Korea's Coffee History Traces a Nation's Love For the Dark Brew

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Korea's Coffee History Traces a Nation's Love For the Dark Brew

Downtown coffee shops bustle with people choosing their favorite blend or flavor of the day. Around the clock, Koreans consume coffee: in the morning to wake up, after eating the spicy foods that comprise the bulk of their meals, during and in-between meetings. The coffee shops are well lighted, clean and modern, often decorated with various pieces of coffee making equipment and mugs. What you see and get is the equivalent of what you would find in an American Starbucks. Entering one of these shops, you may find it hard to believe you are in Korea.

Younger Koreans crave freshly percolated coffee served with their favorite dessert -- perhaps a slice of blueberry cheese cake, but their elder family members still seem to prefer the old-time favorite: dabang keopi. Dabang (coffee house) keopi (Korean pronunciation of "coffee") is a Korean brand of instant coffee served with purim (powdered cream) and sugar.

Coffee was first introduced to Korea in 1895, during the Japanese colonial period, by a Russian diplomat who brought in a coffee bush. The first coffee made from beans from the bush was served to King Kojong, who became so enchanted with the drink that he allowed a German woman known as Antoniette Sontag (an older sister of the wife of the first Russian ambassador to Korea, Karl Ivanovich Waeber) to open Korea's first coffee shop in the hotel that bares her name, The Sontag Hotel, located near Toksu Palace in what is now downtown Seoul. The coffee shop was frequented only by the privileged and powerful elite. Winston Churchill and Mark Twain visited before it was closed in 1922.

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, American soldiers introduced the relatively cheaper instant coffee. Coffee was one of most sought-after items on the notorious black market, and during this time its image became fixed as the delicious instant drink from America.

Korea's coffee culture took root in the years following the 1953 truce that halted the war as acoustic guitars and blue jeans were becoming the symbols of Korea's youth. Dabangs in the trendy Myeongdong district served both instant coffee and Korean teas. During the 1970s, these ubiquitous establishments with their dark and cozy smoke-filled interiors provided young patrons a private space to socialize. Men kick-started the work day with a cup of "morning coffee," a drink made by adding raw egg yolks to their brew. Skyrocketing demand for instant coffee spawned Korea's first coffee manufacturer, Dongsuh Sikpum, in 1970.

The dabangs began to change as Korea prepared for the Seoul Olympic Games in the 1980s. The emergence of keopi jeonmunjeom (specialized coffee shops) brought an atmosphere that contrasted with the dark and dingy interiors. These new shops were bright and spacious , offering a variety of percolated beverages, including cafe latte, espresso, cappuccino and the like. Increasing consumer demand for the newer variations was answered with beans of better quality and taste .The 1980s was also a time when japanki keopi (vending machine coffee) and kaen keopi (canned coffee) became popular drinks. Since the 1990s, more sophisticated cafes, often carrying exotic European names, have become de riguer among coffee lovers.

by Inae Cho

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