If you have tasted the standard Finnish coffee you might have found that it has its own unique taste. The reason is that Finns usually drink light-roasted filter coffee. Over 70 % of the coffee Finns consume is light roasted. And over 90 % of the coffee consumed in Finland is roasted here. Meaning that the coffee sold in supermarkets and brewed in Finnish homes is specifically roasted for the Finnish taste. Finns usually drink their coffee with a splash of milk.

Coffee being served at a Mid-summer party
LIght-roasted filter coffee for sale at a summer event

Coffee is such an integral part of the daily rhythm of life here in Finland that we have specific terms for coffee drank in the morning (aamukahvi), during the day (päiväkahvi), or in the evening (iltakahvi). Take away coffee is such a new phenomenon in Finland that it doesn’t yet have a Finnish term. 

Coffee is also a big part of Finnish celebrations. It doesn’t matter if you are attending a christening, birthday, wedding, or funeral. It is certain that the host will serve coffee. One of the more traditional christening presents a newborn gets from his or her godparents is a silver coffee spoon. When Finnish athletes win at international competitions, they celebrate those metals with coffee and cake (mitalikahvit = strictly translated: medal coffee). 

A cup of coffee at the workplace

Coffee has a huge role in Finnish workplaces as well. We already mentioned the coffee breaks and coffee break rooms, but you can hardly attend a Finnish meeting without coffee being served. 

Finnish collective agreements often grant a certain number of breaks during the day in addition to the normal lunch break. In some workplaces, it might be customary for coworkers to take this break at the same time, gather into the break room and chat for a while over a cup of coffee. I’ve certainly been employed in places where you knew that people at certain departments could not be reached at 9 am or at 2 pm. They were on their coffee breaks!

Some employers offer coffee for their employees but in some workplaces, you have to pay for your coffee. There might be a money box at the break room table where you have to put in a coin or two per cup of coffee. Employees might have to take turns to go to the store and get the coffee packages and milk cartons.

Find out how things work out at your workplace so that you don’t accidentally offend your coworkers. Find out if you are supposed to bring your own coffee cup. Perhaps it’s not ok to drink from the ones that are already there. Ask how the break room coffee functions. It might be that the first one to come in in the morning is supposed to put a pot brewing. And it often is the case that the last one to empty a pot needs to put the next one on. 

Can I offer you a cup of coffee?

Coffee etiquette has been used to maintain and strengthen social hierarchies and social conventions. It is part of good manners to offer coffee to guests. Not offering coffee was a huge social offense. These days hosts might not offer coffee. They might serve something else instead. Nevertheless, offering coffee still is the most common custom. Coffee is always accompanied by something. Usually sweet pastries, but often also with savory items such as Karelian pies. 

At more formal celebrations, it is customary to offer coffee first to the older and more distinguished guests. Usually, Finns do not go to the table at the first invite. Hosts usually have to coax the guests a bit. Once you have gotten your coffee and any pastries that go with it, take your time and stay after you are finished. Most Finns think it’s bad manners to go home straight from the coffee table. 

One thing that has clearly changed is the size of the coffee cups. In the not-so-distant past, Finns drank coffee from small coffee cups also on informal occasions. These days mugs have replaced coffee cups. You will still see nice-looking coffee cups with saucers, but Finns reserve those for formal occasions and celebrations. 

So, if you want to make friends with a Finn, you can always say: Can I offer you a cup of coffee?

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