There are many countries that are famous for their coffee cultures – Italy, Brazil, and Ethiopia to name but a few. These countries are well-renowned worldwide not only for their coffee but also for the culture surrounding it.
Who doesn’t have fantasies of sitting under the Italian morning sun and enjoying the atmosphere of a bustling street corner? I sure do! The thing is, many countries are overlooked in the process. There are many countries and cultures around the world that have formed around coffee and these famous countries account for only a few of them.
As with everything, there are also some overshadowed experiences that are barely ever discussed, despite arguably being as great. Korea is one of these overshadowed coffee cultures. Not as established, not as traditional, and definitely not as famous, but a unique and interesting culture all the same.
In this post, I want to look at the unique cafe culture of Korea. Specifically, in Seoul. Before moving on, I think it’s worth sharing a few quick facts:
- Koreans (on average) drink 12.3 cups of coffee per week
- Seoul has over 18,000 coffee shops
- Seoul has more Starbucks than any other city in the world
- Korea accounts for 6% of the Asia-Pacific coffee market
Needless to say, these days Korea is BIG on coffee! However, it’s not necessarily the coffee itself that is so important to Korean culture. More importantly, it’s cafes that have become a big part of modern Korean culture. In this post, I am going to talk about how this came to be and why. Join me if you want to learn more about coffee culture in Korea!
Experience Korean coffee culture from your home with Korean instant coffee!
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Korea Coffee Infographic
Before we dive straight into discussing the interesting coffee culture in South Korea, let’s take a look at some of the most important things to note. Something that surprises most people (including me!) is that Seoul has the highest coffee price in the world (average cafe price).
Admittedly, this price is driven up as coffee is not sold purely as coffee. While I will discuss this unique part of coffee in Korea later in this article, it’s worth noting that purchasing coffee is often a replacement for an admission fee in many cafes. Therefore, the price isn’t so much for the coffee, but actually for access. However, instead of calling it an entry fee, the cafe will just sell seemingly overpriced coffee.
For normal cafes in Korea, coffee is far cheaper. For example, it’s not hard to find an americano (black coffee that is usually served cold with ice) for under 1000KRW (approximately $1). Even cafes such as Starbucks are cheaper than this $7.80 average!
It’s worth taking particular note of the last section – types of cafes in Korea. I’m from New Zealand, and before I came to Korea I would’ve questioned this. Isn’t there only one type of cafe…? A ‘cafe’ cafe?! As it turns out, Korea has turned almost everything into a cafe. Recently I’ve even seen print cafes! I’m not kidding. You can go to a cafe and print your university homework or other important documents.
But anyway, I will discuss the types of cafes in Korea later in this article. For now, just keep in mind that cafes in Korea are likely not at all what you are expecting. This is what makes the Korean coffee culture so unique and special – it stands totally apart from every other country.
Korea Cafe Culture
Relative to other countries, coffee was introduced in Korea quite late. Perhaps this is a large reason why Korea’s coffee culture is ever-changing and constantly growing. As opposed to many regions where coffee consumption has been cemented for a long time, coffee in Korea is a modern phenomenon.
Dating back to 1896 when King Gojong first tried coffee, it has gradually become more popular and spread throughout the country. Once enjoyed only by royals and high classes, coffee is now enjoyed by all and a special culture has been formed around it.
While initially enjoyed as a western experience, a unique twist has occurred over the history of coffee in Korea. A unique twist that can only be experienced in Korea, and one which has quickly come to define some of the Korean cultures.
Interestingly, while coffee has been in Korea for over 100 years, it was only in the 1980s that instant coffee began to gain traction. Although instant coffee grew in popularity, it wasn’t until 1999 that modern Korean coffee culture began to really take off. Can you guess what happened in 1999?
Starbucks was introduced to Korea. The first store was opened near Ewha Women’s University, one of Korea’s top universities. While Starbucks opening was a big deal, the most important factor was the location – Ewha is a trendy area full of youth and young adults.
This is meaningful because coffee in Korea is particularly popular among university-age students. Whether it was Starbucks that started this trend or otherwise, who knows. However, since 1999 Seoul has gone from having one Starbucks location to having more branches than any city in the world.
After the success of the American chain cafe, many local chains followed. Now, cafes in Korea are extremely competitive and they are always vying for each others business. These days, there are many local chains that offer unique twists on coffee.
Of course, along with these cafe chains taking off smaller stores have grown too. In 2022, Seoul has the most cafes per capita in the world. Considering there are 10,000,000 people in Seoul, that’s a LOT of cafes! Many of these cafes are local businesses trying to survive in this increasingly competitive field.
To summarise the growth of Korea’s coffee culture, we can say that while Starbucks may have caused coffee to become trendy amongst young adults in Korea, it’s now far bigger than that. Local cafes have become trendy locations to hang out and many cafes differentiate themselves by making high-quality drinks or having unique themes – more on that soon!
With the rise of cafes, Korean coffee consumption has also been rising incredibly. Koreans now drink an average of 12.3 cups of coffee per week – an amount far higher than even a decade ago.
With this rising coffee consumption and amount of cafes, what is driving the growth? And further, what is the unique culture that has formed around coffee?
Why Are Cafes in Korea So Popular?
Lattes at Cafe Seoulism – the cafe with the best view in Seoul.
Now, I am no coffee connoisseur. I am, however, someone who enjoys coffees a lot. Someone who would happily spend the morning in a cafe discussing nothing of real importance with a close friend.
I am not here to say whether Korean coffee is good or bad – it can be either-or. What I want to look at is the culture itself. What is it all about? How did it happen? Why does it even exist?
I must begin this by saying that in Korea, everything passes as a cafe. While a cafe is typically a store that primarily sells coffee, this is a bit different in Korea. Rather, the word ‘cafe’ in Korea refers more to a meeting place. Many ‘cafes’ even seem to serve drinks as an afterthought.
Amazing coffee at Kaldi Kaffa in Sungshin.
If you are still trying to grasp exactly what I mean then let me help you out a bit. Let me list a few Korean cafes that are not only not rare, but in fact rather common: cat cafes, flower cafes, board game cafes, virtual reality cafes, and toy cafes.
Cafes like this are very common in Korea, and this is why the word ‘cafe’ can be a bit confusing here. It isn’t the coffee that is the focus of cafes in Korea (in most cases) but rather the atmosphere and unique attractions.
This begs the question ‘are they actually cafes or rather just meeting locations?’. This is one of the most important things to understand about Korean cafe culture – a cafe can be nearly anything. Even if coffee is an afterthought and not the main attraction.
While it’s hard to define what exactly has led to this unique cafe culture, it’s widely considered to be caused by one multifaceted factor. That is the lack of privacy that most youth and young adults have in South Korea.
In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s common for children to live with their parents until they are married. If not this late, at least until they graduate university. This means that it can be hard for younger people to meet friends, go on dates, and get some alone time. Cafes provide a great venue for all of these.
Further, real estate in Seoul is incredibly expensive and many apartments are quite small. Living in small spaces can become monotonous over time, and cafes are a great escape. At university, it’s common for students to study at cafes. I have friends who would spend three or four hours at cafes every day to study.
Therefore, for many locals, the highlight of Korean cafes isn’t the coffee itself. Rather, it’s the venue. Whether as an escape from home, parents, or familiarity, cafes provide a much-needed respite.
This also explains why certain types of cafes have become especially popular. Boardgame cafes are so popular because with small living spaces and families at home, it’s hard to just chill and play a board game with friends. The same goes for pet cafes – many people can’t have pets due to living with families or having small spaces and therefore instead opt to encounter animals and local cafes.
But why cafes? It’s at this point that you may ask ‘why not just browse a mall instead?’ or, ‘why not just go to a local park?’ I think that the key here is that cafes offer environments where it is easy just to sit, relax, and take your time.
Nearly every time I meet a friend we will visit a cafe, and this is very common. Since cafes are one of the few places where you can meet friends and sit and relax, they have become incredibly popular. Sure, we could visit a mall, but what if we just want to sit and chat?
Coffee consumption has been increasing, but I wonder what really drives that growth. It is at least partly due to a growing love for coffee, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s also due to the fact that younger generations need a place to escape to.
Of course, there are also people who visit cafes just because they like coffee. Considering the massive rise in popularity of hand drip coffee over the past few years, I think that the number of people visiting cafes to enjoy coffee is increasing.
One thing that you will notice in Korean cafes is that the vast majority of visitors are young adults. While you will find middle-aged and elderly at cafes also, they are far outnumbered by younger adults. This is largely for the reasons outlined in this article.
Types of Cafes in Korea
One of the most popular animal cafes is Meerkat Friends in Hongdae.
Of course, no city would be complete without the traditional kinds of cafes. Chain stores dominate the streets, Ediya, Tom N Tom’s, Starbucks, Coffee Bean… You can’t walk ten feet without seeing a chain coffee store. Much like any city.
However, Seoul takes this a step further. There are cafes everywhere. Some blocks will have twenty or thirty cafes on them. This is especially true in some trendy neighbourhoods such as Hongdae and Ehwa Women’s University.
Although chain cafes dominate expensive neighbourhoods such as Gangnam, an aspect that truly surprised me about Seoul is just how many small, independent cafes exist. Not only are these cafes incredibly common, but they are good!
I live next to a cafe that grinds its own beans and when you order coffee you can watch the whole process of its creation. This isn’t unusual either – over the past few years, I’ve visited many similar cafes. On top of this, drip coffee has recently become incredibly popular and I have more than ten cafes within five minutes of my apartment offering such coffee.
The best part is that the quality is impeccable. These little gems of cafes exist all over Seoul and combined with the chains they create a truly rich and diverse cafe culture within a city that is never associated with words such as ‘cafe’ or ‘coffee’.
In Korea, there are three types of common cafes: chain cafes (Starbucks, Coffee Bean, etc), independent cafes (non-chain cafes), and ‘theme cafes’ (usually places where coffee is not the main attraction – cats cafes, flower cafes, etc).
There are also many traditional tea houses which serve coffee as well as tea, however, these are less common. They are usually found in more tourist-focused areas. Insadong, Bukcheon Hanok Village, and Gwanghwamun are a few areas they can be found.
These are the cafes that you find all over the world and you’re probably already familiar with some. In Korea, the biggest cafe chains are Starbucks, Ediya, Coffee Bene, Mega Coffee, Tom N Toms, Angel-In-Us and Twosome Place. Ediya and Mega Coffee are affordable chains while the others fill out a more premium segment of the market.
If you’re visiting any of these cafes in Seoul, expect them to be big. I currently live near Sungshin Women’s University and there are three Starbucks locations within walking distance. All of them are three-story and easily seat over 100 people. Chain cafes in Seoul are very popular!
Also worth noting is that all of these chains offer much more than just coffee. In fact, their menus are generally quite similar to Starbucks. Whether you want coffee, juice, tea, frappuccinos, or otherwise, these cafes will have them. They also typically have an assortment of cakes and sandwiches.
These are the cafes that focus on coffee, but that are local. These smaller, independent cafes are the places to visit if you want high-quality coffee. While they do differ in quality, they are regularly better than chain cafes in terms of taste. They also tend to sell more unique drinks.
While it’s hard to make broad statements about local cafes in Korea, they are generally medium-priced. Typically, drink-in cafes will offer drinks starting around 4000KRW. If you want something more affordable, there are small take-out only cafes that offer drinks for as low as 1000KRW!
These Korean cafes generally make for the best places to chill, study, or otherwise. Chain cafes are often incredibly busy, and, as such, quite loud. Local cafes tend to be much quieter simply because they are significantly smaller.
These cafes are the most interesting that you will find in Korea. They are also the most unique! Theme cafes tend to rely more on their theme than their drinks. That isn’t to say that they have low-quality drinks, but the focus generally is on the atmosphere and experience rather than the menu.
The most common theme cafes in Korea are flower cafes, animal cafes and boardgame cafes. There are also other cafes such as children’s cafes (for parents who want some free time while their children play) and virtual reality cafes. Really, there is something for everyone. In this case, the limit is the imagination of cafe owners.
Some of the most interesting theme cafes that I’ve visited in Korea are Cat Lover Garden and Cafe Seoulism. Cat Lover Garden is a cafe with a surrounding garden that is home to many cats. The cafe doubles as an adoption agency and is one of the few animal cafes that I felt really treated the animals well. Cafe Seoulism is a rooftop cafe with a stunning view of southern Seoul including Lotte Tower.
Why Serve Drinks?
With theme cafes being so prevalent in Korea, it brings up another question: Why even serve drinks? Why not just make study rooms? Or a place you can go to play with cats (rather than a cat ‘cafe’)? What’s the point of selling drinks at these places when it makes more sense not to?
Well, firstly we can point out the obvious. Hot drinks are loved by all. For example, board games are made infinitely better with a nice cup of tea or coffee. As is a study period in the infamous study cafes. There’s something about having a quality, hot drink that makes whatever you are doing better.
However, more importantly, drinks allow a universal payment method that doesn’t need to be monitored. Many cafes in Korea will have overpriced drinks, and purchasing a drink is a requirement to enter. These drinks act as an entry fee.
They will allow you to use the board game cafe until you are board (See what I did there?), play with cats until you are tired, or allow you to read as many books as you want. The drink price is also the entry and time fee. No need to monitor the number of board games used, or the time spent in the cafe.
On top of this, Korea is a very trend-obsessed country. I don’t mean this in a bad way, simply that trends in Korea are big. Trends also tend to move incredibly fast in Korea. The reason I mention this is because cafes are currently trendy.
Where a board game store likely wouldn’t attract much attention, a board game cafe is considered trendy and far more likely to attract attention. Therefore, simply by serving drinks and adding ‘cafe’ to a store’s name, it’s far more likely to be successful.
Korean Coffee Culture
Now that we’ve discussed one element of Korean Coffee culture in detail – namely cafes – let’s discuss perhaps the more important element, coffee itself. We’ve already established that theme cafes in Korea are incredibly popular due to them being a great space to enjoy times with a date or friends. However, where does coffee stand? Is coffee itself even popular in Korea?
Yes! It’s incredibly popular. When I attended Korea University, 9 am classes would be attended by hundreds of students who all brought coffee with them. The vast majority of students would bring take-out americano from a local cafe, but some would bring lattes or convenience store canned coffee.
Korea also has a rather unique take on instant coffee. While instant coffee has lost some popularity in recent years due to the affordability of take-out coffee, instant coffee can never lose all of its fans!
Most Popular Coffee in Korea
There’s absolutely no question here. The most popular coffee in Korea is americano. While I can’t find any information to back this up, I would say that at least 70% of cafe orders are for americanos. This is especially true in summer when ice americano becomes incredibly popular.
Second to this are lattes and their variations. Vanilla lattes are very popular and particularly loved by young adults. While I personally am not a fan of these lattes – they are too sweet for me – I can see why they are so loved. Other forms of latte such as caramel, hazelnut and mocha lattes are also popular.
The popularity of these sweet coffees leads to a second finding – sweet food and drinks are very popular. Often, americanos will be purchased with syrup for added sweetness. The same goes for lattes. However, the most obvious love for sweet coffee is RTD coffee. Let’s discuss that!
Korean Instant Coffee
Up until this point I have only discussed cafes. There is, however, another factor that must be mentioned in an article about cafe culture though, and that is the coffee itself. Korea is famous for its instant coffee.
While instant coffee usually has a reputation for being bad (as it often is), Korean instant coffee is becoming quite decent. Brands such as Maxim, Kanu and Nescafe dominate the stores of supermarkets. Some of the more premium products are definitely not bad! Especially for instant coffee.
Not only is instant coffee popular, but so is RTD (Ready To Drink) coffee. Maxim especially is famous for its RTD coffee – coffee which just needs water. Sugar is already included (and very plentiful) as is milk powder. Simply pour it into a cup and add water.
This coffee is disliked by many foreigners, but it’s also loved by many Koreans. Once you get used to the taste, you can actually become quite fond of it. It’s definitely a step above most (western) instant coffee.
In supermarkets, you will often find a massive variety of different RTD and instant coffee. Coming from New Zealand, I was amazed at just how many variations of instant coffee there are in Korea. Perhaps New Zealand is weird for having so few types, but Korea definitely surprised me.
Have a Taste of Korean Coffee
If you want to experience Korean coffee at home you are in luck. There is a large variety to try!
Maxim Mocha Gold Mix – The most well-known coffee in Korea!
Maxim Coffee Beans – Instant coffee without the sugar.
Kanu Coffee – Maxim’s newer ‘high class’ line of coffee.
Price of Coffee in Korea
Coffee in Korea tends to be expensive because you aren’t really paying for the coffee. You are paying for the experience. Why is coffee expensive in Korea? This is a question I hear very often. If you stick to the chain stores I can understand why you would think it is!
Korea has the 6th highest Starbucks price in the world, and it also has a comparatively low minimum wage compared to the more expensive countries. On top of this, a study found that Seoul has the most expensive coffee out of every capital city in the world – that’s crazy!
However, while chains often charge over 5000KRW for a coffee, there is also cheaper coffee to be found! Many stores will sell americano coffees for as low as 1000KRW. Just be prepared to look around for the best prices.
Typically bigger cafes will charge more, and the little cafes are better for budget-conscious coffee. Rather than sticking to the big stores, look for places with only a few seats. These will often be far cheaper.
The price of a coffee will also depend on what style you want. Americanos are often incredibly cheap. However, lattes are very hard to find below 2500KRW. While this is still relatively cheap, it’s more than double to price of the cheapest americanos.
Is the Korean Coffee Culture Worth Experiencing?
Should the Korean coffee culture be considered with other, more famous, countries coffee cultures? The answer to both of these questions is most definitely, yes. Korean coffee culture is very unique to every other culture I have experienced.
However, that uniqueness adds to its attraction. While it may seem obvious – you have to visit Korea to experience the Korean coffee culture. It’s most definitely worth visiting.
There is a lot that couldn’t be covered in this post. You can believe me when I say that Korea has a lot to see and do in terms of cafes and coffee though. This is a country, and Seoul is a city, that every coffee lover should visit.
Korean Coffee Culture FAQ
Cafes on Samcheongdong Cafe Street
Is Coffee Popular in South Korea?
Yes! Very much so. In fact, Seoul drinks more coffee per capita than both Seattle and San Francisco. Further, Seoul has the most Starbucks compared to ANY other city in the world. You will also find many domestic cafe chains as well as thousands of smaller cafes.
What Cafes Are Popular in Korea?
You will find many common brands in Korea such as Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Blue Bottle Coffee. You will also find many domestic chains such as Tom N Toms, Coffee Bean, A Twosome Place, Ediya Coffee and more. On top of this, there are also hundreds of smaller cafes.
Why Is Korean Coffee Culture Unique?
Korean coffee culture is unique because it is the centre of much of the culture’s social life. Since apartments are small, people look elsewhere to spend time with their friends. More often than not, they will turn to cafes. It is for this reason that many unique cafes (such as animal cafes) have become so popular.