Coffee Sightseeing in Korea
Published in SCAA Chronicle: http://www.scaa.org/chronicle/2012/10/08/koreas-exploding-interest-in-specialty-coffee/
In 2007, a serial-drama titled Coffee Prince hit Korean television screens; with 20 percent of
Korean households tuning in weekly. The main character was a girl who pretends to be a guy
in order to be hired as a barista at a café called “Coffee Prince.” While its cartoony love stories
entertained viewers, the show also offered a lot of coffee-related eye candy, such as pour-
over brewing and coffee roasting. At the end of the series the main character even comes
back to lead a new café franchise named “Coffee Princess” after winning the World Barista
Fast-forward five years to 2012 and Coffee Princes and Princesses exist all over Korea.
The number of coffee shops increased from approximately 1,200 in 2006 to 12,400 in 2011.
About 300 separate coffee training institutes are currently registered with the Korea Coffee
Education Society. Korea will even host the World Latté Art and World Coffee in Good Spirits
Championships this November.
Coffee lovers who visit Korea will probably find three things surprising. The first would be the
sheer density in number and size of coffee shops. Shops are not only close to each other,
but they are each surprisingly spacious. The second would be the different ways people get
their caffeine fix. It’s rare to see people lined up at a coffee shop in the morning; rather, it is
common to find coffee shops packed with people sipping caffé americanos late at night. The
third surprise would be the rapidly growing interest in specialty coffee. It is noticeable from the
growing number of certified Q-graders in Korea – over 600 – and the most in the world according
to the CQI website. At the end of this article, you will find a list of specialty coffee roasters in
The Café Craze in Korea
Starbucks opened its first store in Korea in 1999. Despite its unfamiliar ordering process
the new coffee shops became popular among young people looking for a cozy “third space”
other than the home or office. During the last ten years, well-funded café franchises, including
Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and Caffe Bene, have expanded enough to cover most
of the streets in the major city districts. In busy downtown areas like Myungdong in Seoul, it is
not uncommon to see three-story (or taller) coffee shops, some as little as one block away from
a three-story competitor. Many independent coffee shops have opened in residential or college
districts due to more affordable rents, creating “café streets,” where many independent coffee
shops show up almost side-by-side. Independent coffee shops are also trying to differentiate
themselves from the franchise cafés with more creative interior design and unique experiences.
You’ll find cafés that offer coffee roasting and pour-over demonstrations, massage with your
coffee, and even places where you’re given a cat or dog to visit while enjoying your cup!
According to a report by KB Finance, the number of coffee shops in Korea increased again by more than 3,000 in 2011. Considering the number of shops that went out of business during this period, it implies that, on average, about ten new coffee shops opened every day. Coffee shop sales have also increased by 60%, from 1.4 billion to 2.2 billion US dollars over the same period. Considering the rate of growth has been very high, some worry that the coffee shop business is nearing saturation. However, a market report by Dongsuh Food, a dominant player in Korea’s coffee industry, still sees growth potential for the brewed coffee market, including filter-brewed and espresso beverages. This report shows that brewed coffee consumption at coffee shops accounted for only 7.8% of the total coffee consumption in 2011, even though it has grown on average by 19.2% each year during last five years. Coffee consumption for instant coffee products accounted for 64% of sales in 2011, the most popular product being the “instant coffee mix,” which contains coffee, sugar, and creamer in a small plastic bag and was invented by Dongsuh Food in the 1970s.
A Sophisticated Caffeine Fix in Korea
Korean people enjoy coffee in a different way than Americans do. Again, it is rare to see people
lined up at a coffee shop in the morning because of a common belief that drinking coffee on an
empty stomach is unhealthy. However, it is common to find coffee shops packed with people
at night because many people like to visit cafés for a chat after dinner. Many coffee shops stay
open until 11 p.m., and many do not open until noon. When people are on their way to work,
typically using public transportation, they like to get their caffeine fix from convenience stores.
Even the smallest convenience store has a comprehensive selection of ready-to-drink coffee
products on the shelves, in beverage coolers, and in heated cabinets. Around lunch time,
people drink takeout coffees around the office. In the afternoon hours, many people drink instant
coffee mix because it is convenient and available for free in many offices.
Interestingly, caffé americano is the most popular menu item at the Starbucks in Korea. Some
people believe that it is related to Sungnyung, a traditional Korean dessert drink made by
adding hot water to browned rice and which has a mild and toasty taste. Sungnyung is still very
popular and served in many Korean restaurants. Caffé americano (espresso diluted with hot
water) shares some tasting notes with Sungnyung. This may also explain why many Korean
people like pour-over coffee that is diluted after a short extraction from a dark roast. Some also
explain the trend with the belief that americano is commonly known to be lower in calories.
Specialty Coffee in Korea
The increasing number of Q-graders may be a sign of growing interest in higher-quality
specialty coffee in Korea, but such interest may not be noticeable when observing coffee shops
in the crowded business districts. However, if one looks closely, they will be surprised to find
quite a few artisan roasters, hidden like gems for the specialty coffee fans. A lot of people are
working enthusiastically to push specialty-grade coffee to the mainstream in Korea.
One such place is a roasting company called Coffee Libre, an independent coffee roaster that
has been on a mission to broaden specialty coffee culture in Korea through relationship coffees.
It started direct trade sourcing when it was selling less than 100 pounds of roasted beans per
month three years ago; it has now grown its relationships to 14 farms in six countries. At 10 a.m.
every Friday, the roaster hosts a cupping session, which usually gathers about 20 people. When
I joined the session fresh samples from Honduras were on the cupping table, brought from the
Honduras Cup of Excellence just a few days before by owner Philhoon Suh, also known as
the first Korean Q-grader. After two hours of cupping and discussion, participants walked to
a restaurant to have authentic Korean food for lunch, Kimchi hot pot or spicy stir fried squid,
and continued their coffee chat. The group consisted of people with various backgrounds and
included new café owners, Q-graders, and specialty coffee enthusiasts.
Terarosa Coffee Roaster located in Gangneung has also been a pioneer of the direct trade
of specialty coffee beans since 2009. Its green buyer, Yoonsun Lee, is known as the first and
most experienced COE judge in Korea. Although the café is more than three hours away from
Seoul and other major cities, it’s crowded with people who come to taste their coffee. Busan, the
second largest city in Korea, is a nother place where the growing interest is clearly visible. BUS (the identification code of the Busan seaport) is an association of about ten specialty coffee shops. The association has built a common green bean storage facility and launched a group buying program to lower logistical costs. They also collaborate to promote specialty coffees. For example, they offer free coffee drinks at city hall every month. If you have a chance to visit Busan, you can see beautiful BUS cafès: Momos (www.momos.co.kr), Coffee Gongjang (www.coffeegongjang.com), and Coffee Loves Him.
Opportunity for the Specialty Coffee Community
Due to the fierce competition among coffee shops and growing interest in specialty coffee, I
expect that Korean coffee drinkers will be increasingly picky about quality. In addition to the
comfortable atmosphere of their coffee shops, which they have loved for a decade, Koreans will
soon care much more about what’s in the cup — if it is freshly roasted, where it originates, and
if it is organically grown and fairly traded. In this trend, I see a great opportunity for specialty
coffee. The fair trade coffee market in Korea has been growing rapidly for four years since a
Korean non-profit organization launched a fair trade coffee brand. High-quality coffee from a
sustainable supply chain is likely to have great appeal. Still, it is noteworthy that the golden cup
for Koreans is yet to be found, although we have seen some hints.
Artisan Coffee Shops in Seoul
If you are visiting Korea for a short period, I recommend that you explore artisan coffee shops
in Hongdae because many of these shops are run by well-known baristas who take the coffee
from roasting to extraction. The density and variety of coffee shops make this area ideal for a
coffee-crawl until late at night.
“5 Extracts” is a café owned by Hyunsun Choi, who was a World Barista Championship semi-
finalist in 2011. The menu includes a modified version of Choi’s signature drink from his WBC
presentation. Espresso and his signature drink made with orange and cream are the most
“I Do” is just a few minutes’ walk from “5 Extracts.” It is a café run by Hyunwoo Jang, known for
his recent book on Latté Art. They use two coffee blends, sweet and bright “Lolly” and chocolaty
“Dark Night,” to prepare coffee drinks customized for the customer’s mood and the weather.
Head barista Spike recommends a Long Black made from Dark Night blend on rainy days.
Coffee Seed (www.cbsckorea.co.kr) is five minutes away from I Do on foot. It is a café run by
Youngmin Lee, a well-known first-generation barista in Korea, who also won the Coffee Fest
Latté Art Championship in 2009. This café offers a unique menu called “Americoke”, which is a
trademarked signature drink made from espresso, sparkling water, and a homemade powder.
The cafè uses the second floor for cupping and barista training.
Coffee LEC (www.coffeelec.com) is one of two cafés run by Jaehyuk Ahn, who represented
Korea at the 2010 WBC. This café offers a seasonal espresso blend called Tangerine and
coffee topped with flavored whipped cream called Black Series. The other branch is located in
Garosugil area. There, you can try the competition drink by Yeonjoo Ryu, who recently won the
Korea Barista Championship in 2012 and become the first female champion.
Cafe Libre (www.coffeelibre.kr) is located in an old market, which is unusual for a coffee shop.
They have a simple menu offering four drinks: espresso, latté, americano, and coffee. Its
espresso menu called Bad Blood Shot has ripe fruit flavor and nice complexity. They offer public cupping sessions Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8 p.m..
Anthracite Coffee Roasters (www.anthracitecoffee.com) is a café with an unconventional interior
design. The owner preserved some of the original equipment and layout of a renovated shoe
factory. They have three roasters including a 1910 Probat L5. The café has a large open area
provided to young artists for displaying their work at no cost.
작년 10월, 미국 스페셜티 커피 협회에서 발행하는 SCAA Chronicle 잡지에 기고한 한국 커피 시장에 관한 칼럼입니다. (꽤 공들여 쓴 저의 저의 첫 미국 칼럼이기도 합니다.) 최근 한국 커피 시장에 관해 몹시 궁금해 하는 해외 커피인들과 애호가들을 대상으로 한국 커피 시장의 전반적인 모습을 소개하고, 또 꾸준히 자라나고 있는 스페셜티 커피 문화도 함께 안내해 보았습니다. 잠시 외국인 모드로 전환하여 부디 한국 커피 구경 잘 하셨길 바라며…^^;