I came to Seoul right after Tokyo… If you’ve read my article about the coffee scene over there, you know, it blew my mind, especially because of its amazing coffee community!
At first – apologies to all Seoul (coffee) people – Seoul disappointed me: Smog already visible from up above out of the plane, so much trash everywhere in the streets, plus the smell that comes with it as well as the tons of meat that is eaten by Seoul people and tourists alike…
Side note: I ended up cooking most of the times while staying in Seoul, because I found it very hard to find vegetarian food.
Having a closer look, though, on this city, the coffee scene, especially the specialty scene, convinced me to not mistreat Seoul. And to give it a second chance. The amazing sceneries at Gyeongju on the South East Coast and meeting with wonderful like-minded coffee people added a LOT to this experience.
This blog article is about specialty coffee in Korea in general and Seoul in more detail, its beginning and its coffee scene today. Plus my five recommendations of places I liked to go to while being there.
Specialty Coffee in Korea
I get that question a lot, not only in Korea: Why coffee? Isn’t it more of a tea country/culture? Yes, it is a tea culture, but the Koreans are catching up fast when it comes to coffee!
Koreans grew up with Maxim, famous coffee brand in Korea, mainly for instant coffee. Espresso culture and pour over coffees are fairly young. In the past making coffee for many meant to brewing the coffee powder and add cream and sugar to receive an acceptable taste.
Coffee was perceived as dark & bitter for most of the Koreans. I get the feeling that almost everyone not growing up with specialty coffee had this perception of coffee in the beginning (myself included)…
Before espresso culture hit the Korean coffee market there was Japanese pour over and hand drip. Almost all coffee shops I visited, specialty or not, still are doing it. With the same dedication and precision I experienced along my travels in East Asia so far!
With the turn of the millennium Italian espresso, Latte Art, roasting and cupping coffee came into play. Specialty coffee made its way into the Korean coffee market and shook up the Korean coffee drinker.
The interest in specialty coffee and gaining knowledge about it is increasing among professionals and coffee lovers alike. Specialty coffee and the café culture around it is trend. Part of this trend is – like I experienced it already in Tokyo – having successful coffee brands opening their shops in the city. One example in Seoul is Bonanza Coffee Heroes out of Berlin, Germany, with its shop ‘More than less’ in Itaewon.
But, along with the trends comes the enthusiasm in learning more about coffee and the need to staying competitive on this quickly evolving coffee market. Hence professionals across the city are trying to achieve as much know how as well as the latest equipment and advanced technologies they can possibly get.
Plus, brewing coffee at home and at work – with those single serve drip coffees you get in coffee shops across Japan, Korea and Taiwan – is getting more and more popular.
(Specialty) Coffee shops in Korea
Korea has about 70.000 coffee shops (including franchises) with around 10% being specialty.
Comparing the coffee scene and coffee shop culture of Tokyo and Seoul, I have to admit, that I liked the one in Tokyo much better. Why? Well, it felt to me that Tokyo coffee people are infusing more of its own enthusiasm, individuality and personality in their – mostly tiny – shops. I felt much more close to those shops and their owners than in Seoul.
In Seoul coffee shops are bigger, with more people working behind the counter and the owner not always being around. Size, design & interior often reminded me of cafes and coffee shops I’ve visited in the US in summer 2016. I guess that’s part of keeping up with the latest styles and showing your creativity in terms of ideas for designs. You can also see bigger tables, youngsters and hipsters working on their laptops, reading or sunken into their smartphones.
Specialty Coffee in Seoul: My 5 personal recommendations
Despite the experiences I made with the city and comparing both scenes, Tokyo and Seoul with each other – I guess it’s just natural to do so, when on a hunt for great coffee – I found some very nice and interesting coffee shops as well as concepts and creative beverage ideas, I’d like to share with you below. Plus some nice sightseeing spots and places I liked to go to.
Pretty much all of my five recommendations are in the rather touristy districts Itaewon and Gangnam as well as Mapo district. I guess, it’s because just more people are passing by and are attracted to those shops.
Every single one of those shops had something special to me, be it the signature brews, the location or the baked goods – Seoul has tons of patisserie & bakery style or even dessert cafes.
Many specialty coffee shops in Seoul (like in Tokyo) are showcasing their awards (of several national and international coffee championships) as well as their Q Grader certificates. Many Q Graders must come out of Asia telling by the number of certificates I’ve seen during my travels here in East Asia so far.
Oh, and FYI, Google Maps is not very popular in Korea and doesn’t really work well. I had a hard time finding some of the cafes and coffee shops I was planning on going to. Often I ended up searching Google (not maps) and asking friends or coffee people to help me find the exact location.
First one is Anthracite, because it was literally only 5 min on foot from my Airbnb. It saved my life right in the beginning, when I got to Seoul, because of it providing free Wi-Fi that helped me to connect with my host to get into his apartment…
I did drink some of their coffees, too. That very first time and then a second time after I already knew a little bit about Seoul and its coffee scene.
And, what can I say, this place is giant: There’s the ground floor with the huge roaster and counter and two – or have it been three? I don’t remember – more floors upstairs offering more tables and seats! Plus, they have an own bakery on the second floor! When I visited, at least 10 cakes were sitting on cooling racks waiting for them to be covered with chocolate or icing and decorated before putting them into the glass cabinet downstairs for guests with a sweet tooth to try-taste.
You know me, I love sweet treats, and so I went for one of their Lemon Madeleines, which turned out to be the perfect fit for my Kenyan coffee. Another discovery in East Asia so far: Way more siphons are being brewed over here. Anthracite was no exception to this and I decided for this brewing method for my Kenyan.
2. Hell Café
I noticed while making my list of coffee places to check out for Seoul that I made the right decision for my Airbnb. Many of the coffee shops I went to have been in a walking distance. Hell Café was one of them, too.
This café was an experience twofold: Because of its playlist and because of the unique way of the owner serving your Latte or cappuccino.
Well, first, the playlist: During my visit they had this ancient classical music from Baroque times in their player that was just the right contrast for the youngster sitting in front of me with his leather jacket and sipping on a cold brewed coffee.
Second, the owner Sung Eun Lim, who literally forces you to take the first sip of your cappuccino right after he poured the Latte Art next to you at your table. You’re wondering why the heck is he doing this?
He’s explaining it for you, dear reader, don’t worry: It’s because the texture as well as the flavor is only lasting for a while. If you wait too long or – like me – are taking photos of the beautiful art on your coffee before drinking, the lovely foam will dissolve right in front of your eyes… So, you better take that first sip after Sung Eun poured it for you to get the best taste and flavor experience you can possibly get at Hell Café. Trust me!
Both of these shops actually are separate shops and concepts. You can tell by the location, the interior and the concept behind. 5 brewing is focused on filter coffee, 5extracts more on espresso. But, both owners know each other and use the same coffee, roasted at 5 brewing.
While I liked 5extracts in Itaewon for its stylish interior and design, 5brewing in Mapo district blew my mind with its signature brews. Meaning, filter coffees, be it single origins, blends or special beverages, like the one I had.
I’m still not sure, if the coffee I had was really only coffee – they told me it would be a blend of two Ethiopian coffees – or if they actually added black tea… Because it smelled and tasted just like that: An Earl Grey! It was tremendous and I had to sniff more than once on that brewed beverage sitting – very pretty in that wine glass – in front of me. So creative!
5 brewing was one of the few shops where I could find some individuality compared to the other coffee shops I‘ve been to. Tons of books and magazines were lying around or sitting in the shelves for you to read.
My dear friend Jeong, coffee journalist out of Seoul, introduced me to this coffee company right when I got to Seoul. We went to their first location together and had a quick chat with the owner who brewed one of their filter coffees right at our small table.
This location is quite large with its two floors, but still cozy and usually super packed. It also had been, when I went there a second time. Fritz Coffee in Mapo attracts many young people for some coffee and one of their baked goods they bake freshly every day.
Their second location, located right in between Changdeokgung Palace and Garden as well Bukchon Hanok Village, is a beauty and fits so well in this part of the city. It’s inside of a temple style building and just next to an art museum.
Right there I tried one of their cappuccinos. One of the best I ever had in terms of flavor and texture. It also was very photogenic in front of the traditional scenery of wood and the temple-like design.
I haven’t been to their third cafe in Gangnam area, but I guess, it’s equally great!
This coffee shop in Gangnam district just opened in late 2016 and I really liked the owner, Jong-Chul Moon, being around while I was visiting. I had a quick chat with him about specialty coffee in Korea in between roasting coffee – he excused himself a couple times to check the roasting process, which was super cute.
I liked the shop because of three reasons, the interior was just really really great: the large wooden table in the middle, the contrast of the copper details together with the black matte interior as well as the coffee brewing/serving.
The latter was an Ethiopian filter that I chose to being brewed with Alto Air (first time for me) and that was served in two different ways, one in a regular cup and one in a smaller one together with an ice cube for me to try for having different flavor notes. Really liked this one!
Since Coffee M Stable is making Macarons, too, I went for an Earl Grey Macaron that Jong-Chul suggested as the perfect fit with my coffee.
Are you up to some more Seoul coffee experiences? I have two or actually three more recommendations that are each very special: Coffee Libre and Ferry Roasters as well as Dadong Coffee House.
Specialty Coffee in Seoul: Special experiences
This coffee company is one of the trailblazers of sustainable specialty coffee business models in Seoul. With them the interest in green bean direct trade, the importance of fresh ingredients, terroir of coffee origin and scientific approach to coffee grew among coffee people in Seoul.
It’s also a really cool location just next to Hongik University with its wrestling masks all over the place and the cool coffee bags sitting in their shelves.
Oh, if you’re looking for filter coffee, you’d better go someplace else. They mainly focus on espresso here. I went for their Latte, which was served not in a cup, but in a mug. Not really a fan of that, since the beverage usually ends up way too milky for my taste.
Located in Itaewon, too, Ferry Roasters focuses not only on coffee roasting and brewing, but is also baking their own donuts in the back of the shop. Mmh, donuts… :-)
Although not very specialty coffee like, but special nonetheless, you have to try their ‘Tube Latte’, which basically is a regular Latte, well maybe a little smaller and sweeter, plus one of their Mini Donuts on top. Try it at least once! Makes a great photo, too! ;-)
Dadong Coffee House
It’s special because of the way they’re brewing their filter coffees. It’s a ratio of 1:4, meaning 1 amount of brewed coffee, with 4 amounts of hot water added. It looks just like black tea in your cup and maybe a bit watery, as you’d think, but is instead very delicate and mild on your palate.
Interesting fact: Koreans usually learned about coffee by looking up to someone as their teacher. Traditional style coffee houses and their owners such as Dadong Coffee House are seen as those teachers who trained many coffee experts of the city and worked together with them for several years.
Specialty Coffee in Seoul: My sightseeing tips
I didn’t do that much sightseeing in Seoul. I just don’t like standing in line with other tourists or visiting museum after museum…
So here are my picks:
Changdeokgung Palace or better its Garden, which was very pretty with all the fall leaves, when I visited.
Bukchon Hanok Village just to stroll around and watch those people dressing up in the traditional style Hanbok clothes and strolling around the sights to take photos of each other. If you’re up to that, do it yourself!
Go to Tongin Traditional Market and get one of the plastic bento boxes on the first floor at the shop in the middle of the market street and fill it with tons of delicious street food that is prepared right in front of your eyes. A lot of veggie options were available for me also. ;-)
Wanna know more about the East Asian coffee scene? Head over here and read about what’s going on in Tokyo!