FEW PERKSIn a culture where speed is everything, where "ppalli, ppalli" ("hurry, hurry"), is on everyone's lips, getting your daily caffeine jolt takes on a different meaning.
Yes, there are numerous coffee shops with overstuffed couches beckoning people to sit down and relax with a cup of gourmet coffee. And they do fill up: Try finding an empty table at the Starbucks in Myeongdong any time of day.
But the ubiquitous coffee vending machines on sidewalks and in office buildings, libraries and subway stations drive home that Koreans still like to get their cuppa quick and cheap.
"Of course I like the taste of authentic ground coffee," explained Kim Young-tae, a senior at Kyung Hee University. "But at school I have to walk far to get to a cafe, so vending machine coffee does the trick." And the big plus is the price, typically 200 won [15 cents], compared with 2,000 won and up at cafes.
Just as coffee shops offer a variety of coffee and espresso drinks, so do the vending machines. At one vending machine on the platform of Gyodae Station on subway line No. 4, commuters can choose from milk coffee, prima coffee, black coffee, cafe au lait and American coffee, as well as cocoa and yulmucha, a traditional Korean tea.
At the machines, milk coffee seems to be the drink of choice. Pressing the milk coffee button as she waited on the platform on a recent weekday afternoon, Park Mi-sook, 20, said: "This is the only type of vending machine coffee I drink. Everything else tastes awful."
The vending machine operators agree that milk coffee sells best. But it contains no milk, just nondairy creamer. The operators say milk coffee is hot water with a combination of coffee powder, powdered creamer and sugar in a 1:2.7:2.8 ratio.
There's been no sign of a reduction in the coffee machines, even though modern shops like Starbucks are cropping up everywhere. "I like the machine coffee's rich and sweet taste," said Lee Hye-sun, a young woman chatting with friends over a cup of cafe latte at the Myeongdong Starbucks. Although her coffee tastes have raised a notch since she finished college, she has a soft spot for the jarringly sweet machine coffee.
Like many Koreans, she took to coffee as a college student, and can recall hours in the library downing the machine coffee in the familiar, small paper cups. She acknowledges that the coffee is usually too sweet and creamy.
"Can you imagine drinking a mug of that stuff?" she says. "Maybe the cups are small because the vendors know you can't stomach more than a couple sips at a time." Nevertheless, she says the machine coffee was her savior back when she crammed for exams. "Nothing like that to keep you awake."
Granted, caffeine is addictive, but many Seoulites suspect that machine-brew coffee is laced with something even more addictive to make people keep pushing the buttons. Having witnessed an ex-colleague's addiction to the machine, I've always had my suspicions. He would arrive at the office first thing in the morning with a cup he got from the machine next to the elevator. Then, like clockwork, he went back to the machine every hour for fresh doses. His lunch? Another cup of machine brew and a cigarette. At the end of the day there would be a pile of six, eight, ten empty cups on his desk.
According to government inspectors, the public can be assured that nothing addictive is in the machine coffee other than caffeine. The Ministry of Health and Welfare tested many of the machines a few years ago and found that the instant coffee powder used contained 37.5 milligrams of caffeine per gram. Since one serving contains 2 grams of coffee powder, that's 75 milligrams per cup. Some healthcare professionals warn against ingesting more than 150 milligrams of caffeine per day, so no wonder the machine coffee keeps you awake through classes ?and no wonder people crave it and suffer withdrawal-induced anxiety if they're denied it.
While machine brew fans laud the coffee's convenience and low cost, many question the machine hygiene. "Machine coffee is O.K. tastewise, but I am worried about how clean they are," said Koh Hae-lan, a member of an Internet discussion group dedicated to all things coffee.
The vendors are well aware of the health concerns. "Certainly there are problems with some individual vendors who don't maintain their machines properly," says Kwon Bong-hwan, a manager at Phoenix Vending Service, which operates 500 coffee vending machines in Seoul. But vending machine coffee is generally safe to drink, he insists.
"There's a built-in water filter, for one," he explains. "And although the tap water piped in to the tank never reaches the boiling point, most germs are killed when the water is heated to 65 degrees centigrade." Usually the water in the machines is kept at temperatures of 75-95 degrees.
If you're desperate for a quick caffeine fix but recoil at the thought of vending machine coffee, you can try what my French friend does. She buys both milk coffee and cocoa and combines the two in one cup. I don't remember what she calls it, but it is a tasty concoction.
Or try this, which some people say converts the taste of machine brew into that of drip coffee: Pour out a third of the machine brew and replace it with hot water.
Oh, for those coffee snobs who turn up their noses at machine coffee, here's something hot for thought: No less a luminary than the first lady herself prefers lowly instant coffees over gourmet brands like Blue Mountain. Insiders at the Blue House say Lee Hee-ho insists on instant coffee with lots of sugar and creamer. And no doubt the sophisticated lady has a favorite machine that she relies on for a quick cup now and then.
by Kim Hoo-ran