The Bizarre History Behind Fika, Sweden’s Mandatory Coffee Break

No one loves their afternoon coffee quite like the Swedes do. In fact, gathering for afternoon coffee has become a bonafide ritual for the majority of the country’s caffeine addicts. This gathering, otherwise known as taking part in “fika,” describes the act of having a coffee socially with friends, family, or coworkers. More often than not, the coffee is consumed alongside traditional Swedish pastries, otherwise known as fikabrod, and usually includes those delicious, gooey cinnamon buns (kanelbulle). And in many companies, it’s not just a ritual — it’s actually mandatory that employees take two fika breaks a day!

So where exactly does Sweden’s rich coffee tradition come from? Turns out, it’s actually pretty interesting.

Coffee made its way to Sweden in the mid-1670s and found popularity among the wealthy about 100 years later. But in 1746, the king imposed a hefty tax on the newly popular beverage, which the Swedes refused to pay. Ten years later, coffee was banned from Sweden, though that didn’t stop the locals from continuing to drink it. Higher taxes were imposed on coffee, leading to a black-market-type situation of coffee consumption among the Swedes. King Gustav III, a rather paranoid monarch, had this fear that coffee consumption caused health problems. But he also worried that these secret coffee meet-ups would lead to plans to overthrow the monarchy. He decided to use science to ban coffee. A set of twins proved handy; the two had been condemned to death, and the king offered them life imprisonment instead, on the condition that they partake in a health experiment. One twin would drink three pots of tea daily for the rest of his life, while the other would drink three pots of coffee daily. In an ironic twist, both twins outlived the doctors monitoring their health, and the king was assassinated in 1792, prior to any results being revealed. But the irony doesn’t stop there. The tea drinker actually died first, at a whopping 83 years old, while the coffee-drinking twin continued to live. Understandably, multiple failures of the ban resulted in its removal in the 1820s, when coffee drinking skyrocketed.

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Nowadays, the Swedes generally take two fika breaks a day: once in the mid-morning, and again around 3 p.m. The word fika actually derives from the 19th-century slang word for coffee, kaffi. It’s pretty simple: Invert the word kaffi, and you get fika. And for the Swedes, fika is pretty serious business; along with Finland and the Netherlands, Sweden rounds out the three biggest coffee-consuming nations in the world.