The Simmering World of South Korea's Coffee Shops - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Simmering World of South Korea's Coffee Shops

By Adam Matthews


Because South Korea’s coffee shop culture might just be the envy of all ye tired, cold, huddled masses. 

Living in one of the world’s densest societies, South Koreans often reside in high-rises with little personal space. Which means teens and 20-somethings need public spaces if they’re going to have any semblance of a social life.

It’s a concept that Jaeki Cho, a New York-based Korean-American who co-founded, a site that translates Korean culture for English speakers, calls ”room culture” — spaces for rent for video games, karaoke and, when the mood struck, trysts at lovers’ hotels. But today the biggest draws are Korea’s imaginative coffee shops, where visitors can get caffeinated — and glimpse the country’s rapidly evolving design scene. (If you can’t make it to Korea, cafés in and around L.A.’s resurgent Koreatown are probably your next best option.)  

In Busan, Korea’s second-largest city, the neighborhood surrounding Busan National University might be the best area for coffee-shopping. A few blocks from the Metro Station sits Cafe Agami. It resembles a dollhouse, its tables painted yellow and burnt orange. The owner scatters scraps of colored paper around the room, inviting his guests to tape their notes to the walls. Then there’s Yamii, the resident cat, who’s all too happy to jump onto guests’ tables.

Cho sees the desire for a better cup of joe as part of Korea’s global rise as a society.

For allergy sufferers, Nemoland is probably a better option. Five or so blocks from Agami, owner Nemo has erected a shrine to his real passion: cartooning. Throughout his tiny shop, which is constructed almost entirely from discarded pallet wood, he’s carefully arranged his best work. If you start a conversation, he’ll break out his sketchbook, show you some of his work in progress and insist you take a free beverage.

This degree of hospitality and coffee shop culture has deep roots in South Korea. DaBangs — coffee shops located in expensive hotels — have existed for more than a century. Cho’s parent’s generation hung out in DaBangs that served instant coffee and tea, and that featured DJs more concerned with keeping the conversation going than getting the party started.

But as Korean incomes skyrocketed in the late ’90s, Western-style coffee shops followed. Holly’s opened in 1998 in the city’s Gangnam neighborhood (yup, that Gangnam). Soon after, in 1999, marched the inevitable Starbucks, spawning Korean chains like Paris Baguette, Tom N Toms and Caffe Bene, which have recently expanded into New York and Los Angeles.

As in most major cities, however, Seoul’s cognoscenti now pledge allegiance to worldwide coffee nerd culture. Indie cafés with names like 5 Elements (Body, Aroma, Sweetness, Acidity and Bitterness), WEE (We Enjoy Espresso) and Core (Creative Optimal Reliable Espresso) Lab feature pour-over bars offering single-origin beans from El Salvador that are usually roasted on site. Cho sees the desire for a better cup of joe as part of Korea’s global rise as a society, a process that has already taken hold in neighboring Japan. Plus, Cho says, Korean coffee is, well, plenty Korean: it’s “detail-oriented, trying to perfect something and emphasizing quality over quantity.”  

For Cho, an ’80s baby, the new designer coffee trend also mirrors a desire to be first adopters in other spheres like clothing and the design scene. But it’s all new, of course, because his generation is the first to grow up with enough disposable income to afford a $5 cappuccino and feel comfortable spending the day in a coffee shop. “I mean, drinking coffee and talking with a friend for three hours — that is a luxury, right?”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories