Dear readers, this interview is very special to me because there is some strong common ground with Thor Árbjörnsson: just like him, I also have a background in both the music and the food (ho.re.ca.) industries. Please enjoy Thor’s wit and experience, I reckon this is going to be a quite fine reading…
First of all, please introduce yourself to our readers: I gather from the ‘about’ section in your website that “our story began in a small fishing village on the East coast of Iceland”. Could you tell us more about the village? Also, how old are you and which studies have you undergone?
My name is Thor Árbjörnsson (38), and I was born and raised in Eskifjörður, a small fishing village on the East coast of Iceland. I graduated from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio with a Bachelor of music degree. The village/town I was born in is a place of 900 people. It was a fantastic place to grow up in with such a tight knit community and freedom to explore. When I was growing up, the whole town evolved around fishing, and in many ways it does still today but it has also expanded its resources a bit.
I also gather that you have had “a lengthy career as a professional opera singer” which is quite intriguing. Would you like to tell us more about it? I have had a professional career in music (as music publisher and percussionist, with a little bit of studies as a [rather terrible] bass opera singer), therefore I feel there is some ‘bonding’ here…
I spent 15 years as a professional opera singer, mainly in the USA but also in Europe. I am a lyric tenor (or more specifically “leggiero”), so I spent most of my career in the “bel canto” repertoire. I have worked with companies such as Chicago Lyric, New York City Opera, Cleveland Orchestra (Conductor: Pierre Boulez), and Carnegie Hall. Obviously, I have sung at many other places, so I just picked a few.
Where do you live at the moment? Why?
Currently I live in Hoboken, New Jersey — the home of singer Frank Sinatra. LOL! I moved to New York to further my career and I didn´t want to live in New York so I found the closest thing to it. Hoboken is a fantastic city with super quick trains or buses into Manhattan. It´s also a great place to start a family. Me and my wife have two girls, 1 and 4 years old. Signý and Freya, very Nordic, the one thing I had any say over. LOL!
Again, on your website I read “coffee plays an important role in our culture. Coffee brings people together to share everyday moments and big family celebrations”. I have published a small review of the coffee industry in the Nordic countries therefore I am aware of the importance of coffee in the Icelandic culture, but would you like to elaborate a little bit more on it? My family always owned and managed bars and cafès in Italy (and Venezuela before Italy), this is why I find coffee very interesting.
Wow! That’s incredible. I lived in Firenze for a year and I’m still in love with Italy. In Iceland pretty much everything evolves around coffee and coffee breaks. You don’t go to visit somebody, you go over for coffee. You take a break to drink coffee and talk about your day or news with colleagues. You won’t go anywhere without coffee being offered. It’s just a way of life over there and our thirst for coffee encourages social interaction. People do other things for social interaction but we certainly drink a lot of coffee.
How long have you been working in the coffee industry? How did you happen to choose this career? Once again, I read this on your website: “my second dream of starting a coffee company to share my passion for specialty coffee”. That is a nice and strong statement!
I have been in the coffee industry for about two years officially but I’ve been obsessed/very interested in coffee since I had my first French press at the age of 14–15. It was actually my brother’s and I borrowed it frequently. I started with drinking coffee and being on the road being able to taste different roasters. The passions grew with starting to roast my own beans, which lead to classes and workshop on brewing and roasting. I hit a point in my singing career where being on the road was getting less and less exciting. When you are younger traveling all the time is fantastic, but once you have a family it gets very lonely and hard to manage. So I had to figure out what my next step would be, and somehow it moved organically in the direction of coffee.
Moka or espresso? Why?
Both! There is no right or wrong when it comes to coffee. There´s only good and bad, and it depends on each person´s palate. For me, I will switch from drip, to pour over, to Chemex, to Cafelat Robot, to Clever dripper. For me it all depends on mood, the coffee, and how much time I have.
On your website we can read the following, interesting, claims:
– Earth friendly packaging, our coffee and packaging is 100% compostable
– Carefully sourced small estate coffee, we work closely with our partners to bring you the highest quality coffees from around the world
Could you tell us more about East Iceland Coffee and its underlying idea or business concept?
What drives us is to find familiar coffees from around the world with an intriguing element. We want to achieve that by having the least impact on the earth. The farmers are always innovating new ways to become more environmentally friendly and we, as roasters and coffee shop owners, should take part in that too, and do all that we can to minimize our impact. The concept is specialty coffee merchants with focus on coffee and brewing equipment. We want you to slow down and enjoy the small things in life, like a good cup of coffee, instead of thinking about it as ‘fuel for the day’. Here in the US we work with great partners that keep us in mind for interesting coffee lots. We have our core coffees that are available year-round but we also get limited production coffees, which means we´ve only been able to secure a small quantity. Today we have Brazil Maury Faleiros which is a micro lot and we only got one 69kg bag. The other one is Rwanda which just came in from Kinini Village, more specifically the Rulindo section. Same thing there, only one bag. All of our coffees are high quality which means they have been processed and sorted well, and we know that we get what we pay for. Most of our coffees are rated 84 and above (specialty coffee is all coffee rated 80 or above).
How does an Icelander fit into the American life? Is there any common ground among the two different cultures, in your opinion? What are the main differences between Iceland and the US?
Iceland and the USA are quite different, and my wife will be happy to point that out. Nordic society is completely different and then Icelandic people are also in their own category. Americans are always thinking about what could happen and they need to plan for it. Icelandic people think more about what’s happening in the next hour and things always work themselves out. In many ways I fit in as I´m easy going and hard working, but in many ways I just don’t think like an American because it just isn’t in my DNA. This one is a tough one, not sure what direction I should go.
Is there a Scandinavian or Icelandic community in Hoboken? If so, would you describe it for the readers?
Specifically in Hoboken, I’m 1 out of 2 Icelandic people that live here. I’m not aware of any Scandinavian people. There are a lot of German people here.
Do you have any ‘role models’ in the Nordic countries’ food industry? Would you choose one (or more) chefs or entrepreneurs from Iceland and introduce her/him to our audience?
Honestly there are so many entrepreneurs and chefs in Iceland that I admire. I’m not sure which one to choose.
Coffea arabica or robusta? Why? Would you explain the difference?
Arabica for me 100% but robusta has its place. This is how you can think of arabica vs robusta: arabica is the flavor and robusta is the filler. Robusta tends to have a cardboardy flavor, and it’s used for body/texture in espresso, and as a filler for many commercial coffees because it´s cheaper. Robusta also has higher caffeine content and there are countries that prefer that. There are some exciting things happening with Robusta as farmers and scientist are experimenting with processing and cultivating Robusta like Arabica. My opinion may change in the future.
Would you tell me which Scandinavian musician/composer you like the most?
Jussi Björling is my idol. I would listen to him with my grandfather and his voice was so pure and brilliant. I never get tired of listening to recordings of Jussi.
Ten years on, from today: do you still see yourself in the food industry
Yes, I will always be connected to the food industry. I have a true passion to share good coffee and food with people. Whether it´s roasting or cooking I’m always exploring new things to share so I don´t see myself doing anything else. Music, maybe.
Which is the side/part/activity of your work that you favour the most
Cupping/tasting new coffees is the most exciting. The hunt for new coffees is what makes you want to do this job. You start building an idea of what your customers like and the hunt for those coffees is incredibly exciting. Sometimes, you also find something that you didn´t expect and it becomes a major hit. I’m hoping our new Sumatra will be one of those. I’m not a major fan of dark roasted coffees but they certainly have a large following and our new Sumatra may be a major player for those customers.
Which is the most important event on your horizon? Whether it is a new opening, a book you are writing, a working opportunity… anything you wish to share with the audience.
We are steadily growing and that is what we’re focusing on. Maintaining quality and consistency. We have several irons in the fire so hopefully we can share something big with you soon.
Thor, let me thank you very much for this hugely interesting, informative and also amusing interview. I really hope we will get in touch again soon in the next future, in order to update your activities!