Even though I’m assured it’s not a cold day by Lapland standards, I shiver as I investigate the tiny patch of red berries under the “cocooning hammock” where I’ve just grabbed a catnap. They’re lingonberries, and while I’ve previously only thought of these Nordic fruits as cranberries with an attitude problem, they’re about to play an important role in my afternoon coffee break.
I’m in Levi, about 110 miles north of the arctic circle. Within Finland, it’s known as a ski destination. Visitors to this tiny town can also watch the northern lights from all-glass hotel rooms, relax in saunas before leaping into an ice-covered lake, or get to know the region’s plentiful reindeer. As for me, I’ve been walking in a family-owned forest called Halipuu. There, you can adopt your very own “hugging tree” and pay it a visit whenever you like, or even decorate it with accessories. Most importantly, though, you can sip on what might be the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had, meticulously brewed by forest co-owner Steffan Wunderink. He calls himself the Campfire Barista.
Finland has been named happiest country in the world multiple times by the UN’s yearly World Happiness Report. I’m not saying it’s the coffee that fuels the nation’s quiet contentment, but Finns do knock back about 12 kilograms of the stuff per capita each year, putting them among the world’s top coffee consumers. They also enjoy a prevalent coffee shop culture. Starbucks only has seven shops in the whole country, all located around the greater Helsinki area. Instead, Finns prefer national chains like Robert’s Coffee and smaller, independent shops that serve up cinnamon buns, havregrynskugle (oatmeal chocolate balls), and waffles alongside their tall mugs. Get yourself a Finnish friend and you’ll never forget to caffeinate again.
Wunderink, aka the Campfire Barista, has been manning his operation for the last five years in Halipuu. It’s a one-man show, with Wunderink making drinks for those who join a guided tour of the family property. He takes the title and the role seriously: pots are all heated over an open flame, giving the coffee a surprisingly smoky, almost umami essence. He’s also proud of his deep bench of beverage options, to the point that I am playfully chastised for attempting to order before he’s finished reciting the menu. And while the cafe’s adorable setup (complete with cast iron mugs) is a big part of the draw, the element of expertise is a culinary sneak-attack.
“It started as a joke, actually,” Wunderink explains as I step through ankle-deep snow to join him in the sunken fire pit area. “Somebody said, ‘Oh, it would be great if you could get a great latte from the fire.’ So, I started doing that. Then it sort of became a thing to do just amongst friends. And then I decided to start doing that for the customers in the forest…Then I realized it wasn’t something that I was doing, that the project was pulling me.” It became so popular with visitors to the region that Wunderink even built a coffee sled to take his wares into town for the locals to enjoy—the sled was the result of a dare by some women in the tourism office, who were tired of coming into the forest to grab a cup.
After that, the Agent Cooper–level brews developed quickly. Wunderink quickly gave up on supermarket coffee altogether (“It’s not my favorite espresso,” he says diplomatically) and began to look for something that paired well with his campfire brewing techniques. It was an unusual request, one that local roasters couldn’t quite grasp.
“People were like, what are you talking about, coffee that goes together with smoke?” he says. “Every time when I explained what I was doing, people thought I was crazy.”
After a false start with a Lapland roaster who eventually shut down, Wunderink found a kindred spirit in SampoKone, a fair-trade roaster in the south of Finland who developed a single estate espresso blend specifically with the Campfire Barista in mind. Like the after-smell of the campfire, the drink in my hands feels both nostalgic and comforting.
Dutch by birth and Laplander by marriage, Wunderink wanted ingredients that would represent the unique nature of his claimed home. While it’s still a work in progress—spruce syrup, for example, was declared “not strong enough” as a flavoring agent—our drinks are accompanied by earthy lingonberry cookies, made by Wunderink’s wife and family forest co-owner Riitta Raekallio-Wunderink. (She sees me eying the sweets and puts another round on the fire to warm.) There are also Starburst-pink homemade lingonberry marshmallows, which we roast on sticks above the fire. In line with Finland’s decadent approach to “coffee time,” the Campfire Barista is hoping to expand his offerings to include sea buckthorn marshmallows (for both taste and an Instagram-worthy orange-and-pink aesthetic) and something he’s still workshopping but will likely be salty with Lappish cheese.
“You come to somebody’s place for coffee, then the table is full of homemade stuff,” he says. “When my in-laws call and they say, ‘come up with a coffee,’ you know that means you don’t have to eat.”
But perhaps his greatest local tie-in was in my second cup, this time filled with chaga chai, a word I ask him to repeat multiple times until it hits me I’m essentially drinking mushroom tea. On trees, chaga is a sinister black glob, like something out of a horror movie, which might explain why Wunderink was initially hesitant to experiment with it. But he discovered that chai masks the majority of the fungal flavor, resulting in a spicy drink that’s only mildly earthy.
“It’s really rich in antioxidants, and the local people, they say when you drink that every day a little bit, then you [will live to be] 100 years old,” he tells me. Keeping his 80-year-old father-in-law in mind, who regularly works the family land, I chase every last sip from the bottom of my heavy cast-iron mug. As of this writing, I still feel invincible.
In a coffee-saturated culture, Wunderink’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. “They call me Coffee Guy,” he jokes with a hint of pride. “Last winter I walked through the supermarket to get my milk. The [organic] milk that I wanted ran out. And then I noticed that there was somebody was in the cooling room behind the milk shelf. So, I asked, ‘Hey, do you have this particular milk?’ And then I heard that person shout to the other side, ‘Hey, the coffee guy is here, do you have this milk? The coffee guy, he needs his milk!’ I hear it often. I guess I sort of became a local character.”