By OLIVER STRAND
| OCTOBER 20, 2011, 11:30 AM
The joke is the coffee is Oslo is so light that the beans go straight from jute bags (sorry,GrainPro) to a grinder without ever seeing the inside of a roaster. It’s accurate as far as exaggerations go. To make a general observation, the small-batch roasters in the Nordic countries roast lighter than the rest of the world, and Oslo roasts lighter than the rest of the Nordic countries.
As for how the coffee tastes, opinions are divided. Some complain that the light roasts are underdeveloped, overly acidic, unpleasant: it’s a regional curiosity along the lines of lutefisk. But others feel that the roasting styles are pushing coffee in a new direction, expanding the spectrum: if some American coffees tend toward the bass notes of a Bordeaux, Oslo coffees can have the delicate complexity of a Burgundy.
I’m a convert. After spending two weeks in Oslo and drinking some of the most extraordinary coffees I ever encountered, I am now a fan of the brilliant clarity of a well-executed light roast. It didn’t happen right away. The coffees are so juicelike that I had to realign my frame of reference, abandon a few prejudices. At first it’s disorienting — the coffee isn’t like any other coffee. Then it’s exciting — the coffee isn’t like any other coffee.
Rather, the finest coffees stand out. If a dark roast cloaks a bean’s flaws, a lighter roast leaves it naked: good coffees are strikingly good, mediocre coffees are powerfully mediocre, and great coffees are epic. One of the reasons why a handful of Oslo roasters — specifically, Kaffa, Solberg & Hansen, Supreme Roast Works and Tim Wendelboe — can go light is that they deal in coffee of the highest quality.
Much of the credit goes to Solberg & Hansen, a venerable company founded in 1879 that reinvented itself in recent decades. Solberg & Hansen was one of the pioneers of direct trade, a white-shoe importer that’s every bit as innovative as Counter Culture Coffee or Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea. Then in August of this year, Tim Wendelboe (a World Barista Champion and World Cup Tasters Champion) and Morten Wennersgaard (the former buyer for Solberg & Hansen), founded a new importer, Nordic Approach. It was a power move for a couple of all-stars.
Now Oslo is to coffee what San Sebastian or Copenhagen is to food: it’s where you go to get your mind blown. Make it to Tim Wendelboe, or to Java Espressobar & Kaffeforretning or Mocca Kaffebar & Brenneri (both are from Robert Thoresen, the first World Barista Champion and the owner of Kaffa), and you will find yourself at one of the great coffee shops in the world. The drink to order is sort kaffe, which means “black coffee.” The selections change often, so ask what’s brewing best that day, and never ask for milk or sugar. Take a seat, let it cool a little, and enjoy how elegant a coffee can taste.
The talent at the top of the Oslo coffee scene is so dazzling it throws off the curve. There are plenty of solid coffee shops in this pleasant, expensive city of hillside parks and high-ceilinged apartments, but it’s a mistake to place them in the same exalted category as Tim Wendelboe, Java and Mocca. Or even Fuglen, a coffee shop established in 1963 that has so many gorgeous original architectural details it’s a living museum of Scandinavian design.
The fact is, you don’t need to try that hard to get a good coffee in Oslo. You could go to any of the more than 20 locations of Kaffebrenneriet and get a drink made with more skill and better ingredients than almost anything you’ll find in Paris, or Rome, or a number of places you think of as having a vibrant coffee culture. While many cities are resting on their creaking reputations, Oslo is forging a new standard.
Universitetsgata 2, (entrance around the corner of Pliestredet); 011-47-22-20-08-80
Midcentury eye candy. The original coffee shop is virtually unchanged since it opened in 1963 on the ground floor of a brutalist tower in central Oslo; two additional rooms are decorated with vintage furniture. By day it’s a coffee scene, with beans from Oslo’s better roasters: Kaffa, Solberg & Hansen, Supreme Roast Works and Tim Wendelboe. By night it’s a cocktail bar, with drinks mixed until the early morning.
Java Espressobar & Kaffeforretning
Ullevalsveien 47A, 011-47-22-46-08-00
A bustling, attractive coffee shop in Bislett, a neighborhood with stately apartments and steep streets. Java operates at two speeds. It caters to the area, serving up lattes to well-dressed executives; and it’s a rabbit hole for the coffee-curious, offering an impressive selection of coffees brewed one cup at a time on a drip cone, a syphon or any of a number of tricked-out toys.
Mocca Kaffebar & Brenneri
Niels Juels gate 70 (entrance on Briskebyveien), 011-47-22-55-55-18
Sleepier than Java, its sister establishment. The airy room with terrazzo floors and plate glass windows in Briskeby, a neighborhood behind the royal palace with upscale stores and discreet embassies. You can lose yourself in the coffee here, too: order a black coffee and a boller, a faintly sweet bun with raisins that’s a part of most Norwegian mornings; take a seat, watch the trams go by.
Grünersgate 1, 011-47-40-00-40-62
So small, so focused, so much fun. The roaster is in the front, the counter is in the back and there’s a total of three chairs. (A windowsill sits another two.) The scale is the point. At this size, every cup of coffee and every bag of beans can be executed at the highest level. In fact, all the coffee is roasted by either Tim Wendelboe or his sidekick Tim Varney, and both work shifts behind the bar. It feels like a neighborhood shop, but it’s run like a Michelin-starred restaurant.