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Korean coffee scene in my own words. Part I

I’ve been always curious about the coffee scene in Korea, since starting and working with coffee, I never had the opportunity to visit as a Barista. One way for me to learn about the culture was through Aaron’s website and through WBC footages, where Korea did well over the past 3 years.

Though my reason visiting this time isn’t about coffee, I’ve tried to make most out of time whilst I’m here. Thankfully, many people were willing to help me out, taking me to coffee shop touring, and also running around myself; trying to analyse and figure out the difference, similarities and things I can learn from.

(This post is strictly my oppionion, based on what I’ve seen, hear and taste so far)

One thing that surprised me was that, Korean people don’t drink coffee in the morning, coffee shops are quite empty until 3pm and gets mega busy from 4pm, back in London, alot of coffees are made in the morning, many people drink coffee to wake up, that seems not to be the case in here. In Seoul, coffee is something you drink when you meet people or after a meal.

In addition, things I’ve found weird is that, for an average lunch/dinner you are expected to pay £3 in Seoul, but price of a medium latte can vary between £3~3.5

In Seoul, in most cases, coffees are more expensive than food, yet, people are filling up the spaces and they are full till late at night.

There are so much coffee shops in Korea, I was gob smacked by the sheer number alone. In London, Oxford street, I would guess that there would be no more than 15 coffee shops or less; in Seoul, street similar size as Oxford street, 34 exist, majority of them are chains.

Plethora of independent shops exist, much more than London, one distinctive common similarities between these shops exist. Around 70% roast their own, on site. This seems appealing and in some angle very cool, roasting your own coffee, making your own blend. The problem is that, over 80% of these people learnt roasting by reading books, and had no coffee related back ground, I know this because their inexperience and lack of knowledge manifested in the cup massively.

Also, they place the roaster in the shop fronts, next to the windows. Korea is very humid, also temperature fluctuates massively throughout the day, with these condition, roaster should be kept down stairs or in a place where temperatures are more stable, these guys are placing roaster as part of a design, not for any other reason, it was pretty disappointing to see them selling the product for that ridiculous price to the customers.

Korean people are very ‘space’ orientated, we like to have big personal space, thus the design of the cafe changes. Cafe’s are noticeably bigger, with seat and table, nice lay out of the bar, good use of colour, light wood, many accessories, wi-fi and with air conditioner students take these space, tucked away in the corner, drinking coffee and studying or reading a book. In my oppinion, in London, the culture of drinking coffee is much more of; drink promptly or take away, it was quite surprising for me to see that, it is other way round in Seoul.

I’ve also noticed the highlight and over exaggeration of Cup of Excellence coffees around cafes in Seoul. I do agree that Cup of Excellence coffees are delicious, and they are pricey for a reason, as it shows the fact that the farmer have invested tremendous amount of time and effort to produce what he/she have harvested. But I disagree at the fact that Cup of Excellence coffees are ‘God’s coffee’ as described by a Cafe in Seoul, and also the fact that they can charge their customer twice the price when it is poorly roasted, and also poorly extracted. It makes me angry when I see this happening, the farmers have put all the effort and the roasters and baristas ruin it at the end and still charge customers £6~8 pounds per cup. I would be happy to pay the above price if that quality can be proven in the cup, but so far I’ve been disappointed with COE coffees in Korea, there should be more emphasis on microlot coffees, there are amazing microlot coffees being produced and they are not COE, they are cheaper than COE, which means you don’t have to bend your back to buy the green beans; and customers don’t have to feel uncomfortable paying ridiculous price.

This shows the Auction result of Cup of Excellence Costa Rica 2011, top 3 lots are bought from Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Not every people are like that in Korea, there are roasters and baristas trying to raise the bar to a higher standard. For example the coffees I’ve tasted in Coffee Libre in Seoul is so far, the best coffee I’ve tasted, they try to Direct trade with farmers, roast to a higher standard and most importantly, listening to customers and trying to match their needs. La caffe also, the owner, Mr Bang, has huge interests in machine tuning and machine maintenance, I’ve seen some of his amazing works and was gob smacked.

I’m hoping that I find more people like them in Korea, though I havn’t finished my time in Korea, I hope that when I write the post for Part II, I can write more positive things and write about things I’ve learnt.

                    (Part II coming soon)