Coffee culture in Korea is as unique as the country itself.
One of the things I love most about coffee is how it reflects its location. Caffeine may be a universal language, but coffee culture is hyperlocal.
For example, Italy takes their coffee very seriously. You won’t find very many flavors or specialty beverages. On the other hand, go for coffee in the US and you get an ~experience.~ Lattes are made with unique flavors and ingredients.
Even within America, coffee culture varies from state to state and across coasts. Iced vs hot. Laid-back oatmylk vibes vs on-the-go black coffee vibes. Don’t even get me started on Dunkin’ vs Starbucks.
South Korea is no exception. Contrary to popular belief, the Republic of Korea is no longer just a “tea country.” Since the mid-2000’s, coffee consumption has soared and the country exceeds even Seattle and San Francisco in the number of cafe’s per capita.
As I explore all those cafe’s, here’s some fun facts I’ve learned about Korean coffee culture.
Not All Lattes Have Espresso
When you look at the menu for a South Korean coffee shop, you’ll notice two sections – espresso-based and milk-based (or something along those lines.) The espresso-based beverages have espresso and the milk-based don’t.
This sounds very obvious, but it threw me off the first time I saw it. There are lattes in both sections, but only the espresso-based lattes come, by default, with espresso. The milk-based lattes are essentially flavored steamed milk.
I imagine this is similar to Italy, as latte is the Italian term for milk. A caffe latte is the correct term for what we Americans just call a latte.
This could be great if you’re traveling with kids. They can have a ‘grown-up drink’ without the grown-up espresso.
This grown-up (and I use that term loosely) needs espresso, though. I order the milk-based latte with an added shot or two.
Instant Coffee is Very Popular
The Korean Culture and Information service estimates that Koreans drink 26.5 billion cups of coffee each year. Of those, 13 billion cups were instant coffee.
If you’re like me, the very phrase “instant coffee” makes you cringe. But in South Korea, it’s half of what they drink and they have perfected it.
When I first arrived for my two week quarantine, in my welcome bag were several packets of Maxim, the most popular instant coffee brand.
As my first plunge into the Korean coffee culture, I tried some and was pleasantly surprised.
The coffee mix contained sugar and milk powder so all I needed was hot water. Coffee preferences here lean towards lighter, sweeter flavors and the instant coffee reflects that.
Bonus fun fact: In 1976, South Korea was the first in the world to develop packets that included sugar and powdered milk with their coffee.
There are over 20 different types of instant coffee on shelves today.
Coffee is a Social Concept
Coffee in South Korea is not something you drink. It’s something you do.
Coffee shops serve as a social gathering place. Especially for younger generations, they are ideal places to meet friends and hang out. You can sit, chat, drink, and take your time relaxing.
It doesn’t hurt that most Koreans live with their families until their mid or late 20s. It’s hard to date when bringing your date home means meeting the family. So they go to coffee shops.
On any weekend, it’s common to see couples and groups spending time together in cafes.
‘Cafe’ is a Lose Term
‘Cafe’ in South Korea is used with a bit of creative liberty. Almost any place that serves coffee or tea can technically be a cafe.
This has given rise to unique experiences like flower cafes, racoon cafes, even meerkat cafes.
Don’t think I’m some “cafe purist;” I think these are super fun and I can’t wait to try some! Just know that if you walk into a cafe in Seoul, it may be different than what you expect.
Rather than focusing so much on the drinks, Koreans focus on the experience in cafes.
Koreans are Coffee Students
In the coffee world, the experts are called Q-Graders. Certified by the Coffee Quality Institute, these graders are similar to sommeliers in their tasting and evaluation abilities.
There are only 5000 Q-Graders in the world. Over half of those are in South Korea.
Many of these Q-Graders own their own coffee shops and lead tasting events. Through their cafes and education efforts, they are working to put Korea on the coffee map.
It’s been really interesting learning learning about the coffee culture in South Korea. In some ways, it reminds me of home and in others, it’s something I’m still getting used to.
I’m sure I’ll learn more over the next two years here and I’ll keep sharing as I do!
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