Percolating through the history of Korean cafes
“Coffee made from fresh roasted coffee beans is the most delicious,” said Mr. Lee on a recent afternoon. It’s like that for many foods, he notes. “Although factory-produced breads are sold in supermarkets everywhere, fresh-baked breads are tastier.”
It was almost eight years ago that he started his quest for the perfect cup of coffee, and it’s a job he takes seriously. “The level of coffee drinking seems to be a gauge of a culture,” he says.
Although Mr. Lee is working passionately to raise that culture, many other coffee shop owners are being pushed in the same direction by market forces.
Since the arrival of Starbucks in 1999, Korean cafe owners have been forced to replace brewing machines with espresso makers while paying closer attention to details. Multinational chains like Starbucks, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Seattle’s Best Coffee have seen explosive growth in Korea.
While introducing a coffee take-out culture, they have raised the expectations for coffee quality and perked peoples’ interest in European style drinks like cappuccino, cafe latte and cafe mocha.
“Coffee lovers became more selective,” notes Han Seung-hwan, a syndicated coffee columnist. The biggest change was that the quality of coffee improved a lot, Mr. Han added.
Sophisticated coffee products were hard to find just a decade ago even though the history of coffee drinking in Korea dates back 100 years. A nuanced appreciation for the beverage was simply lacking.
Koreans first experienced the then-exotic taste of coffee after the Joseon Dynasty (1394-1910) opened its doors to the world in 1876. The earliest record of a Korean drinking coffee is King Gojong, who was served coffee in 1896 when he sought refuge in the Russian embassy during a popular uprising and Japanese moves to colonize Korea.
The first cafe in Korea was located in the Sontag Hotel, which opened in 1902. By the 1930s, cafes started booming as regular Koreans joined the elite as patrons. At the time, cafes were called dabang, or tearoom, and were often gathering places for famous writers and poets, who used them to recite poetry and hold book launching parties.
Coffee was brewed from ground beans until the Korean War (1950-53) when the American military introduced instant coffee, which came to dominate the market. Its arrival helped popularize coffee in Korea but caused brewed coffee to virtually disappear.
In the 1970s, cafes changed again as they became more commercialized, and owners sought to sell an image rather than a drink.
“The dabang was a place for socializing. People didn’t care much about the taste of coffee ― and it tasted terrible,” said Mr. Lee.
The hugely popular “music dabangs” were associated with long hair, blue jeans and folk guitarists. Dabang deejays became the idols of teenage girls.
When that trend faded, “ticket dabangs” emerged, where sexy hostesses would do more than just pour your coffee.
After half a century of popularity, dabangs started giving way to modern and chic cafes in the 1980s. Specialty cafes such as Jardin and Waltz House ― imitations of Japanese versions of European style cafes ― spread everywhere. This type of cafe, however, had its limits. Despite expensive interiors and espresso machines, the coffee quality was still poor. “Neither cafe owners nor coffee drinkers knew what a cup of good coffee tasted like,” said Mr. Lee.
The owners of these cafes spent thousands of dollars on the machines, but didn’t know how to use them, and didn’t even order espresso beans. They simply served so-called “American coffee,” “Vienna coffee” and “Irish coffee.”
“The cafe owners had nothing to do with coffee,” said Mr. Han. “They sold bad quality brewed coffees, but they charged a hefty price.”
No one specialized in making coffee, and barristas were unheard of. These modern-style cafes slowly faded out in the mid-1990s.
From 1999, multinational takeout chains like Starbucks began arriving in Korea. Domestic imitators such as Rose Bud and Holly’s Coffee soon appeared, embracing the proper use of espresso machines and topping their drinks with steamed milk, just as the multinational chains. Regular cafes followed suit.
The number of takeout cafes in Seoul skyrocketed. More than 50 of them now crowd a 4-kilometer strip along Teheran Street in southern Seoul. (FYI, 16 of them are Starbucks, and nine are The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.)
Steep competition, however, has driven away smaller establishments, especially domestic franchises. And reckless expansion has led to cannibalization among Starbucks.
Mr. Han notes that cafe “crazes” typically last three years from introduction through growth and decline, and that the takeout cafe industry has already peaked.
Despite the appearance of many takeout coffee chains, Mr. Han said, the sophistication of coffee drinkers has not changed much, although a small number of coffee lovers has emerged. The market share of instant coffee has only fallen from 85 percent in the 1990s to 80 percent today, he said.
“Most people buy a cup of coffee from takeout cafes when they are outside, but when they return home, they drink instant coffee,” he noted. “Their level of culture and lifestyle remains unchanged.”
Rather than imitating large takeout coffee chains like Starbucks, Mr. Lee believes that small independent cafes should emulate the old neighborhood cafes of Europe by serving coffees with unique flavors. But that won’t happen until “consumer demand for better coffee matures,” said Mr. Lee.
by Limb Jae-un
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