Club Espresso in Buam-dong, Seoul (image from www.clubespresso.co.kr)
Korea’s cafe scene has changed drastically over the past 10-15 years, and now the big cities in Korea are bustling with amazing independent roastery and artisanal cafes.
The term “roasted beans” was a very strange one in the early 90s as “coffee” in Korea meant instant powdered coffee for such a long time. The most popular and available kind back was a single packet of coffee granules with lots of sugar and palm-oil based coffee cream powder. (aka “coffee mix”, which is still readily available in supermarkets and convenient stores) In the early 90s, stores like Jardin coffee and Bremer coffee opened with the name “Wondu coffee” meaning coffee made from roasted bean (basically dripped coffee) and became very popular among young people. I was a high school student and loved giong to one of those Jardin shops with my friend in our school uniforms – it was like a very big guilty pleasure as we were not so sure if it was ok for high school students to drink coffee but it tasted good nonetheless!
The big sales point of such “wondu coffee” shops were flavored coffees. It was fun for a while but soon I learned that those French vanilla flavored and Raspberry chocolate flavored coffee beans were old coffee beans with new make-up. Then in 1999 the first Starbucks shop opened in Korea – I was back for a summer break from my graduate studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where one of the first Starbucks shops suffered a window damage from a local vandalism. After the huge success of the first Starbucks store located in the biggest women’s college in Korea, almost every universities in Seoul had to have one nearby. Every summer break I would go back home and there would be more Starbucks stores.
Then smaller chains started catching up, providing cheaper espresso drinks. Big shopping areas like Myungdong and a lot of college areas were covered with big and small coffee shops.
I cannot recall when the artisanal cafe movement began in Korea, but I remember visiting a small coffee shop near Korea University where the owner was roasting his own beans and served really fresh and super-tasting coffee as early as 1996 or 1997. I would also hear about and visit some independent coffee shops with ridiculously high price tag ($8-9 for a cup of dripped coffee or cappuccino!) since the late 90s. Also many cake shops opened with small coffee bar as well as big bakery-cafe chains such as “Twosome place” and “Paris Croissant.” (Korean bakeries are very much like Japanese bakeries, which was largely influenced by French baking style. The cakes are much smaller and lighter than the American varieties, and the selection is much larger.)
Quite a few really awesome cafes with great coffess with $4-5 price tag became popular during the past 3-4 years. These shops are usually run by young people who recently finished their barista training, who roast their own coffee in the store, and who run a coffee academy along with the cafe. This kind of artisanal cafes seem to be replacing the cheap, small chains and become more and more popular. In 2007, a soap opera called “Coffee Prince No. 1″featured a high-end cafe that hired only men as their baristas and became a mega-hit in the TV box office. I think that raised the awareness on the good coffee, barista, and so on. One interesting thing is that a lot of these artisanal coffee shops focus on the hand-dripped coffee. To me, it’s like a very delicate version of Costa Rican Chorreador – the barista takes great care of the water temperature, texture of the coffee, and height and direction of the water poured into the ground beans. Watching this kind of coffee-making is almost like watching a painter working on an art-work. This kind of dripped coffee is 10 times better than machine dripped coffee, but still my passion lies on espresso drinks…
One of the best coffee shops I visted in Korea is called “Club Espresso,” and this shop serves really amazing espresso drinks. They have a big roasting machine in the store, and they sell freshly roasted beans by the bag. Pretty spacious and comfortable as well. This shop also serves really fantastic cookies, cakes, and cheese cakes, all baked in the store. The only problem is that it is a little difficult to get to unless you have a car. The owner here worked in various coffee shops in the early 90s and self-taught a lot of things before he went to Japan to learn some more.
Here is the direction:
Take the subway line 3 (orange line) and get off at the “Gyungbokgung” station.
Take a bus (1020, 7022, and 7018) and get off at the “Buam dong office” – it’s on the way to the “Bookak san” road.
Website: www.clubespresso.co.kr (only in Korean)
* There is a very famous dumpling restaurant called “Sonmandoo” if you follow the “Bookak san” road. They serve homemade Korena style dumplings at its best with nice view of the Bookak Mountain. Have a bol of dumpling soup or steamed dumpling there and walk down to get some coffee at the Club Espresso – a perfect day.