Gear Talk: A Tale of Two Kuksas

The Kuksa (or Guksi (Sámi), Kåsa (Swedish)) is a traditional wooden cup originally made by the indigenous people of Lapland, the Sámi. It holds a special place in my heart, coming from Lapland, and for me at least, is inextricably linked to the landscape of the Northern Nordic lands. When you happen across a hiker in the hills of Lapland, be it Sweden, Norway, Finland or Russia, chances are high that they will have a kuksa dangling from their pack.

Traditionally, you should either carve your own kuksa, ideally from birch gnarl, or receive it as a gift. I got my first one after moving to Rovaniemi in 2001, and I still have it. If made well they should last a lifetime - but sadly many poor imitations exist, which don't. In kuksas made from cheaper materials and not cured and treated properly, cracks appear over time with the constant variations between hot and cold liquids and temperatures.

My first kuksa is locked somewhere in my storage room, and last year, when I went in search of it, I couldn't find it. I'd heard of a new product - an semi-

artificial

kuksa - which was gaining popularity amongst the secret society of (mostly) ultra-light backpackers. It was, they claimed, light, environmentally friendly, a good size, comfy in the hand.

Pfaf! I exclaimed. What could be better than a real kuksa? What could be more environmentally friendly than the wood of a real kuksa? A curse on the lot of you!

I went in search of this usurper to the throne of kuksa, but dear little Rovaniemi is sometimes a little behind in these things. Instead, I found a replacement kuksa, broke with tradition, and purchased it for myself.

It was nice. It was good. It was actually a little better looking than my original kuksa. But I was still bi-curious about the young upstart. By now I was back in the USA, and far away from a dealer. Blog after blog posted reviews of the new

en vogue

vessel, so I gave in to temptation, and asked the manufacturer,

Kupilka

, to send me a review sample. It arrived a few weeks ago, so it is time for an educational side-by-side comparison of two cups.

A storm is brewing. In the left corner, the pretender to the throne, the Kupilka 21. In the right, the former champion.

I'll be honest. I didn't want to like it. There's nothing wrong with kuksas as they are, why 'improve' on it? A wooden kuksa is recyclable, doesn't need washing (you simply rinse it with cold water), isn't that heavy, and is perfectly natural. Why mess with that?

But when I opened the box containing my

Kupilka 21

, I was rather pleasantly surprised. You see, the thing I like about the kuksa is that it embodies a two way relationship. What you put into it, you get back in another form. The oils present in the birch gnarl lend a subtle resinous quality to drinks. Initially, it will also have a salty taste from the curing. If you christen it with a shot of whisky or brandy (or, even better,

Jaloviina

), you'll often see a thin film of these oils. After that, the brandy imbues it's taste into the wood. Follow with coffee and you get a taste of heaven. Repeat as necessary.

I didn't expect much of an aroma with the Kupilka 21. It is manufactured from a natural fiber composite of 50% pine fiber, 50% plastic. The pine and conifer fiber has a distinct smell which, to me, made it seem more natural - more outdoorsy. It was almost, albeit in a different way, like the smell of a kuksa.

Although Kupilka, through a variation on an old Finnish word, means "little cup", the 21 holds more than my kuksa - which is a good thing. My kuksa needs constant refilling, but I can get a good sized coffee in the Kupilka (officially, it takes 2.1dl).

Kupilka state that natural fiber composites offer "better heat endurance and higher durability", and that compared to wood "it doesn't require maintenance, doesn't absorb smells, and is insensitive to humidity."

I can't speak for the heat endurance claim, but it is certainly durable. I'm certain there will be no issues with cracking as with wood; in fact I couldn't even scratch mine.

The pine fiber gives it a pleasant texture - it doesn't taste at all plasticky to drink from. Although I like the "flavour exchange" of a kuksa, I can see the benefits of using a non-absorbant material. I'm sure the Kupilka range would appeal to Arctic Safari companies wanting to give their paying customers a more atmospheric taste of Lapland. The entire Kupilka range of products can be thrown in the dishwasher, unlike (God forbid) a real kuksa. In fact, Kupilka recommend washing in a dishwasher, especially if you don't like the initial smell. A few cycles should get rid of it.

It's weight is also good. Mine is 83g. My kuksa, which as I mentioned holds far less, is 124g.

But what about a taste comparison?

I filled my kuksa and my Kupilka 21 with my current favourite beverage,

Russian Caravan tea

.

Sipping from the Kupilka first, I could first smell the smoky tea, backed by a hint of the burnt pine aroma of the cup. The cup feels good in the hand - the handle is well designed and allows several holding positions (under the cup, around the handle). At no point did it feel out of balance, which I was worried about at first. It looks the part, and as a weight-saving cup, it does a good job.

On to my old faithful kuksa then. The first thing I smell is the aroma of campfires and birch, which triggers memories of my trip to Finland last year. Then the tea. Again, my kuksa is nicely sculpted, it's somewhat unusual handle easy to grip. The tea tastes good, and I get that little salty kick, followed by a hint of birch.

I paid attention to the heat loss. The Kupilka cup felt warm on the outside, but the tea remained hotter. I felt no heat through the kuksa's wood, but towards the end the tea cools very quickly.

In the end, I find it hard to choose between the two. Each has it's benefits. The original kuksa has more of a mythical connection to the land for me, and my experiences mark it's sides. It evokes memory.

But the Kupilka

is

nice. It's much cheaper than a good kuksa (around €16 compared to €40 upwards), and, I suppose, doesn't use the somewhat harder-to-find material of the birch gnarl, and in that sense could be said to be more ecological. It's lighter, for gram counters, and in  respects is a perfectly good cup.

I read that Kupilka's products can be safely burned in fires should you want to dispose of them, or reground and made into new products. I did consider trying to burn mine just to be a completist, but it has won me over. I want to keep it, and use it again. Who knows, maybe it will even start to collect memories. If it does, my kuksa might start to get worried.

Kupilka maintains an

up-to-date list of dealers

 on their site. It seems that Kupilka products will be available in the US from

Campsaver

in March, which is great news for the Finnish company.