Kaffesugen? Post-coffee culture in a carbon-free county

Rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall made imported coffee a luxury reserved for the wealthy—as it had been when first introduced to the salons of Europe hundreds of years previously.

Climatic changes have caused many losses that Skåne still grieves: species, communities (such as Skanör), and cultural practices. Perhaps chief among the latter—and one that affected the whole of Sweden, if not the world—is the loss of coffee as a staple drink.

For Swedes of a certain age, coffee was always there when you needed it most: at 3pm when all you wanted to do was leave work; when you nervously asked that guy out for a date; or during those awkward Sundays when grandma went off on a racist tirade. But the rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall that characterized coffee-growing regions during the 30s and 40s made imported coffee a luxury reserved for the wealthy—as it had been when first introduced to the salons of Europe hundreds of years previously. Workplaces first replaced freebie coffee with tea, claiming it was a “health initiative to increase focus and productivity”… but as tea plantations began to be affected by hailstorms and extensive drought, complimentary tea quickly went to the wall as well.

Of course, separating Swedes (and particularly Skånians) from their caffeine habit would have required a twelve-step programme on a scale never before attempted—it’s less a question of addiction than one of social ritual. As such, most households still have real coffee in the cupboard, but it’s kept in a vacuum-sealed container and reserved for special occasions.

There are plenty of other delivery systems for caffeine, of course. Swedes who were children in the early years of the C21st tend to gravitate to what used to be marketed as “energy drinks”: sodas (or läsk) that contain some mixture of caffeine, plant extracts and refined sugars (though the percentage of the latter has dropped considerably as the adverse effects on health became impossible to ignore). Entirely synthetic coffee substitutes (marketed as qoffee) are available, but their unnatural production processes—plus the fact that they taste just enough like real coffee to make you long for the real thing, but not enough to let you pretend it’s anything other than a substitute—have kept them from widespread adoption.

The social space once filled by coffee has instead been repopulated by an alternative from other places (and times): the root of the chicory plant (Cichorium intybus var. sativum) has been used as a coffee additive or substitute in Mediterranean food cultures for hundreds of years, and in other places during periods of economic crisis. Its similarity of taste to coffee is debatable at best. but its natural origins (and the ease with which it grows in Skåne) lent it a new appeal for those keen to break with the habits of “the fossil era”. Like kimchi and craft beer before it, chicory drinking first became a hipster signifier on the Helsingborg “scene”—starting with the original Rot cafe in Helsingborg—and went on to conquer the county. (Though it bears noting that Helsingborg is also home to some of the last hold-outs of premium coffee culture: the circular coffee cruise is perhaps the best known example.)

Of course, hipsters being hipsters, the “early adopters” tend to turn up their noses when autumn arrives, with its pumpkin-spice-extra-guarana-soy-latte-with-marshmallow options… but even so, the chicory cafes are full of companionship and conversation (and the inevitable writers, sat in corners and muttering to themselves about the noise). Coffee may be a rarity nowadays, but coffee culture has reassembled around a more sustainable substitute.

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