Scandinavians aren't just envied for their superior licorice and textiles: it's the way they roast coffee—or maybe the way they don't roast it—that's caused a stir among palates. As the international coffee-as-culinary conversation has grown dramatically in recent years, the "Scandinavian style" has been the mumble under the breath of many as being unique, superior, and even in some cases a little extreme. So what is it?
"Perceived Scandinavian style is that we 'roast lighter', but that's a sort of grand statement that's not particularly true across the board." says Tim Varney, roaster at Oslo's Tim Wendleboe cafe.
Longstanding access to high-quality green coffee—due to buyer relationships and other resources—has given Scandinavians a little more time to play with roasting more lightly to find the flavors intrinsic in each unique green coffee, rather than the flavors added by the process of a roast.
"Everybody has better quality greens now," says Varney—a good thing for all of coffee—"But with us, and a few other roasters in Oslo, our style is definitely true to that roasting philosophy, tasting terroir and not roast."
Tim Wendleboe is among a small cadre of companies—Kaffa and Solberg & Hansen in Norway, and The Coffee Collective in Denmark—who have put Nordic countries on the map for their gentle-handed style.
"Some of us do roast lighter than pretty much anywhere else," says The Coffee Collective's Klaus Thomsen. "However, we do have a range from ultra-light to medium/dark. We generally just buy and roast coffees that excite us—that's our philosophy. There are a few US roasteries now roasting light, but it's very few. We don't think it's "wrong" it's just not what we like our coffees to taste like, but there should be room for everyone."
Though expensive to enjoy even if you are already in Scandinavia, a few select cafes around the world have begun to import these sought-after coffees, like Ma'velous in San Francisco, and New York's Vandaag. As delightful as these bright, surprising, often citric and fresh tasting coffees are, the fetishization of as much selection as possible seems like a bit much to Varney.
"There's excess of choice in the States, which is off-putting for me—for us, we only have a very very limited selection. Right now we only have two Kenyan coffees and two Brazilian coffees, which is kind of the extreme of the 'in season' philosophy," says Varney. "And I don't think that that lends itself towards people viewing it as having hardly any choice, because within Brazil you have such a vast makeup of styles. We have two washed coffees that are from completely different areas with completely different profiles, and we have a natural process coffee which is completely different again but from the same farm. So I think we have the luxury of being able to direct customers a little bit more, than customers directing our business."
Espresso coffees—which are in the US often pulled much shorter and denser than Varney or Thomsen would prefer—are treated differently in Scandinavia as well, having really only become popular in the Nordic countries in the 1980s. "Your [North American] style is sort of a lot more syrupy and heavy-bodied, both in the way it's roasted and the style of extraction," says Varney. And the real nuance will always lie in filter brew.
The current Coffee Collective lineup features two of Thomsen's favorite Kenyans: Kieni and Gichathaini, both from the Nyeri region. The Gichathaini is sparklingly acidic, juicy and citric, full of light florality. Tim Wendleboe's Brazilian lineup includes a jaw-dropping pulped natural process Sitio Canaa, remarkably airy, sweet and tangy-nougat, or its similarly nut-candied brother the Canaa Natural, with its huge cherry aroma and an amazing balance between acidity and smooth mouthfeel. All are excellent examples of roasting profiles that produce totally unstereotypical results.
As the world around Scandinavia responds to these sensibilities, a future of tastes both more delicate and unexpected surely awaits. And the coffees we're beginning with are only getting better.
"A lot of people are against the lighter style of roasting, but I think they realize that they can push it a bit further and suddenly they're exploring a whole new set of flavors," said Varney.
We have a lot to look forward to.