Coffee & Korea . . .

Is South Korea a place for coffee connoisseurs? Oliver Strand in a recent NY Times essay believes so:

. . . I have no doubt that countless pouring kettles and slow drippers will be used three or four times, then boxed back up and put on a high shelf, the fondue sets of our day but the sudden rise and widening acceptance of what was unfamiliar marks a permanent shift. The hierarchy has been shattered. Already, a few of the same people who once traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto are now talking and posting on Twitter about a country that draws on a variety of traditions, an emerging coffee culture that might also have something to teach us: Korea.

Starting a coffee house has become the new gold rush as many see an opportunity to make money just by lateral marketing inside coffee shops. Coffee has even become the backdrop for romance due to the MBC soap “The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince” (커피프린스 1호점, or Coffee Prince). The ongoing gold rush that is business in Korea has driven an explosion of coffee franchises too. According to recent business research, there is room for more coffee houses in Korea since many enjoy hanging out to socialize or using a local coffee shop as an office away from the office. Though franchises have sprouted up through out Seoul, these places offer a noisy franchise experience rather than good coffee. Some coffee houses offer more than the average cup of coffee though such as the Cat Cafe at Hongdae where one can relax with both coffee and meandering cats or at the relaxing Namugeuneul, that offers books and a foot bath with fish that nibble one’s toes.

Despite the so-so quality roast found in many franchises and lifestyle trends, there is a growing coffee culture that prizes quality and not trend, where hand-drip filters and special swan-necked pouring pots offer the best of any number of locally produced fresh roasts. Other than the well-known Ho Young-man’s Coffee House in Apkujong-dong and his very popular Coffee School, other places like 전광수 Coffee House (Bukchon, Hakdong, Shin-sa), Coffee Tour (Chong-no), Leina Coffee (Gangnam) offer experienced barristas and a quieter atmosphere that is good for enjoying a cup of slow-brewed fresh roast. Places like Cafe Co. also offer the experience of having fresh roasted beans in a real garden, close to the Constitutional Court in Jongno-gu (site here).

There are also some warning signs to be aware of in finding a good roaster, around Seoul, as Aaron Frey points out at FRSHGRND in his essay on how to avoid bad coffee in Seoul; burnt beans, poor exhaust ventilation for roasting, etc. According to Ho Young-man, who has been roasting coffee for over twenty years, there are many little potential problems to overcome in perfecting one’s roast: temperature control, the gauge of metal used in a roaster which conducts heat to the beans and especially how the exhaust is vented from the roaster. Ho explained that if the wind blew the exhaust back into the roaster or if the exhaust line was too short, the beans would be tainted with a burnt flavor. Ho’s own roaster shows the result of much trial and error, looking in appearance like a cobbled together contraption that is a bit like a moonshiner’s still — and it works very well indeed as I am drinking his Columbian roast as I type this.

  • valkilmerisiceman

    Most excellent post. I’ve been looking for some new coffee houses to visit (not wanting the typical Starbucks or Caffe Bene shops).

  • R. Elgin

    I heard that . . . roasted bean doesn’t age like brandy.
    I did not realize it but Ho Young-man (허영만) also sells his bean through Naver.
    There is also Cafe Sanda (산다) at Nakseongdae and Coffee Plus at Seoul National University Entrance station (서울대입구역) offers good fresh roast though I would skip the bean from Tibet at Coffee Plus.

  • CactusMcHarris

    The cats and coffee place – that’s just the best of both worlds.

  • YangachiBastardo

    I remember the shock in seeing Lavazza bars, we don’t have those here

  • yuna

    Another Italian who visited Seoul (actually from Trieste) once told me how shocked he was that they sold illy coffee in the first random cafe he walked into.

  • george m

    And to think that twenty five years ago, all that was available in most of Seoul was Nescafe, or that stuff that looked and tasted like recycled engine oil that came out of vending machines in subway stations.

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  • cmm

    R Elgin, good post, and I’m even a coffee philistine.

  • KWillets

    In my experience the transformation was around 2002 or 3. We came over for my wife’s grandmother’s funeral, and the mall below the hotel where we stayed was full of espresso shops.

  • JG29A

    Coffee’s pretty good even in the suburbs of Busan…

    Now when are they gonna start opening in the goddamn morning???

  • slim

    Now they need to work on fermenting a respectable beer culture.

  • MosesTheKorean

    As a Korean American living in Philadelphia, it is not the easiest thing to link Koreans with coffee. Perhaps one can link Italians and French people with coffee. But with Koreans? Maybe not. Now, kimchi and Koreans. That’s a true relationship.

    When I visited South Korea almost a decade ago, coffee was starting to become really big in the motherland. Perhaps the popularization of coffee started in the 90’s, but I’m not sure. I wasn’t too excited about all the Starbucks there since Starbucks essentially dominates the coffee market. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of mom and pop coffee houses around Seoul, and that was a really neat treat for me. I’m all about the mom and pop.

    Neat article! I’ll keep reading!

    Moses The Korean

  • feld_dog

    It’s getting ridiculous. Gwangali Beach in Busan (the one with the big bridge), has gotta have something like 30 coffee shops along the main beach road (including 2(!) Starbucks). And on a Saturday afternoon, they’re all packed.

    It’s nuts I tell ya.

    But a few of these places serve some pretty damn good coffee. I try to go with the indie coffee houses, but among the chains, I go with Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

  • R. Elgin

    Slim, my favorite micro-brewery, Platinum, is closing on March 6th. I am very, very despondent about this since this was part of my relaxation and exercise regime of walking in Dosan Park followed by taking in some decent beer.

  • seouldout

    Seouldout loved the vending machine
    baek won coffee with preema
    18 times a day
    was part of his routine
    Oooh yeah

    Sung to Abba’s “Dancing Queen”.

    Thanks Bjoern Ulvaeus.

  • Seoul_Food

    OREGON is known for their coffee.

    (for those of you who don’t know where Oregon is. It’s the state right above California)

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