Korea’s Exploding Interest in Specialty Coffee

By Kyonghee Shin, Freelance Writer, Apprentice Roaster at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters

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 Championship.

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 Coffee Quality Institute website. At the end of this article, you will find a list of specialty coffee roasters in Seoul.

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 the 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 another 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 become 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 popular.

“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 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 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 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 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.

Kyonghee Shin is a freelance writer living in San Carlos, California. She covers specialty coffee culture and cafés around the world for Korean coffee magazines including Coffee T&I, Coffee Look, and Café at Home. She is a licensed Q-grader, and is the apprentice roaster for Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.