Words by Jacob Roy and Andray Abrahamian, shots by Jessica Hollingsworth and café owners
In November of 2010, 10 Magazine published a list of the ten best coffee shops in Seoul. The article remains our website’s most popular pages month in and month out. This month we revisit coffee, exploring cafés not only in the capital but all over the nation in order to find the best coffee shops in Korea. Read on for the history of “third wave coffee” and its accompanying star cafes on the peninsula.
Third Wave Coffee in Korea
In the first half of the twentieth century, Italian and Portuguese immigrants brought the USA its “first wave” of good coffee. For decades, these espresso bars primarily served customers from the same immigrant communities and the few inner-city hipster liberals that dared seek them out.
The “second wave” arrived on the West Coast of America, starting with Peet’s Coffee & Tea in the early 1960s and climaxing with the worldwide phenomenon known as Starbucks. The second wave is characterized by a variety of choices in roast, espresso-based drinks and green mermaids.
Though it has roots in earlier movements, the “third wave” of coffee really started brewing around the turn of the 21st century. Noticeable, responsible improvements at all stages of coffee production were introduced. Growing, harvesting and processing all advanced with the strengthening of the relationships between growers, traders and roasters. Like high-end wine, micro-brewed beer and specialty chocolate, third wave coffee has emerged as a complex culinary commodity with a variety of sophisticated aromas and tastes. Coffee has become an artisanal product.
Third wave coffee and the accompanying culture have crashed into Korean shores like Typhoon Maemi. There are now dozens of third wave coffee shops serving up a smorgasbord of single origin hand-drip coffees and artisanal espresso variations around the country. Here, we have listed the best.
Each of these cafes micro-roast their beans or buy them from well-known micro-roasters. Almost all of the baristas can make you a solid ristretto and many of them compete in national and international barista and roasting competitions. The coffee at these cafes is better than good—it’s as good as it gets. It is world class. And while Seoul is hot on Tokyo’s heels as Asia’s best coffee city, the below list moves beyond the big city limits to give you the best coffee in Korea at large. Any one of these cafes would make a splash in any coffee loving city, anywhere. Enjoy.
The Actual List Korea’s Best Coffee Shops
Café Momos Oncheonjang, Busan. The godfather of Southland specialty coffee, Momos’ has an incredible space – several, really. Multiple balconies, a bamboo garden, in-house bakery, as well as an annex and coffee classroom all anchored around a large roasting space. Local cats approve. 051-512-7034
Coffee-ga Saranghan Namja Busan, Busan University. A couple blocks down from the hideous main gate of Busan U is this curiously-named cafe: even natives get confused by the grammar. The humble owner, Beom-seok, is the man the coffee loved. He roasts on the first floor and extracts all the best from his single origin beans. 051-703-1004
Anthracite Coffee Sangsu, Seoul. Ignore the Coffee Factory in 10’s first cafe review. This literally was and metaphorically is Korea’s coffee factory. Great coffee in one of the most impressive industrial-cum-gallery spaces you’ll see. 02-322-0009
5 Extracts Hongdae, Seoul. This hipster hangout just oozes hipster juices from every one of its hipster pores. Bad haircuts, tight pants, trendy music and one of Korea’s champion baristas ready to share his coffee and contempt with anyone who walks in. 02-324-5815
Coffee FarmJeju City, Jeju. Set in the middle of a bucolic rice field on the outskirts of Jeju City, this is the quintessence of Korean country life. The master roaster owner Rho Jin-yi embodies the very rare combination of professionalism and modesty. One can smell the roasting beans on the long walk across the path past the “guard” dogs. 064-721-0055
Coffee LEC Sinsa, Seoul. Walk past the legions of corporate coffee shops that have taken over the main drag of the once-hip Garosu-gil on your way to An Jae-Hyuek’s tiny shop. Fight your way through the crowds of playboys and golddiggers and get a master espresso from one Korea’s most awarded barristi. 070-4250-9723
Coffee Sedona Coex, Seoul. Somebody invested millions of dollars into this one coffee shop. You can tell from the huge space right in Coex Mall to the hundred-thousand-dollar McIntosh stereo to the four matching La Marzocco espresso machines to the trifecta of imported roasts from West Coast superstar roasters. Here you will find coffee made from beans roasted by 49th parallel, Intelligentsia and Stumptown. Impressive. 02-3466-8008
Coffee Radio Bangbae-Dong, Seoul. New School roast master Chu Seong-hyon’s shop is worth listening to, with your nose and mouth. Seong-hyon is also affectionately known as the most handsome man in the Korean coffee biz. 02-585-9229
In Earth Coffee Sonjeong Beach, Busan. You can barely sneak a beach view in between the buildings, but fret not, the sleek décor, tasteful back garden and perfectly formed crema will delight the eyes aplenty. 051-703-7666
Coffee Libre Yeonnam-dong, Seoul. Wrestlers and roasters have traveled the world in search of the best beans. They just recently opened their own cafe and it serves as a sort of semi-private club for the coffee intelligentsia (lower case “i”) of Seoul. After reading this article you will be a welcome amigo. 02-325-7140
People ‘N’ Talk Seoseng Myun, Ulsan. Don’t be afeard of the giant nuclear power plant down the road – Korea’s oldest. It goes to power the smallest commercial roasting machine in Korea. Another ocean-view café, this one provides a huge balcony and sense of accomplishment for having found it. Seoseng is one village that has banished Maxim. 052-239-0050
Honorable Mentions Other cafes and roasters worth their weight in coffee beans include Addis Ababa, Coffee Temple, I do, Gwanghamun Coffee, Cheon Gwan Su, Chan Bros, Ikovox, Alien Coffee, La Café, Coffeest, Club Espresso, and Pattern Coffee Roaster. All of these cafes are located in Seoul.
Jacob Roy (top) acts only according to that maxim by which, at the same time, he can will that it should become a universal law. He drinks Laphroaig for breakfast and refuses to read anything not written in iambic pentameter.
Andray Abrahamian is a direct descendant of a downstairs chap buried at the real Downton Abbey. He spends most of his time eating vegetarian foods, filling him with sound and fury. He loves coffee and beer.