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Coffee’s Got Seoul

korea coffee café

by Cale Noonan*

Korea has become a country obsessed with coffee. Predictably, Seoul is where the coffee revolution has taken off the fastest and strongest.

As we find ourselves in the midst of winter, many of us seek solace in the warmth and comfort which coffee shops provide. There’s nothing quite like getting in from the cold to be seated with a warm frothy cappuccino in front of us, to read a book or chat with a friend after a long day’s work.

There are numerous café franchises that provide this for us, and what’s nice is that they are never more than a stone’s throw away. There are also many specialty coffee shops opening around the city for those who are seeking that perfect cup of expertly roasted and prepared coffee.

However, Korea’s obsession with coffee hasn’t always been like this. So what is it about coffee and coffee shops that has allowed them to thrive in Korea?

Coffee Culture

Traditionally a tea-consuming nation, Korea has acquired such a strong taste for coffee over the last couple of decades that it has now become the 11th largest coffee market in the world.

According to an article published in International Business Times earlier this year, people in Korea consumed more coffee in 2013 than kimchi – astounding considering this is the national dish! The forces driving the market economy are the increased interest in coffee by Korea’s younger generation and the strong coffee shop culture present around the country.

Along with the overall growth in coffee sales, café culture has become a permanent fixture of life in Korea ever since Starbucks exploded onto the scene in 1999.

Since then, Korea has seen a number of café franchises spread throughout the country, each purportedly offering its own unique sense of style, taste, and atmosphere. Many of these chains, such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Krispy Kreme, originated in the U.S. However, Korean coffee shop chains like Caffé Bene and Tous Les Jours, have now outgrown the tiny peninsula from whence they came, and sought to establish themselves internationally in the U.S. and other countries abroad.

Coffee Experience

Cafés are historically places where people gather to socialize. It’s a place to go to vent about daily woes, share ideas, or simply spend time with friends and loved ones. A large number of Koreans claim that their main reasons for visiting coffee shops are precisely these.

A friend of mine Herim, a very busy corporate English teacher, said, “For me, the atmosphere of the coffee shop is the most important. I usually go there to have a chat with friends or kill time.”

Like many, Herim is constantly commuting around the city, so coffee shops provide a perfect retreat. What is interesting, however, is that she claims, “The taste of coffee doesn’t really matter.” Surprisingly, many Koreans that I spoke to share Herim’s view, and consider the atmosphere and location of the coffee shop of prime importance compared to the coffee experience itself.

Sure, the taste of coffee isn’t for everyone. Perhaps for some, it is merely a token requirement for being able to spend time in cafés. For the real coffee lover though, there is a movement that has been gaining momentum for some time now: typically off the beaten path and hard to find for the average foreigner in Korea, is the specialty roasting coffee shop.

Now popping up everywhere around the city, there is a growing demand among the younger generation for higher quality, single origin coffees. These shops usually roast green coffee beans in-house with some of the most internationally respected coffee roasting machines such as Probat, Giesen, or Loring.

Although more difficult to find than their more commercial counterparts, these shops – and the consequent search for them – are always well worth the cup.

Coffee Cup

Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to what style of coffee they like. There is no correct way to consume it, but there are better ways for you to drink coffee depending on what you expect from your cup.

Specialty coffee shops offer the classics that coffee connoisseurs are so fond of. You can order a shot of espresso if looking for a quick jolt of caffeine with a strong and rich flavor.

If the bitterness is too much, simply dollop a teaspoon of sugar in to take the edge off. With an Americano, a shot or two of that rich espresso with hot water produces a dark, rich cup of coffee with a foamy, aromatic crema gracing its surface.

Many people’s favorite is the cappuccino, which is composed of equal parts espresso, hot milk, and frothed milk. Mild in flavour, coupled with its soft and cloudy consistency, make it arguably the most satisfying cup of coffee to enjoy on a blustery winter’s evening.

In these shops, every cup is made by a trained barista who is genuinely dedicated to the perfection of their craft. They’ll make it beautiful for you too, with a delicate little heart or rose looking up at you. It’s hard not to break a smile at the little pleasures in life, right?

To really appreciate coffee for what it is – that is, for its richness and diversity of flavors – ask for a house roasted, single origin coffee. When ordering a single origin coffee, the delicate tastes of the beans grown from a single farm offer a taste and quality that is uniform and unique.

The shops that roast their own beans will usually offer several methods of brewing as well, so pick and choose whichever one suits your palate best. With a pour-over coffee, get a cleaner and more flavorful brew that really brings out the individual characteristics of the coffee.

Coffee made from an Aeropress, on the other hand, produces a silkier cup somewhat akin to a French press, although with much brighter and full-bodied flavors. At several coffee shops throughout Seoul, you can even try a coffee made in a siphon. It may be more memorable for the theatrics of its creation, but siphon coffee still produces a well-balanced, clean cup of coffee that highlights the more delicate flavor notes of any single origin coffee.

The options for coffee and cafés in Korea are truly endless. For your next visit to a café, though, try something new. Try a style of coffee you’ve never had before, or seek out a more hidden café. Chances are, that drink you’d begun to take for granted will pleasantly surprise you once again.