In the past, South Koreans were great tea lovers. But in just twenty years, the country’s coffee market has grown enormously. In 2018, every South Korean adult drank an average of 350 cups – almost three times the world average. How did Korea get to this point, and will the new market survive?
The history of coffee in South Korea
In the 19th century, Western imperialism brought coffee to South Korea. There it was first mistaken for a type of tea, and cafés called “Dabang” or “tea rooms” were opened. Drinking coffee was considered modern. However, it was more of a watery instant coffee, refreshed with some powdered milk.
In 1999, the first Starbucks café finally opened in Seoul. It was strategically placed directly in front of a university. To this day, Starbucks is the café group with the highest turnover in South Korea. In 2001 the first branch of Ediya, the first Korean coffee house chain, followed.
Due to the awakened love for the caffeine bomb, the number of cafés in the capital multiplied. Suddenly there was a coffee house on every corner of Seoul. Today there are 71000 cafés all over the country – almost half of them are located in Seoul and its province.
What does the coffee culture in South Korea look like?
The coffee houses in Seoul have poetic to exotic names, from “Talk and Sleep” to “Ediya”. Cozy armchairs and interesting pastries often extend over several floors and are primarily aimed at young city dwellers. They can find a second home with free internet since student apartments in Seoul are usually tiny.
In Seoul, not only coffee classics are offered, but above all, new and almost adventurous creations. Often they have a Korean touch. Whether truffles, cherry blossoms, or peppermint – it seems essential to invent specialties. All of them have one thing in common: they are usually incredibly sweet, and for espresso purists, they are almost overstraining.
Coffee intoxication in South Korea: Where does it lead?
It is now as if the whole state is obsessed with coffee. There are cafés in every shopping street and commercial building – and sometimes several right next to each other. Schools, office buildings, and other public institutions, on the other hand, have coffee machines on every floor.
In cafés, whole works of art are created from cocoa powder on top of the milk foam. These range all the way to political caricatures. For young South Koreans, this only fuels the hype about selfies with the coffee mug. Coffee becomes a status symbol, only fueled by the television industry.
Now, however, the point has come where negative sides become visible. Too many South Koreans try their hand at their own café. But mostly they are one-person businesses with a lot of work in too little time. Due to the big rivalries in the metropolitan areas, there are significant financial losses: in 2018, 9000 of 14000 new cafés had to close. The coffee culture in South Korea could collapse – and for this very reason, it remains an interesting development.