Thursday, January 12, 2006

New Insights into Korean Coffee Culture

I enjoy commenting on several aspects of Korean society--autos, psychographics, and coffee consumption--to name a few.
This is a great article on Korean coffee shops.

By Kim Hyun-cheol
Staff Reporter, Korea Times

As a coffee lover, one of my biggest complaints about living in Seoul is that it's quite hard to find a nice coffee place in this megalopolis. To go to a really nice cafe is just like a cult for its esoteric lovers.

Almost all the cafes, seen on practically every corner, are those serving bland and characterless one or branches of import franchise tycoons selling the image without a drop of the original's qualification.

I don't mean to say I'm one of those bashers of brands like Starbucks or Coffee Bean. Actually I'm not. But it's also undeniable the quality of the coffee served there is astonishingly uneven in different branches and inconsistent even at the same shop.

Additionally, I have serious doubts about the quality of their beans used here. Coffee beans are so sensitive they start to deteriorate about a week after being roasted, and it's hard to believe their products in Korea are made of beans as fresh as what they use back in the States.

But after all the grief, I feel like I've come across a serendipitous experience upon finding this small coffee house, Coffee Chingu (Coffee Friend), seated quietly in a corner of the chaotic Chongno area.[ Chongno is in downtown Seoul]

The cafe faces a big street but you won't be able to spot it unless you pay close attention, and as you can easily find several other coffee places around, including Starbucks just a few shops away. It doesn't take long, however, before you find something different about the place once you see a roasting machine decorating its front window.

You'll get the same impression once inside. Sitting at the bar, you will see rows of jars on a shelf in the wall, with each of them full of coffee beans just like secret herbs stocked in an oriental clinic.

Instead of the usual coffee frills like white chocolate mocha or frappuccino, the first page of the menu is taken by some more authentic straight coffees, named after where the beans originate _ from Brazil and Guatemala to Ethiopia and Kenya, and even to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Brazilian or Costa Rican blends are good when in need of light refresher, and go for a Kenyan or Ethiopian when in the mood for a strong, rich coffee. Each of the kinds is full of different characters both in taste and aroma.

It is something else to watch how your order is worked through. With the order, the middle-aged owner of the place starts to grind the beans right away and drips hot water onto the coffee ground with the skill of a meticulous craftsman. He does it so seriously that watching him might even stop your breath for a bit.

One thing I strongly recommend is Dutch coffee (5,000 won= about $5 US). This unusual item, unlike other coffees, is extracted with cold water for some 8-10 hours, and is served cold too.

Surprisingly, it has a body like a mature wine. Thus, the best way to enjoy it is to have it in the same way as in wine _ take one sip, roll it in the mouth and swallow.

After enjoying the taste, something like the essence of coffee, the real thing about it comes after it's gone past the throat, since you'll find a deep and rich flavor lingering without any unpleasant aftertaste. Bottled Dutch coffee is also available to take out (15,000 won).

Espresso and its variations are also recommendable, living up to the good impression of the place. Dopio (3,500 won), double-sized espresso, had the biggest amount I've ever tried in Seoul.

The prices are very reasonable to make it a double pleasure. All the items start from 3,000 won (espresso) [$3 US ] and don't exceed 5,000 won [$5 US] in any kind. I haven't tried any non-coffee items yet. The lemon tea (4,000 won) was homemade when I saw it served.

You don't need to be a coffee aficionado to be a fan of the place. Just keep your senses open and enjoy what comes to them, and you'll surely feel the difference, taking one step to a different world _ a freshening and heart-warming world of coffee.

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