A barista champion’s guide to specialty coffee in South Korea
Matt Haw interviews 2021 World Cup Tasters Champion, Kyoungha Charlie Chu, to find out about South Korea’s evolving coffee culture and the role of ambitious, young baristas like himself.
A little over a century ago, the consumption of coffee in South Korea was limited to the royal family and foreign dignitaries.
In what is likely an apocryphal tale, the first cup of coffee drunk in Korea was served to Emperor Gojong. The story goes that in 1896, a relative of the Russian ambassador treated Emperor Gojong to the then-unprecedented brew.
A few years later, the first café in Korea was established in 1902 in the bar of a hotel owned by that very same relative of the Russian ambassador. Here, coffee was served almost exclusively to the aristocracy, nobility, and those in positions of power.
“It was a very unique and expensive drink at that time,” remarks Kyoungha Charlie Chu, the 2021 World Cup Tasters Champion. In the years that followed, this novelty factor was an initial driving force in popularising the drink.
Mass coffee consumption took hold in the first few decades of the 20th century, during which time Korea developed its own unique contribution to the global café culture: the dabang.
The word dabang (다방) is a combination of the character da (茶), meaning tea, and bang (방), meaning room. In reality, however, dabang didn’t limit themselves to serving tea. As time wore on, it became increasingly common to find coffee on their menus.
However, Charlie explains that even into the second half of the 20th century, instant coffee remained ubiquitous in South Korea, and dabang were perceived as being centres of debate where people discussed politics, culture, and art.
As one paper points out, dabang were “in many ways similar to European coffee houses of the 1600 and 1700s”. It wouldn’t be until the late 90s when the first international chains opened that dabang would fall out of favour and South Korea would begin to embrace a more product-focussed coffee culture.
And, in the past three years, South Korea has produced both a World Barista Champion and a World Cup Taster’s Champion, signalling a dramatic shift in the country’s coffee culture.
What does modern South Korean coffee culture look like?
South Korea’s coffee industry virtually exploded in the 2010s. Between 2007 and 2013, the South Korean coffee market grew by nearly 300%. In terms of revenue, today South Korea ranks as the eighth largest coffee market in the world.
“The specialty coffee culture arrived in Korea at the beginning of 2000s, and has gradually become popular since then,” Charlie explains.
In Charlie’s case, he drew on the innovation and experimentation-rich Australian specialty coffee scene to develop his own skills.
His experiences abroad as a barista and competitor, along with those of many other Korean baristas, have directly informed modern South Korean coffee culture.
“The number of people [in South Korea] who want to experience specialty coffees is increasing,” he adds.
In the past few years, however, there’s been a necessary period of adjustment. As in many other consuming countries, South Korea was forced to adapt to changes during the Covid-19 pandemic, creating a thriving e-commerce marketplace.
“The number of home baristas increased and lots of people have started to order coffee beans online from many different roasteries,” Charlie says. “Now, many new coffee shops and brands feel that online sales are necessary to do their business.”
This kind of pivoting to e-commerce has been seen across the coffee industry. In the South Korean context, however, it’s certainly quite the volte-face from the stubbornly offline dabang culture.
The rise of the South Korean coffee pro
Charlie believes that modern Korean coffee has taken equal influence from Japan and the West.
However, unlike the kissaten coffee bars of Japan, renowned for popularising hand-brewed drip coffee, as well as the espresso bars of Europe, dabang historically served instant coffee and placed the emphasis on creating a space for socialisation.
However, the advent of the third wave of coffee and the introduction of specialty coffee in the country has inspired younger generations to explore the vast potential this product has to offer. Furthermore, Charlie believes that Koreans still love the social aspect of cafés, although now in a new way.
Subsequently, the country’s population of coffee professionals has exploded in recent years, with certification being a defining feature of barista culture in Korea. A 2016 article reported that Korea – at time of writing – had over 350,000 certified baristas, 197 authorised SCAE trainers, and 2,041 Q-graders.
Effectively, South Korea has gone from a primarily tea and instant coffee drinking country to a world leader in certified coffee knowledge.
Arguably, the country has now cemented this status with a monumental World Barista Championship win for Jooyeon Jeon in 2019, and Charlie’s own World Cup Tasters Championship win in 2021.
Their success appears to have inspired the South Korean coffee industry in the same way a major sporting win can galvanise even the smallest of teams.
“At this time, many Korean baristas are passionate about the competitions,” Charlie agrees.“ We love coffee. We are passionate and our dedication is respectful.”
He affirms that this not as a push for national glory, but a part of an outward-facing movement within South Korean coffee culture. As many coffee brands are rethinking their digital presence, they are also looking to expand their knowledge and presence on the world stage.
Charlie concludes that more and more South Korean baristas are going overseas to visit coffee origins and international coffee events, and are bringing their newfound knowledge home.
With this kind of attitude – and the talent to back it up – the world should expect to hear more from the South Korean coffee scene in coming years.