Drinking Christmas Away - A Short Guide to Helsinki's Coffee

Everybody has that person for whom it is obligatory to purchase a Christmas present but impossible to make the gift personal. What do you get that distant cousin or childhood friend with whom you have nothing in common except memories? Smelly candles? Can you remember how let down you were last time someone gave you a smelly candle? How you struggled to fake appropriate levels of enthusiasm? How painful the unacknowledged distance in your relationship with the giver became for just a moment? How you discovered your allergy to chemical apple-cinnamon scent later that evening?

Why would you do that to someone? Do you secretly hate them? If not, there is a better option. Coffee, the correct answer to many questions, the best solution to a range of dilemmas.

Now of course you can go to Stockmann Herkku and pick a coffee you needn’t be embarrassed to give, but 1. you will have to navigate a sea of grannies, 2. you will be asked to give your firstborn in exchange, and 3. it’s not very hip, see 1. Also, you will miss out on higher quality coffees and the excuse to drink a ton as “research”, which is important because you're a thoughtful person and want to give the best gift possible, right?

So where do you go to start "researching" the absolute best gift for your estranged cousin? I'd start in Kallio.

Good Life, Kolmas Linja 17

Owned by 2011's Finnish barista champion who's often behind the counter. They offer a selection of the best beans from the best roasters of Northern Europe, and they’re known to occasionally carry delicious coffees from as far afield as that caffeinated Shangri-la, Portland. What more could you want? A place to sit. Despite the recently increased table space, you'll rarely find a spot here. I may have had to drink my Drop Coffee Ndimaini Aeropress standing, but it tasted just like a warm cup of black currants.

“Research” Tip: If you see Lauri there, get something milky, he's also won the 2013 Finnish latte art masters.

Gift Tip: Go for something impressively exotic, but be prepared to pay for it. This is a finely curated selection, take advantage. And if you're lucky enough to see Maja beans, grab those. They’re a local experimental roaster whose beans show up at limited locations once in a blue moon. Not to be missed.

Good Life (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Good Life (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

SävyAlexis Kiven katu 12

Popular, but you can usually find a seat in this bright, attractive cafe. The baristas are friendly, always seem happy to talk coffee, and know their business. Want to try the macchiato's big sister, the cortado, with soy milk but don't see it on the menu? Just ask. You can also try a selection of Turun Kahvipaahtimo beans as an Aeropress here. If you like your coffee described with phrases like "fruity" and "piquant acidity", then you'll find that Turun Kahvipaahtimo roasts some of the most delicious beans in Finland. I took an Aeropress black of the Konga beans, which had earthy undertones, a sweet body, and a clean finish redolent of lingonberries.

"Research" Tip: Why not take a book and spend a while? It's about the baristas, so try a couple of drinks. I recommend an Aeropress black and then your favorite milky drink. Gift Tip: Not for your brother's girlfriend's creeper uncle. Turun Kahvipaahtimo beans are mid priced, 13.30€ a bag, so you should at least like the recipient a little.

Sävy. (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Sävy. (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo, Päijänteentie 29

Do you like to gamble? Pick up a bag of Ota/Jätä (Finnish for Take/Leave). This distinctive roast's name says it all. Since it's a series with new installments every couple of months you can keep tickling your risk taking spot. Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo also does seasonal specials, so you can choose a coffee that suits the winter months. The cafe space is also pretty sweet. It reminds me of my inventor-engineer grandfather's basement. And barista Ursula's shots will make you happy to be alive.

"Research" Tip: See if you can taste the current Ota/Jätä roast in some incarnation. Always a worthwhile experiment. Gift Tip: They should have Talven Spessu around Christmas time, which is an economical and appropriately themed choice.

Fratello Torrefazione, Yliopistonkatu 6.

La Torrefazione's Porthania opposite location, is a pretty convenient spot to grab some Kaffa beans. Fratello still focuses on coffee, but here you can listen to fancy people do lunch. Often they also have one interesting bean available to try in your drink of choice. In the past I've picked up Stockholm's Drop Coffee and Berlin's Barn here.

"Research" Tip: They've got Finland's first siphon bar. Do it. DO IT. A brewing method that originated in Japan, it tests the barista's stirring skill, puts on a show like a grade school science experiment, and ideally produces a nuanced cup with a flavor profile that changes as the coffee cools. Take a friend. The two serving siphon is more economical. Gift Tip: Pass up the Kaffa beans here (you can get them fresher direct from the local roaster). Nab whatever bean they're featuring.

Coffee from Kaffa (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Coffee from Kaffa (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Kaffa Roastery, Pursimiehenkatu 29

The baristas here have attained mastery, so it is worth the trip even if the space is sterile and attached to a knick knacks shop for rich women. You can choose from the roastery's full selection of tenish single origin filter coffees and three barista blends  Do some research - your barista is probably another Finnish champion, and they offer every brewing method known to man. They even have a Woodneck. It looks like an old sock but creates liquid joy. Beans start at 7.20 and go up to 14-ish, so you don't have to break the bank either.

"Research" Tip: You can get a V60 pour over here, which is not widely available in this town. Gift Tip: They do a Christmas special, which tastes like one of their blends (Go'Morron, I think?) in red foil. Whatever, it's tasty and it looks like a Christmas gift.

Johan and Nyström (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Johan and Nyström (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Johan and Nyström, Katajanoka

Less terrifying than the Stockholm original, just as yuppy. But the coffee is good, so let's lay aside residual class anxiety and drink. The cafe space is all exposed brick and ancient wood with a sea view and comfy seats, one of the better places to settle in and read while getting buzzed. They've lately added a siphon bar and Aeropress to their V60, Chemex, and espresso machine standbys, so the variety, if not the skill level, almost matches Kaffa. They've also got freaky raw cakes.

"Research" Tip: Jangly, acidic, fruity coffees are "in" in Northern Europe at the moment. Johan and Nyström are one of the few roasters consistently offering some quality chocolately, earthy, nutty beans. So hit that shit. Gift Tip: This is a place where you get what you pay for. The cheapest bean is pretty good, but if you fork over for the most expensive bean, they may actually taste like the tasting notes claim. They are also offering a Christmas roast in suitably cute packaging.

Suitably cute packaging from Johan and Nyström (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

Suitably cute packaging from Johan and Nyström (Credit Elizabeth Oakes)

That's all I've got! I hope you've found someplace new to explore and have gleaned a couple of useful gift ideas. Did I miss your favorite spot to get your taste buds blown while pacifying the caffeine monkey? Put that ish in the comments, I wanna know!

Have a caffeinated Christmas!

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