Coffee shops line the streets of Myeongdong, one of Seoul's largest and most well-known shopping districts. And besides shopping bags, it is a common sight to see people walk by with coffee cups in their hands.
Unlike other countries, coffee shops in Korea are considered more as meeting places than as take-out coffee suppliers. Customers seek to enjoy not only the coffee itself, but the ambience and the space of the cafe as well.
[Interview : Min Yeong-rong, Customer] "It feels like I drink coffee instead of water these days.
[Interview : PD
] "So you drink a lot of coffee[Interview : Min Yeong-rong, Customer] "Yes, I drink a lot."
[Interview : Song Chan-mi, Customer] "Coffee is a habit. I drink while I'm reading and after I eat."
As coffee became an inseparable part of Seoul life, cafes established themselves as places to even study or to do work.
Coffee imports in 2010 showed a 10% year-on-year increase, totaling an amazing 117,000 tons, or US$420 million. This is about 312 cups of coffee per person each year, an average increase of 59 cups when compared to 4 years ago.
[Interview : Noh Jeong-hyeon, Coffee consumer ] "I drink coffee after I eat, or when I'm tired."
[Interview : Jo Ju-hyeong, Coffee consumer] "Coffee is convenient to drink, and I like the aroma."
[Interview : Kim Jung-su, Coffee consumer] "I think coffee is a medium that facilitates conversation between people."
The number of coffee drinkers in Korea is rapidly increasing, and Korea is now among the top ten coffee consumer nations in the world! However, it has only become popular with the masses about 50 years ago.
There was a time when people boycotted coffee altogether. But these events eventually led to a larger movement to create a unique coffee culture in Korea.
All Koreans know of "dabang coffee," which derives its name from old Korean cafes called "dabang." Dabang coffee was the beginning of instant coffee in Korea, made with the word-of-mouth formula of one spoon of coffee, three spoons of sugar, and two spoons of creamer.
[Interview : PD
] " How did you feel when you first experienced the coffee culture in Korea[Interview : Mark Holguin, Tourist
USA] "I thought the menu was actually larger, more options, and the prices reasonable."
[Interview : Leanne Tahara, Tourist
USA] "Korean coffee is very good. It doesn't have a burnt taste. It tastes smoother than American coffee."
[Interview : Evan Young, Tourist
USA] "I had instant coffee from the vending machine. Very good, very creamy. Nice and sweet. When I first tried Korean coffee, I was happy. It was a different flavor than what I was used to. It was different."
For Kim Min-ji, who works at a fashion promotion agency, coffee is a must-have. There is no better medium for breaking the ice with stylists and other clientele that stream through the doors every day.
[Interview : Kim Min-ji, Employee of a fashion promotion agency] " There are some people who drop by briefly for work. Rather than just having them sit, it is much better for friendly relations and business to give them a cup of coffee and talk."
Some complain that coffee prices are too expensive considering the original cost of production. However, they also acknowledge that coffee is more than a drink.
[Interview : Kim Ji-yeon, Employee of a fashion promotion agency] "I wish that there weren't such a large difference between the original price of coffee and the consumer price, but I consider it a part of the culture, so I try to enjoy it."
For foreigners who are used to espresso and drip coffee, Korean-style instant coffee is a new experience! This kind of coffee can be enjoyed anytime for a few coins at vending machines located all over Seoul. How does it taste[Interview : ] "Ah~"
[Interview : Lee Eun-seon, Coffee consumer] "I think coffee from vending machines is very convenient because it can be drunk anytime and anywhere, and tastes great considering the low price."
Foreigners have jumped onto the vending machine coffee bandwagon. They choose their coffee and take a sip - how will they like it[Interview : David Norton, Tourist
USA] "You need to put one of these in our mall in California, in the U.S., please. What's it called[Interview : Shanna Norton, Tourist
USA] "Coffee from vending machines is a great idea. It's fun, fast, and economical. Starbucks is good, Coffee Bean is good. The lines are really long. This is just as good. It's much faster and much better price."
The most popular form of instant coffee in Korea is coffee stick, with individual servings of coffee, creamer, and sugar packed separately.
[Interview : Supermarket
Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul] " The coffee stick is immensely popular among Koreans and brings in the most revenue at supermarkets and discount stores. And now, Korea has begun exporting coffee despite not being a coffee producer."
[Interview : Lee Meyong-suk, Coffee section salesperson] "Many people prefer instant coffee these days. We have foreigners who come here just to buy the instant coffee. We actually export the instant coffee, ironically. We import coffee beans, make them into instant coffee, then export it. These products are number one in terms of coffee exports."
[Interview : Lee Jong-hui, Coffee magazine reporter] "Coffee has great accessibility and is an acceptable menu no matter who you're talking to and what the conversation is about. There's a leisure to coffee that puts people at ease. This is why cafes became so popular, and why the United States, Japan, and even Europe are watching the Korean coffee market. Those countries know that there is a place for their coffee here, because Korean consumers have such diverse preferences."
Korea's unique coffee culture blends the consumption of instant coffee, espresso, and drip coffee! And coffee's popularity shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.