Korean Café Culture

I once held hypocritical views on cafés.  On one hand, I spent significant time at the Willamette University Bistro reading and mashing laptop keys on coffee and Adderall-fueled study benders.  The café served as a convenient space when the library felt quiet and the dormitory felt claustrophobic.  I sipped ice coffee, gurgling every last drop through my straw as I waited for the ice to melt – just so I could milk a little more diluted black gold.

My face after my third cup of coffee.

However, after dropping out of school, I regressed to gas station coffee and Monster energy drinks.  To be fair, Arco stations did serve the largest and most drinkable coffee a dollar can buy – the kind of coffee that makes you slam the gas pedal on the way to work.  You’re wired.  You’re not tired.  You’re terrified of wetting yourself.

Sacrificing quality for economy led me to look down upon stereotypical café dwellers – a classic California cliché.  A young man or woman walks into Starbucks, orders a grande nonfat soy latte with the milk heated to exactly 175 degrees (God help you if that milk is any warmer or colder), forks over the requisite $4.50, and earns a new stamp on their loyalty card (only two more until the next free drink).  

“Can I get a name for this order?”



“No.  It’s pronounced Sheré.”

The barista misspells it anyways.  Accented letters are un-American.

Sheré proceeds to sit down, pull out her MacBook Air, and while away the next two hours working on that novel shes told her friends about for the past two years (as well as

90 minutes of email and social media).

In my mind, many of these café caricatures think “I’m so genius” on a near-constant basis.

The cheapskate in me could never comprehend someone flushing away that kind of cash on the regular when there were perfectly good bladder-busting flagons of perfectly good Chevron caffeine for 99 cents.

At Kentucky, I worked in a coffee shop for one year and went on a couple of coffee dates.  Yet I still stifled frowns when students blew their money (or parents’ money) on mocha frappuccinos and chai (syrup) lattes.  Some of these drinks were nearly half of their meal plans’ daily food budget.  Sure, I drank an obscene amount of coffee. But it was free (or prepared and drunk under the table).

I did not see the appeal of lounging in cafés on a regular basis.  Cafés were for drinking coffee and one could procure coffee elsewhere for a fraction of the cost.  Starbucks loyalists were fools who deserved self-help blogs admonishing how much money they could save if they scratched their daily latte.

Then I moved to Korea.

I initially fretted over whether Korea served coffee at all.  Would I be able to enjoy the black nectar of the Gods?  Korea is in Asia. China is in Asia. Chinese people drink lots of tea. Therefore, Korean people drink lots of tea.  I would have to adjust my tastes and my caffeine tolerance.  My ignorant stereotypes also required adjusting.

Caffeine withdrawals sap my youthful enthusiasm.  I don’t want to feel like a tired adult.  Not just yet.

Oh boy.  Was I ever so wrong?

In fact, in the midst of Korea’s economic miracle of the 1970s and 1980s, coffee shops spread like weeds.  Social establishments known to serve highly caffeinated beverages proved irresistible to an overworked populace that prioritized social bonding.  Alcohol no longer monopolized the “social beverage” market. Now co-workers, couples, and friends could choose cups of coffee over shots of soju.

Today, international chains like Starbucks, national chains such as Ediya Coffee, and thousands upon thousands of independent coffee shops proliferate throughout the landscape.  Even smaller communities like Namak and Mokpo provide a dizzying array of coffee shops ripe for exploration.  I’ve sat and sipped in well over 30 cafés in this area and have a running list of nearly 15 more cafés I wish to visit someday.  On top of that, the number of unknown-unknowns (cafés I don’t know about that I might enjoy) is likely much higher.

While coffee has taken Korea by storm in the past four decades, its preparation is often different from home.  In the U.S., I mostly drink drip coffee – hot water poured over coffee grounds brewed by gravity.  However, espresso and instant coffee dominate the Korean coffee market.  So at home, I simply heat water and stir in coffee crystals like Kool-aid. While drip methods are available, I’m lazy.  Whatever.

And when I am out and about, the Americano is my beverage of choice.  An Americano is simply two shots of espresso mixed with hot water. It is the closest approximation to black coffee one will find in most Korean cafés.

An Americano and a Kindle – the morning breakfast of champions.

So rather than lament caffeine withdrawals, my coffee consumption has stayed steady since moving here.  In fact, it possibly increased.  I don’t know.  I don’t measure things.  I just drink them.

But why do I love cafés so much?  It presents the same issues I used to laugh at back home – spending $3-4 on a cup of coffee.  I suppose I’ve simply come to appreciate the lazy mornings and afternoons holed up in a café with a hot Americano, a light novel, or a Korean textbook.  

My apartment is not claustrophobic, but it also not a place of leisure.  This seems to be a common case in Korea. Smaller dwellings mean less room for social events.  Dinner and block parties are far less common than they are in the States. When friends meet up in Korea, it is often in a restaurant, bar, or café.

Lovers, however, follow the lights.

As a result, I often have better days when I exit my home.  In this respect, purchasing a $3 americano and $1 refills feels cheap when I parlay it into 3 hours of relaxation outside of my apartment.  There are very few commercial and public spaces where one can spend time for free. Cafés often serve as the cheapest avenue.

img_2567And this serves as the most beautiful avenue :).

I also appreciate the wide variety of decor of different cafés.  In the States, Starbucks and other national chains dominate the market and a large portion of sales come from the drive-thru and take-out service.  Car ownership in the U.S. far outstrips car ownership in Korea. That means that Korean cafés often pay more attention to the chairs, layout, decorations, and music, as a greater percentage of their customers opt to “drink-in.”

Themes arise such as board game cafés, book cafés, cat or dog cafés (where pets roam freely), and even a raccoon café.

Moreover, many cafés include two or more levels, allowing people to take in lovely city and countryside vistas and people-watch the street below while sipping their afternoon cup of Joe.

I’ve had to eat crow on this one.  I used to make fun of Starbucks and café enthusiasts to no end.  I thought they were entitled fools who could have saved armfuls of money by switching to $1 AM/PM mega cups.  I used to poo-poo their specialized orders and seemingly endless computer procrastination.

I do still poo-poo froufrou drink orders.  Black coffee is the coffee for me.

But I did acquire a greater appreciation of a relaxing, warm atmosphere instead of weathering the hard-back McDonalds-esque seating of convenience stores.  It’s become a weekend staple, and I cannot imagine living life differently now.  It’s amazing how a change in venue (like moving across an ocean) can shift your habits and lifestyle.

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