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Coffee and waffles

Coffee in Iceland & Why There Is No Starbucks

Despite being located far away from the world’s coffee plantations, Iceland has a thriving coffee culture and is among the biggest consumers of coffee in the world, with 9 kg per person annually on average. Only our Nordic counterparts in Finland and Norway drink more coffee. (Source). But when did Icelanders start drinking coffee? Rumour has it that this man was the first coffee addict in Iceland, leading the way for most of us modern Icelanders:

Árni Magnússon
Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) – probably the first Icelander to be addicted to coffee

In 1703, Árni Magnússon complained in a letter about coffee missing in his delivery with a ship from Copenhagen. Around 1780, most priests and district commissioners had started drinking coffee and tea, so had the most wealthy farmers. In 1849, it had become a standard for most of the population and drinking it 2-3 times a day was normal. By then, many farmers, fishermen and manual workers had to have their cup at the start of the day to get going. But in the early days, coffee was expensive, so people used various methods to supplement it, e.g. by mixing it with rye, cumin or even hay. But the most popular supplement was chicory root, which was originally processed in Germany for export and referred to as coffee surrogate. In Iceland, people in those days would commonly brew coffee in a 50/50 ratio with chicory. 

My parents’ generation learned to start drinking coffee early, at around 14 or even younger because it was not polite to turn down an offer for a cup of coffee as a guest anywhere, especially with old aunts that would find preference for milk resembling a kitten or a calf. Back then, the main requirement for coffee was that it had to be hot and strong, unlike the flavor and refinements expectations today.

The love for coffee is deeply ingrained in our culture and follows most of our daily activities, welcoming guests with a freshly brewed cup, keeping fresh at work meetings and even following us out on the top of a mountain where we can enjoy warm coffee from the thermos. 

Unlike many countries where multinational coffee chains dominate the scene, Iceland has embraced a more intimate and artisanal approach to coffee culture. Starbucks, with its ubiquitous presence across the globe, has no branch in Iceland, but instead there is a thriving coffee scene of local baristas and roasteries. These independent establishments, often run by passionate individuals with a deep appreciation for quality coffee, source exceptional beans from around the world and experiment with innovative brewing methods, transforming every cup into a unique and flavorful experience.

Cafés in Iceland

The first coffee roasteries in Iceland started shortly after World War II. The oldest wholesaler of the country, O. Johnson & Kaaber, was founded in 1906 and had been importing coffee for years when they started a roastery in downtown Reykjavík in 1924.

Let us start by looking at some of the best cafés in Reykjavík followed by highlights around the country.

The Best Cafés in Reykjavík

Café Babalú

Café Loki

A café and restaurant with Icelandic home style food, best known for its traditional lamb meat soup (íslensk kjötsúpa). With coffee, you could have a classic pancake, rye bread ice cream or skyr cake.

The Cat Café

Reykjavík is known for its many cats and the cat café opened in 2018, following a tradition of such cafés that started in Taiwan in 1998. 

Café Babalú

One of the most popular cafés downton Reykjavík, known for its decor and veranda where people can sit outside in the summertime.

The Laundromat Café

Founded in Copenhagen by four Icelanders in 2004, Laundromat opened its first branch in Reykjavík in 2011. Family friendly with a children’s area and washing machines where guests can drink coffee while waiting for their laundry.

Café Rosenberg

Here you can get specialty coffee from trained baristas, a selection of beer on tap, home made cakes, toasted bagels and more. 

Prikið

Prikið is among the oldest cafés and bars in Reykjavík, opening in 1951, and the interior is heavy wood, dark colors, old classic style. They serve breakfast and brunch alongside great coffee and often have live music in the evening. 

Mokka

Another one of the oldest cafés, Mokka on Skólavörðustígur (“Rainbow Street”) opened in 1958. The style inside is also old and classic but this is only a café, not a bar as well.

Kaffi Laugalækur

Kaffi Laugalækur is the only café on this list for Reykjavík that is not downtown (where most of the city’s cafés are located). It is a neighborhood café that serves brunch on weekends and breakfast every day. It has a low profile and is something of a hidden gem, located in the same neighborhood as the biggest swimming pool in Reykjavík, Laugardalslaug. For food, try e.g. the vegan sandwich or the pizza called Frú Lauga. Kaffi Laugalækur is also a hostel, so a business serving more than one purpose, more on these below.

Kaffivagninn

The oldest café/restaurant in Iceland (est. 1935), located in an old house by the harbor in Grandi. You can get a fish soup, fish and chips among other things but also “The fish hater’s burger” if you dislike fish. 

Cafés in Iceland Outside Reykjavík

In Iceland, most cafés are usually not only cafés but also restaurants or bars or bakeries. This has to do with the small size of the market, and is also reflected in other areas for businesses as well as people. Many Icelanders are not only doing one profession, but two or sometimes even more. The most exaggerated example I have heard was a dentist who was also a lawyer on the side or vice versa (both requiring years of studies), I don’t remember exactly. I also met a well known actor in a bicycle shop where he was a salesman and another artist working in the daytime as an officer at Registers Iceland. The manager of the men’s national team in football that played at the World Cup in Russia in 2018 is a dentist from the Westman Islands “in disguise” as a manager, now for the national team of Jamaica. You get the picture. People are often versatile “jacks of all trades” like that around here, just like some of the companies.

PastriesKallabakarí in Akranes in West Iceland

Kallabakarí was originally called Brauða- & kökugerðin (founded in 1967) and is a bakery in Akranes, the fishing town in West Iceland that you can see across the ocean from Reykjavík when weather conditions allow. It is most famous for bread and pastries but as usual in Iceland, you can get a quality cup of coffee with your baked goods. 

A side note: Bolludagur is a day in February when Icelanders eat buns with whipped cream, jam and sometimes more. Kallabakarí has hands down the best buns I’ve tried in Iceland, worth the trip to Akranes just for that if you are in Iceland around this time (12 February this year).

Heimabyggð in Ísafjörður in the Westfjords

Heimabyggð is a café in the center of Ísafjörður, the biggest town in the Westfjords. They are known for great coffee, sourdough bread, creative mix of toppings and delicious cakes.

Efstidalur near Laugarvatn in South Iceland

Located on the Golden Circle route, Efstidalur offers a different experience where you can get locally produced ice cream, skyr and feta cheese. The meat is from the farm as well and vegetables from the surrounding area. At the café, you can also get waffles and soup. 

Klausturkaffi in East Iceland

Located at the Skriðuklaustur mansion, built for author Gunnar Gunnarsson in 1939, Klausturkaffi is a café and restaurant honoring Icelandic food culture and local ingredients. In the summer, a cake buffet is available from 15 to 17 daily and a lunch buffet from 12 to 14.

Vogafjós in North Iceland

At Vogafjós by Lake Mývatn, you can drink a cup of coffee and eat a slice of cake while looking at cows through a window, as the retaurant/café is located inside a cowshed.

Coffee on The Road and in Retail

The most popular coffee in Iceland sold in retail stores is Nespresso, so Iceland is certainly not immune to global conglomerates. As previously mentioned, local coffee roasters are also thriving, the best known ones are Kaffitár and Te & Kaffi. Both have been running coffee shops for years as well. In many gas stations, the filter coffee you can get to go is from either of those two, meaning quality coffee that is far from instant coffee that you might expect in such grab & go places.

Apart from those two, Nýja Kaffibrennslan in Akureyri is also among the biggest roasteries, operating for over 90 years if we count the oldest part of the company (O. Johnson & Kaaber and Kaffibrennsla Akureyrar merged to form it). Their coffee is sold in local supermarkets under the names Braga kaffi, Rúbín kaffi, Kaaber kaffi and Diletto.

Why is there no Starbucks in Iceland?

The absence of Starbucks in Iceland is not a sign of a lack of coffee culture; rather, it represents a conscious choice to prioritize local businesses and foster a thriving scene for specialty coffee. Icelanders value the craftsmanship and dedication of their local roasters and baristas, who treat coffee with the same reverence that they extend to their beloved natural landscapes.

Starbucks is not the only global conglomerate choosing not to operate in Iceland, as McDonalds and Burger King both shut down their operations in the country as a result of the financial crisis of 2008 when the value of the Icelandic króna collapsed almost overnight. 

In times of monotonous cities with “the same global brands” almost everywhere, we can appreciate the small local businesses competing as David against Goliath, often with creativity and quality at the forefront. A recent article in The Guardian covered the sameness of cafés around the world, making references to global corporations and algorithms.

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