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.