By Captain and Clark for USA Today Travel | Published on September 2, 2015
Coffee is ubiquitous in Korean culture. While living and teaching in Korea, not a day went by that we didn't have coffee in some form. It is the most pervasive in instant form. Little tubes the size of a pencil are filled with powdered instant coffee, sugar and creamer. They're then poured into tiny Dixie cups filled with hot water and served at nearly every social junction. It is common to be handed a cup of piping hot instant coffee while waiting at cell phone shops, after a meal, when entering a shop or during a meeting. This hits the very heart of Korean coffee culture. Coffee itself is secondary to the experience. It is the social aspect of the drink that is first and foremost in the mind.
One of the many aspects of Korean coffee culture that stands out to the foreign visitor is the overwhelming amount of themed cafes. The theme could be something subtle, like a Parisian vibe, or something so glaringly obvious that it paws you in the face — a cat café for example. However, the last six years have seen a boom in the roasting and artisanal coffee culture in Korea. The Americano is now on the rise with the popularity of coffee-themed dramas on TV and a younger generation with a taste for caffeine.
Korean cafes can be inelegantly jammed into three major categories: themed cafes, major chains and serious indie shops. It is difficult to make any real broad strokes with Korean shops because the very nature of the country is mercurial. There is such a reliance upon small independent shops and businesses that a coffee shop may appear and disappear in the span of a month. There are, however, some constants. While the dynamic nature of Korea is inherently (against) round-ups, here are a few of the coffee shop names you should know.
Cafe Libre is a small coffee shop, barely able to hold more than 10 sitting customers, but clearly marked with a luchador mask as the logo. Here, coffee is king. The menu only has three options: espresso shots, Americanos and café lattes. The shop is a former apothecary and still bears the telltale marks of its past. A line typically snakes out the door as Café Libre is Seoul's predominate roaster. As Korean interest in coffee culture ramps up to an extreme, Café Libre has risen to the challenge. They source all of their beans and roast each as a single source, meaning the barista won't grind or press your beans until you place your order. The shop also hosts cupping sessions once a week for the up-and-coming aficionado. 121-240 252-15 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Coffee Seed is a barista training facility and roaster that had the claim-to-fame of being the home of the "Americoke." Essentially, this drink — that plays off of the surge in popularity of the Americano — is a shot of espresso topped with seltzer and mixed with a secret homemade powder. With a chill vibe and helpful staff, this coffee shop is a great place to explore your tastes and see if there is a new variety of bean you might be in to.
Café I Do fulfills all of our coffee passions and hipster needs in a single deft blow. The lead barista, Spike, custom makes each coffee based on the customer's mood and the weather. Spike trained as a barista in Italy and returned to Korea to share his passion and artistry. Disposing with the menu, he can decipher your taste after a quick conversation and then brew a cup for your tasting pleasure. The staff uses two separate blends, one for espresso shots and another for milk-based coffee drinks. Take in the muted wood atmosphere as you explore the passion of coffee culture with each sip. 1F, 410-10, Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Anthracite Coffee Roasters is a repurposed industrial space. Formerly a shoe factory, this large open area packs in several roasters, a cozy seating space, and a venue for young artists to display their work. It is the exploration of the old with a vision for the new that lends drive to the roasters at Anthracite. They are in a constant quest to find new varietals and blend a strong cup of coffee with a well-balanced flavor. The owners prefer beans that shine with tropical and bright flavors when roasted. 357-6 Hapjeong-dong, Mapogu, Seoul, South Korea
5 Extracts is a wildly popular artisan roaster and coffee shop established by Korea's 2011 barista champion, Choi Hyun Sun. The shop claims its name from the five elements that are required to create the perfect cup of coffee: acidity, aroma, bitterness, body and sweetness. The staff play around with rich cream flavors and both bitter and sweet orange flavors to create award-winning cups of coffee. Seogyo-dong 405-10, Seoul, South Korea
Caffe Bene is one of the finer cafes in Korea and is starting to make an appearance in the USA, too. With all the charm of a rare book shop, a cascade of exposed bulbs casting a soft glow of light, and a conscious effort to make innovative and health-forward drinks, this café is one of the most popular in Korea. It's not uncommon to encounter small bands of Korean high school students feverishly studying for final exams in a Caffe Bene.
Angel-in-Us is one of the more glitzy cafes one can find in Korea. With its gold-heavy angelic theme and rich drinks, this is a popular spot for couples and stay-at-home mothers to tune out the troubles of the day over a designer cup of coffee. Korea doesn't have the same infatuation with skinny soy lattes that we do here in the USA, so most coffee drinks are mocha-inspired and made with breve (aka half and half) or whole milk. One of our personal favorites is the seasonal strawberry mocha at Angel-in-Us, topped with real bits of freeze dried strawberries.
Another very popular chain that is growing in availability and reputation is Holly's Coffee.
May Island takes theme to the extreme. This coffee spot pays homage to the classroom and boasts several rows of desks tucked into small alcoves along the wall. It is essentially a study hall. Buying a coffee grants you access to the coffee shop for five hours, and you'll find that the environment is almost completely silent. Intimate rooms for group study are available along with micro nooks that line the walls for the serious cram session. 816-6 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu Seoul, South Korea
Cat cafes are popping up all over the world. The Cat Café in Myeong-dong is one of the originals. Like most theme cafes in Korea, the purchase of a drink essentially acts as your admission ticket. You have access to all the tables and — more importantly — all the cats. Roughly 20 cats roam freely through the café and make friends as they go. If you want to be really popular, consider dropping a little extra cash for a bowl of treats. Be warned though, it's likely you'll be swarmed by the cutest army of furballs you've ever seen. Get a sneak peek at a typical cat cafe in the video at the source.
Café Drama lets you get even deeper into a theme. The coffee is just a garnish for the real attraction: the dresses. For anywhere from $15 to $40 an hour, patrons can rent one of a wide selection of princess, elegant, costume or wedding dresses. You then have to select which themed alcove you want to hang out in and drink your coffee. They have rooms ranging from traditional Korean palaces to the pinkest and fluffiest princess rooms you've ever seen. Selfies and day dreaming are free. 101-12 B1 Seodaemun-gu, Daeyeon-dong, Seoul, South Korea
The animal theme isn't just limited to dogs and cats. Thanks Nature Café in downtown Seoul hosts a very small flock of sheep; two sheep to be exact. Be careful, you might miss the small staircase leading down to the basement cafe. Inside, you can order a selection of sweet waffles and coffee while enjoying the two main attractions. The wool won't be pulled over your eyes. The owner takes excellent care of his two sheep and the shop. 486 B1 Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong, Seoul, South Korea
Hoho Myoll Café has all the charm and whimsy of a fairytale. This small shop boasts a ton of natural light, a spattering of childhood toys and a sort of dreamlike nostalgia. While the decor is eclectic, it is comfy and the coffee is on-point. 93-44 Mapo-gu, Sangsu-dong, Seoul, South Korea
The coffee scene in Korea is at an all-time high and begging for exploration. Coffee lovers across the world would do well to give this unlikely destination a chance.
Related: South Koreans can now make out with their coffee cups
Is your coffee game on, Omona? Do you drink it for taste, social gatherings, fun,