How Caffeine Was First Introduced To South Korea

Green coffee beans sit in a large bag, waiting to be micro-roasted in the machine just next to a barista, who is absorbed frothing milk for a cappuccino. The beans will soon be dark, rich and above all, fresh. Is this a scene from Milan? Brooklyn? Melbourne? No.

It’s from Yanji.

Where? Yanji is a small city just north of the DPRK and only two hours from the Russian border. Shoddy buildings, traffic flows, buildings, rubble and rabble combined with Hangul on all the signage make it seem like you’ve stepped into 1970’s Seoul. What is a micro roastery doing here? A 26-hour train ride from Beijing? Simply, South Koreans have come here on the way to hike Mt. Baekdu, and South Koreans have become the coffee connoisseurs of Asia.

In every major city in South Korea, in-house roasted beans, extensively trained baristas and expensive imported Italian machines deliver coffee to an increasingly sophisticated set of consumers. Baristas usually display their qualifications behind the bar, especially if they’ve placed in one of the many barista competitions around the country.

It wasn’t always like this. It was more like this:

You deposit a bit of pocket change and push a button. A paper cup rattles into the cavity, various powders get excreted into it, dowsed with piping hot water and presto! Not 10 seconds after your coins plopped into the machine, you’re holding a small cup of coffee. Really, it’s just a few freeze-dried granules of the lowest-possible-grade coffee beans, a bunch of sugar and whitener, which includes stuff like sodium caseinate, diglycerides and a host of other chemicals that sound like baddies from Dr. Who.

For a generation, slurping one of these abominations to stay awake at one’s desk or to taste something sweet after a belly full of salt and spice was coffee for Koreans. Even at dabang pseudo-traditional Korean cafes you can still spot it from time to time.

How did this grim situation change? One word, four syllables: Starbucks. Say what you will about the chain: that it’s a fast-food style coffee; that it contributes to a generic urban landscape; that it has sacrificed quality for market share; that it’s overpriced; that the pastries are packed with preservatives; that the founder is responsible for the underhanded destruction of the Seattle Supersonics. Yes. Say all those things.

korean starbucks sign

But what Starbucks has done all over the world is introduce people to coffee as a luxury good. Especially in Asia, going to Starbucks has become a social signifier: I’m a sophisticated, modern consumer. In Korea, this gave rise to a specific brand of poseurs: dwoenjangnyeo, young women who eat a cheap triangle kimbap for lunch so they can spend their meal allowance at Starbucks, being seen all afternoon.

Starbucks opened their first Korean branch in 1999, had over a hundred outlets by 2004 and are planning to hit 360 nationwide in the coming months. In Korea, they have the only Starbucks with no English sign (스타벅스 in Insadong) and for a time the largest Starbucks in the world, a five-story monster in Myeongdong that has since changed hands.

They are the biggest player in a market dominated by several chains, both foreign (like Coffee and Tea Leaf) and local (like Caffe Bene). Thanks to them, words like barista, macchiato and double shot are now part of the Korean language’s extensive list of loan words.

As more Koreans travel abroad and learn to appreciate foreign cuisine in general, the education provided by chain coffee shops has helped local coffee nerds find a market for their passion. Independent cafes started opening up in the 2000’s and now are easy to find in any downtown or university neighborhood. Usually very comfy, these indies also have a unique sense of style: hand-drawn art, local music and patterns of patronage and service make Korean cafes distinctive.

Many cafes are table service affairs. You order at the counter, but the coffee is brought out to you, often with pictures latte art sketched in the milk. Almost all baristas have undergone training for this.

Attention to detail at independent coffeehouses tends to be very high. Menus are often more extensive than in the United States, with rarely seen Italian derivatives of espresso such as longo (a shorter, stronger pull of espresso) and shakerato (espresso shaken over ice, like a martini) alongside local favorites such as green tea latte or sweet potato latte (better than it sounds).

With perhaps a stereotypical penchant for exam-taking, most Korean baristas study formally for anywhere from three months to two years. They receive certification and are thus very knowledgeable and dedicated to their craft. Cafes stay open until late, making them hotspots for couples on dates and groups of friends who want to hang out but not drink booze. Unlike the west, coffee is not yet needed to start the day. Outside of the chain cafes, it’s unusual to find a place pulling shots before 11 am.

Though it may sound bolder than a blue mountain hand-drip, I’m prepared to say that the average cup of coffee at a Korean cafe is of better quality than in the United States. The speed at which this has become the case is staggering; seven or eight years ago, a good cup of coffee was about as rare as a DMZ tiger. Today, pastries and cakes sometimes lag behind due to a lack of artisanal bakeries, but this too is gradually improving.

Korea has taken coffeehouse culture from Europe, via America and made it its own. If this is a form of cultural imperialism, you don’t hear many traditionalists complaining, though this is probably because they’re addicted to caffeine. To get their fix, they can visit quality, independent cafes in almost every Korean city.