Coffee Traditions: Fika, the Swedish Coffee Break

You know a country takes its coffee breaks seriously when they are virtually protected by law, and the Swedish tradition of fika is just that.

The Nordic countries in general put the rest of the world to shame when it comes to coffee consumption and obsession, so folks here know a thing or two about relaxing with a mug: The average person in chilly Northern Europe consumes 20 pounds of coffee annually, and the Finns up the ante even further with a per-person average of 28 pounds. Since some of the world's best baristas and most innovative ideas come from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, it seems only logical they'd have something like fika down to a true art form—or at least a major part of the culture.

In Sweden and Finland, where fika (or fika pause) is most common, coffee is a serious and necessary diversion from the stresses of life. The work or school day is interrupted twice—typically sometime in mid-morning, and again in the afternoon—for a strong brew and a sweet bite, which is guaranteed by law to all employees nationwide. (Workers earn five minutes for every hour on the clock, which usually allows for a nice bit of break time around 10 a.m., and again at about 3 p.m.)

The word itself can stand in for "coffee break" and "coffee shop" as well as "coffee" itself. People fika as a verb and have a fika as a noun: It can be as casual as five stolen minutes in an office lounge or a meeting among prospective business partners. It's also often used as a low-pressure first date. (You know, the old, "So, would you like to get a coffee sometime?")

Perhaps most importantly, however, fika is almost never solitary: Friends, coworkers, and family gather over steaming cups and plates of cookies or cake (the latter being a pivotal element of the tradition), and conversation flows as freely as dribbles of icing down a warm cinnamon roll. The company is just as important as the caffeine in this case. Perhaps—dare we even say it?—even more so.

For more sweet reading about this beloved tradition, there's a lovely little piece about it on the Nordic Coffee Culture blog, a caffeinated joint effort by some of Scandinavia's coffee luminaries (including former World Barista Champions Tim Wendelboe and Klaus Thomsen, as well as the designer and blogger Brian W. Jones).