Let us praise the humble glory of Swedish egg coffee

Photo: Jerard Fagerberg
Acquired TastesAcquired TastesIn Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

The aisles of the Minnesota State Fair are host to a teeming game of lard-coated one-upmanship. On the left, hot dogs wrapped in funnel cake batter. Across the way, baked potatoes cocooned in mozzarella cheese, served on a stick. But it wasn’t always this way.

The first food providers on the Midway were churches, reasonably priced and staffed by volunteers. Over the years, the church-run food halls have been replaced by chain restaurants hocking increasingly curious deep-fried food. Only two church stands remain, most notably Salem Lutheran Church, which has run its 60-seat hall since 1950, maintaining its relevance through a magnetic curiosity called Swedish egg coffee.

Even in the mayhem of the State Fair, those three words on Salem Lutheran’s marquee are enough to stop the uninitiated cold. Yes, egg coffee. Jim Zieba, who’s been brewing the stuff at Salem since the 1970s, explains:

“The egg is mashed into the grounds, and the grounds are boiled in, kind of like campfire coffee,” says Zieba. “The coffee being slightly acid and egg being alkaline, they cancel each other out, and you get a very mild clear cup of coffee. A lot of people, they just love it for some reason.”

The drink is indeed a sensation. Zieba is 73 years old now, but he’s been volunteering for Salem Lutheran at the Fair since he was 10 or 11, and he typically shows out for all 12 days. His process is simple, though inexact. You bring a 40-cup urn of water to a roiling boil, mash two raw eggs (whole, shell on) into two cups of coffee grounds, dump the slurry in, cut the heat, stir, and wait for the gobbet of cooked eggs and spent grounds (called the “raft”) to cool and settle to the bottom. No filter necessary. It’s a hustle, especially in the August heat. Last Fair, Zieba lost 9 pounds manning the 9-pot rotation. Egg coffee is $1.50 per cup (free refills), and though Zieba can’t estimate the total number of cups sold annually, he did set a record a few years back by making 3,880 in a single day.

The egg-filtered brew is clear like a globe of fossilized amber: liquid copper with an oily film over the top. The taste is mild, betraying the enhanced caffeine load. There is absolutely no egg characteristic, other than the initial stink of cooking yolk that dissipates after the coffee is extracted. A cup goes down smooth, like a long-steeped English breakfast tea.

There is some debate about whether to include or discard the egg shells, but this is how Zieba’s Swedish mother prepared coffee when she was growing up in Minneapolis. She made it in the house, but the method of clearing coffee with an egg is most commonly associated with church basements, where congregants would gather after service, volunteers making large batches of low-quality coffee with very simple equipment. The drink is even sometimes known as “Lutheran egg coffee” or “church basement coffee” because of this. This was before the advent of the percolator, and the coffee was boiled directly in the pot. Eggs were cheap, and albumen is a potent clarifying agent, so naturally the two came together.

Egg coffee is a custom that is largely tied to Swedish immigrants, but Swedes would not recognize the drink today. Nordic cookbook author and American Swedish Institute instructor Patrice Johnson found no explicit cultural tie to Sweden when researching the drink for her master’s thesis, though it fits in well with the fika tradition of afternoon coffee and pastries. Richard Tellström, a professor of food history at Stockholm University provides some deeper context, saying that fish skin (often from lutfisk) was used in the 1700s to clear coffee, helping separate the rough grounds, producing a similarly bright, translucent brew. However, when drip coffee makers became household items in the 1970s and fine grounds became readily available, people stopped using proteins to clear coffee.

“The custom is today forgotten in Sweden,” Tellström says. “When I sometimes teach my students how coffee was cleared 200 years ago, they look at me with eyes big as the Grand Central clock.”

The raft, or mass of egg and spent grounds, at the bottom of the batch
The raft, or mass of egg and spent grounds, at the bottom of the batch
Photo: Jerard Fagerberg

Minnesota has become something of a time capsule, with second- and third-generation Swedes preserving the tradition. Stoked by Salem Lutheran’s annual August showcase, egg coffee remains a treasured custom among the few who grew up on it. Eater Twin Cities editor Joy Summers was raised south of the Iron Range in Grand Rapids, Minn. Her Swedish grandmother brewed with an enamel coffee pot set on the stove, a hunk of tin foil stuffed in the spout to keep the coffee warm while the raft settled. She cleared with an egg out of not only tradition but also necessity.

“Our water quality was horrible, it reeked of sulfur,” Summers remembers. “But when you do this consommé process, you’re clarifying the water, you’re clarifying the coffee, and you get a mellower, more pure flavor out of super low-quality coffee.”

Summers’ devotion to egg coffee is near romantic, and her nostalgia-sweetened 2016 Eater article has become a crucial passage in the drink’s under-celebrated gospel. In the article, Summers practically urges third wave coffee shops to diversify with Swedish egg coffee, adding a luscious, rich, and completely bitterless option to their menus. It never happened. Most churches don’t even prepare coffee this way anymore, nevermind boutique coffee shops. The State Fair is one of the last places Swedish egg coffee is commercially available.

“It didn’t happen because the coffee is too good, you can’t do it without lower quality coffee,” Summers say, noting that high-quality grounds are actually diminished by the egg’s mellowing effect. Her grandmother insisted that dehydrated, crystalized Hills Bros. was the only viable option. Beyond that, egg coffee is like a risotto, it needs to be tended, with constant agitation. It works for a large batch, but for a single cup it’s only worth it if it stokes memories of your past.

“It’s a bit too much work, and too much of a novelty,” she says. “Yeah, it’s a ridiculous thing.”

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DISCUSSION

Back in the Coolidge Administration, when I was a lad, this was the method described in the Boy Scout manual for campfire coffee.  When you got your water out of a brook and had no filters, clarifying the brew was very desirable.