Although coffee wasn’t introduced to Korea until the late 19th century, it has become of the peninsula’s most popular drinks. Drip or espresso, hot or iced, Koreans have come to love coffee despite being tea and tisane drinkers historically. While the brew may be bitter, Koreans are definitely sweet on coffee.
Some of the menu items at a Korean coffee shop will seem very familiar. Espresso, cappuccino, café latte and café mochas can be found in almost every café. But one of the hand’s down favorites for many Koreans is the Americano, a shot of espresso in hot water. Milder than espresso but with a bit more jolt than drip or percolated coffee, it’s the fuel for many Koreans as they get through their morning commute or power through an afternoon at the office.
Only a decade ago, finding real coffee in Korea was a challenge. Most people drank instant coffee, usually from pre-mixed packets. This was a good way to get a good jolt of caffeine, and can still be found in many offices in Korea. There are also many coffee vending machines even today, which for just a few hundred won will give you a small cup of steaming instant coffee. There’s usually a couple of different choices, from “cream coffee” (milk, sugar, and coffee powder), “milk coffee” (milk and coffee powder, but no sugar) to black but sweetened coffee. There are usually a few non-coffee choices, too, like powdered job’s tears tea and cocoa. These machines have become almost nostalgic for many Koreans, as the rise of international and domestic coffee chains has made “standing coffee” less important.
“Variation” coffees with espresso bases in Korea go far beyond just the usual café lattes (espresso with steamed milk and foam) and café mochas (espresso with steamed milk, foam, and chocolate). Look for more exotic concoctions like Café Viennese or Café Vienna, which are made with rich whipped cream and often topped with sprinkles for a sweet and colorful concoction.
Latte art is also very popular in Korea, and many Korean baristas have won international awards for their skills. This difficult art requires the barista to quickly use the coffee beneath to color the foam on top of the latte and create pictures. From abstract patters to hearts to animals and even portraits, this unique art form brings a little extra beauty to the top of your mug.
One of the more unique ways to drink coffee in Korea is to try out a cup of hand-dripped coffee. While in places like America, standard coffee is usually made by using a coffee machine that drips hot water through a filter filled with coffee grounds, Koreans have adopted a style of making coffee by dripping water by hand through a small filter to make a single, exquisite cup. Much stronger and richer than machine-drip coffee, this method requires a steady hand and an expert eye to make sure the water stays at just the right temperature and is infused in just the right way. The filters can be made of cloth, glass, ceramic or plastic, and each size and style requires a different technique.
All the effort is well worth it though, and the resulting cup is rich and balanced, without any bitterness. This is especially important because hand drip coffee is usually made with single-origin beans. By making coffee with the hand drip method, the brewer can ensure that the unique characteristics of the beans shine through. Run through the standard coffee machine, the differences between Columbian and Cuban beans can get lost, but in the expert hands of a hand dripper, they’ll become brilliantly unique. In order to appreciate the subtle flavors that hand dripping brings out, Koreans usually drink this style black.
Another major change in the Korean coffee scene in recent years is the rise of the roasting café. While in the past, most places brought in beans that were already roasted, a few coffee shops started buying green beans and roasting them in the shop. This not only creates a lovely aroma that permeates the cafe, but lets the customer enjoy the benefits of freshly roasted, higher quality coffees. The sooner it’s consumed, the better, and many cafes refuse to use beans that were roasted as little as a week before. Even major chains have started advertising how recently their beans were roasted, trying to cash in on the trend. Many local shops have now invested in small roasters to bring their own beans to life, and will sell the beans directly to the customer. Be sure and check out their house blends, too!
Most cafes will let you relax and drink the coffee there, or provide a paper cup for take out. Many places will also give a discount for takeaway coffee, so be sure to check. Most cafes also have a limited menu of desserts and light foods like sandwiches, as well.
However you take it, coffee in Korea has come a long way in recent years, from instant coffee to high-end freshly roasted single origin beans that have been hand dripped by expert baristas. On the run or drunk slowly over a leisurely afternoon, there’s sure to be just the right kind of coffee for you here in Korea.