There are many countries that are famous for coffee cultures – Italy, Brazil, and Ethiopia to name but a few. These countries are well-renowned world-wide 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 the 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 what is one of the best instant coffees.
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Korea Coffee Culture
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.
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?
Cafes in Korea
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.
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. Can you guess which city has the most cafes per capita in the world? It’s Seoul.
But another 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 (where they come from I don’t know, I’ve never thought to ask), and when you order coffee you can watch the whole process of its creation.
The quality is impeccable. These little gems of cafes exist all over Seoul and combined with the chains and the aforementioned ‘cafes’ 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 ‘other 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.
Why Do Koreans Love Cafes?
Cafes in Korea can be identified as social hangout locations rather than places to enjoy coffee (although both can go hand in hand). This is an important distinction. With the lack of outdoor areas that typically exist within cities and the fact that most youths live at home until their mid 20’s or older, an escape from home is needed.
It is from there that this idea of cafes has sprung up from. Not only that, but dating in Korea is taken very seriously. One thing that you will quickly notice is that there is never a lack of couples enjoying the wide variety of cafes. The fact that it’s hard to find privacy when dating increases the popularity of these cafes as it is somewhere that can be enjoyed away from parents and family.
It’s at this point that you may ask me ‘why not just browse a mall instead?’ I think that the key here is that cafes offer environments where it is normal 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.
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.
Another aspect that drives the youth in Korea to cafes is the study culture of Korea. If you don’t already know, Korea takes studying and education VERY seriously. Cafes have become a popular place to study as they provide a less distracting atmosphere than home.
Something that I noticed while passing through all of these cafes is that they are primarily enjoyed by the younger generations. Sure, there are some middle-aged and elderly, but the vast majority of the cafes are filled with younger locals.
This is something that I believe can be attributed to globalisation and the (in some cases) idolisation of western cultures that has appeared in Korea. The want to visit Europe is something that I hear from nearly every young Korean. While visiting Europe is costly, difficult and often out of reach though, experiencing a piece of the culture at a local cafe isn’t.
Why Serve Drinks?
This creates another question, however. 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’)?
Firstly, 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.
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.
Why Does Korean Cafe Culture Exist?
Korean cafes are sometimes even known for their stunning views.
Speaking in terms of the ‘cafe’ term coined above, I would have to attribute the culture with the need for social meeting locations. In my country, if I want to play a board game with friends, it is simple. We go to someone’s house and play.
In Korea though, this isn’t usually possible for a multitude of reasons. This drives the success of these social cafes. Other cafes such as flower cafes are ideal for dating – another social requirement as dating at home is often out of the question.
Further, these cafes allow one to experience the attractions without investment. A pet is a LOT of work. Board games are usually quite pricey, especially if you only play once or twice. VR requires an expensive setup.
For people who may not have the money or motivation to get these things themselves, the cafes are once again perfect. However, we have to look further than just Korea’s themed cafes. What about the more traditional cafes?
I have only lived in Korea for around four years. While I have experienced and seen a lot in that time, this is just my experience and what I have seen.
Korea is a very ‘trendy’ country. That is to say, trends have a lot of influence within Korean society. This is a big reason for the explosive growth that cafes in Korea have experienced.
The trend that began as a way to experience western culture has quickly grown and has now become so popular that is an integral part of Korean society.
Don’t believe me? Simply look at which city has the most Starbucks in the world. Why? because Starbucks is trendy.
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 usually only find instant and RTD coffee. Other types of coffee are usually found at only speciality stores (except pod coffee which is very popular recently).
Cafes usually provide a consistent quality of coffee and at decent prices. Americanos can often be found as low as 1000KRW and other drinks will often take you up to 5000KRW.
It is important to keep in mind that if you want good coffee, visit a traditional cafe. The themed cafes are very hit or miss. Sometimes you will get fantastic coffee, while at other times you will wish you went somewhere else.
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.
Cost 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. 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.
If you want to learn more about why coffee in Korea is expensive, have a look at this fantastic article –Why Coffee in Seoul is Expensive.
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
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.