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  • Writer's pictureGuy Shababo

Coffee Culture

According to food historian Lee Hoyoung, King Kojong (r. 1873-1907) was first introduced to coffee when staying at the Russian embassy in 1896, following the assassination of Queen Min.

The sister-in-law of the Russian of the German consul general, Antoinette Sontag, was the one to make the acquaintance. Sotang opened the first tabang (“Tea House”) in Seoul, and King Kojong became a regular coffee drinker. Tea houses became a popular thing in Korea and quite often served as a local hub. Among other things, they helped spread new music genres, such as sinminyo since they were the first places to buy record players, which were quite expensive.

The veranda of Sontag Hotel circa 1909-10 Robert Neff Collection
Korea's first tabang - the veranda of Sontag Hotel circa 1909-10 Robert Neff Collection

The next big step was the arrival of instant coffee with the American soldiers during the Korean War. It was an imported goods in a time that South Korea was quite poor, and only took off in during the 1960s as economy improved. With the economic growth, Korea saw more coffee houses, coffee roasters and themed coffee shops, but drinking coffee only became a big thing after the Seoul Games in 1988, when the newfound democracy and economic boom allowed the middle class to indulge and specialize.

Newspaper advertisement for the launch of Maxwell House Coffee:  Dong-A Ilbo,
Newspaper advertisement for the launch of Maxwell House Coffee: Dong-A Ilbo, September 10, 1970

We have two more steps for this story. In 1999 Starbucks opened its first store in Seoul. I don’t like American coffee, but we have to admit that the global chain introduced Korea to a wider variety of tastes and specialties, including the idea of full Arabica roast, and most importantly – cold coffee and ice americano. Today the chain is associated with well-off young, middle-class people, and generally American style and culture. In other words, drinking Starbucks is a social claim. Being an extreme case of consumer market, Korea has also popularized the “Ready to Drink” genre of coffee, in cans or bottles. Today it is impossible to miss the fridge dedicated to coffee in every convenient store.

ice latte
Ice coffee in all its versions is the national drink of Korea

On the other end of this spectrum, local Cafés became a hub for socializing, becoming a “third place” (after home and work) as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg described it. The café in this case creates a community space and therefore its importance lies beyond the quality of the coffee: Service and design play a major role here.

Coffee Shop at the Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum
The coffee shop at the Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum offers a mix of traditional and modern vibes

Here lies the crux of the matter – Café in Korea is no longer judged by the quality of the coffee and the goods it provides, but by the community and ambiance it produces. You go for a coffee with business partners to tell them something about yourself; with friends sharing a similar interest; and with a date you show your good taste. And thus, we see specialized themed cafés: A magic themed café and a teddy bear themed café – both in Hongdea; a shiny French café in Map’o, complete with a hútòng style court, a brand logo that looks like it was fashioned in the 1880s, and croissant that come pre-cut on a plate; and plenty of top notch vegan places. All of them sell community and life style.

Fritz Coffee in Map'o gun
Fritz in Map'o gun offers a unique quiet setting in the middle of a busy district

Some more readings

[1] Neff, Robert. "Sontag Hotel - 'consultation center for diplomatic conspiracies'", The Korea Times, October 6, 2022.

[2] Oldenburg, Ray. “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day”, New York: Paragon House, 1989.

[3] Song, Man-ho. "History of coffee industry in Korea." Food Science and Industry 53, no. 4 (2020): 397-409.

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