Sunday, February 20, 2011

Coffee in Korea

February 19th, 2011
I worked on the computer all day. More or less bored out of my gourd but trying to stay on task.

February 20th, 2011
Spent most of the day on the computer.

At 3:30 I went to meet the friend who is transcribing the first part of my interviews, 소영 Soyeong, at a Starbucks in 강남 Gangnam. Maybe I suddenly feel loquacious but, let me explain that the saturation of Starbucks in Korea is insane. At one time Starbucks was about the only good coffee to get in Korea. In fact, when Starbucks opened in Korea in 2000 it was a shocker and an industry changer for the country.
Young Koreans don't know this, but at one time in Korea if you went to a coffee shop (and they were popular even back then), you really didn't go for the coffee. You either went to the type of coffee shop (especially in rural areas) that sort of doubles as a way to hook-up with a prostitute (or at least flirt with a pretty girl you could hook up with if you had the cash) or you went to a place that was all about renting a fancy looking (but ultimately not comfortable) seat in a "posh" and "western" atmosphere (think mis-matched grandmother stuffed furniture, doilies and really awful décor like plastic flowers). The coffee, you ask? It was beyond horrible. It was either that crystal stuff that comes in the jar and if it gets humid it all becomes one huge lump, or it was so instant it was already mixed in with the sugar and the creamer. Seriously. No one ordered anything but "black," "black with sugar," or "milk coffee" (which definitely had sugar). And if you didn't specify, you got milk coffee. In a regular sized cup but a serving the size you get from coffee vending machines in Korea (less than half a cup). In fact, the coffee didn't even taste as good a vending machine coffee (which isn't bad, surprisingly though it took me about five years to ever try it).

I remember in the late 90s a few real coffee shops opening up, but they were mostly abandoned and only did well in areas around a lot of dating couples (if they also served regular Korean style drinks). It wasn't until Starbucks came along that people began talking about bean origin, roast, espresso, and ordering fancy drinks with long names.

Although Starbucks might seem expensive to the foreigners newly arrived in Korea (What?!! Almost 5 bucks for a tall latte?!!) at the time it was shocking to Koreans that the same 5 bucks they'd dropped for less than half of a Starbucks 'short' made from instant coffee in a café that was realistically only open to your 30-60 minute conversation during a date was now enough to get a 'tall' made by one of the most famous coffee companies in the world in a café that welcomed you to stay all day (Starbucks even opened up near universities and installed long tables for studying with extension cables available for laptop). I have a friend I'm out of touch with these days who was doing her doctoral research on Starbucks in Korea, I remember her talking about how it recreated a Western space for those nostalgic for their days overseas. The décor, the chairs, the smell—it's all just like Starbucks in America. (Although I suspect Starbucks Korea has many more green tea drinks. Oh, and the baked goods are hoity-toity in Korea. Scones and muffins, sure, but tarts and tiramisu, too. There are no donuts or super frosted white cake- bananas, baked rice chips and 7 dollar organic fair trade chocolate bars are next to the cash register.)

So in Korea Starbucks was actually a –good- deal, especially considering the amount of coffee you got for your money and the long hours (they opened, shock, in the morning so you could get coffee on your way to work!) and openness to singletons and studiers was great, too. In fact, I felt proud to mention my long association with Starbucks (which really had mostly meant walking by Starbucks as a youngster in Seattle because I'd never had the disposable income for a coffee habit).

After Starbucks opened in Seoul friends and I would actually make a point that each time we went to Seoul (I was living in Daegu at the time) we would make a pilgrimage to Starbucks before we came home. Then when Starbucks opened in Daegu, well, I was ecstatic. Seriously you couldn't get good coffee before that. There were only a few in Daegu and shortly all the staff members learned that I was a regular and treated me very nicely. Swinging by Starbucks on my way from one end of the long rectangular city to the other seemed perfectly logical to me. So did have a crush on a barista (nothing ever came of it).

Things changed, particularly in the mid 2000s Starbucks Korea began to grow at a ridiculous rate, for awhile I was able to keep track of the location of every Starbucks in any area of Seoul I ever frequented, before long they became so thick on the ground it wasn't worth bothering. And other coffee shops started opening. The chain Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Seattle's Best Coffee (they didn't last) and then the Korean chains. By the time the TV drama "1st Shop of Coffee Prince" aired, understanding coffee was becoming something a cultured person should know about, just like wine. Baristas had to have training. By that I don't mean a couple weeks on the job, I mean baristas might need to go to foreign countries for months of training if they were to be a real barista. At the very least they needed to attend an academy inside Korea. Starbucks became just another shop, not unlike Angel-in-us, Holly's Coffee and Café Bene. The independent shops sprouted up and espresso took a back seat to "hand drip."


All of which does not change the fact that I had brewed coffee at home, then had an Americano at Starbucks with Soyeong (and while waiting for her and using the computer since she was late), then before I came home again (and while doing another 1.5 hours on the computer) I stopped at my local specialty shop- Chans Bros- for a nice hand drip.

Between meeting Soyeong and Chans Bros I engaged in retail therapy, running into 정현 Jeonghyeon from 봉산탈춤 Bongsan Talchum at Uniqlo where I managed to replenish my spring wardrobe and snatch some bargain bin deals and ate dinner. I invited a random stranger in the restaurant to sit with me (as we'd ordered at the same time), which was extremely un-Korean of me, and I grilled him on his knowledge of traditional culture (zip) and asked him what sort of Korean he was if he didn't know his own roots (I'm so mean—but I did say it with a grin).

Blog of a guy who REALLY knows coffee who used to live in Korea, he reviews a LOT of Korean coffee shops. Freshground.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post! There is hardly a place around these days without a coffeeshop nearby. Even in Uijeongbu, ALL of the coffee shops are full by 3pm. If I'm not sitting down and working by then, I'm out of luck.

    I can imagine you grilling that guy...hahaha....

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