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Haps Picks: As Korea Seeks to Reign in Coffee Shop Chains Indie Cafes Flourish

BUSAN, South Korea — South Korea’s cities are overrun with cafés. According to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, the number of coffee shops here jumped from about 6,000 in 2008 to 9,400 in 2011. Other studies put the number as high as 17,000 in Seoul alone. There are so many coffee shops in the South Korean capital that the Fair Trade Commission set a limit on the distance between new coffeehouse chains to at least 500 meters.

In addition to Starbucks, which is run by Shinsegae, 40 percent of the nation’s cafés are run by the top five Korean brands—Caffe Bene, Hollys Coffee, Ediya Coffee, Angel-in-us and Tom n’ Toms.

A common complaint amongst both expats and an increasing number of Koreans is that chain coffee is cheaply roasted, weak in strength and lacking in taste. This is driving Korea’s coffeeholics to seek out better alternatives in smaller roasting companies and independent cafés.

I started drinking three to four cups of coffee a day when I started working for a company, so I started to drink at franchise coffee shops like Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Angel-in-us and Twosome Place, says Jay Song, a professor at Busan University of Foreign studies. Then I thought, if I was going to drink coffee, I would rather drink a good one, so I started looking for good cafés.

Song became so interested in finding good coffee that she signed up for classes about the world’s favorite bean and eventually opened her own shop, My Table All Day Café in Marine City, where she now teaches people about the difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad one.

Roh Eun-ji, manager and roaster at Fresh Cups in Haeundae has been in the coffee industry for seven years. She quit working at chain stores to join an independent shop where she could choose her own beans and roast them for a higher-quality taste. Like Song, she believes that as Koreans learn more about finely-crafted coffee, fewer will support the big chains for their fix.

They need to learn how to distinguish fine coffee from others, says Roh. For Koreans to be able to consume better coffee, the role of cafés is important to change their awareness of quality coffee.

As far as the low-quality coffee served up by the major chains, Roh’s assessment is that their priorities are misplaced.

From my experience working at the franchise coffee shops, I know that every franchise shop doesn’t have the same quality of coffee. That means people come up with ideas for interior design or advertisements rather than the taste of the coffee.

Considering that last year 63 percent of the coffee consumed in Korea was dispersed from a powdery packet, it will take time for a stampede to rush towards indie coffee shops. Even Jay Song has her doubts.

The simple fact is that price is, sometimes, more important than taste. Some people will view coffee just as coffee and not as ‘culture,’ or care about the perfect blend, she says. I think it is difficult to expect that there will definitely be a high-end coffee culture forming in Korea.’

Good Picks for Great Coffee in Busan

Cafe Momos (Oncheonjang)

Just outside exit 2 of the subway station, Cafe Momos is ranked as the founder of fine coffee in Korea. You can taste freshly roasted coffee from various regions, as well as dig on some great home-baked goods, all in one funky multi-level spot. 051-512-7034

My Table All Day Café (Marine City)

Jay Song judiciously picks her beans, but has an affinity for Guatemalan beans. She also features her own Dutch coffees as well as an excellent selection of organic homemade foods and goodies to enjoy with your cup of joe. 051-744-8989

Fresh Cups (Haeundae)

Right outside exit 5 of the Jung-dong station in Haeundae, Fresh Cups roasts their own beans in-house and makes arguably the best café frappe in the world. Check out the tasty blueberry chicken salad sandwich and an awesome crème brûlée. 051-747-3560

In Earth Coffee (Songjeong Beach)

Along with roasting their own coffee, In Earth Coffee also serves a variety of tasty pastries that they bake twice daily in their own kitchen. It also ranks as one of the top indie coffee shops in Korea and is a sure spot for a consistent cup of quality brew. 051-703-7666

Blackup Coffee Factory (Seomyeon and Nampo)

With their slogan Rebuilding Coffee Culture, Blackup Coffee Factory runs two shops in Busan. You can enjoy coffee and many different kinds of desserts in their shops, which are stylized with a very hip and contemporary aesthetic. 070-4248-4952

Adagio (Haeundae)

One of the oldest roasters in town, Adagio is behind the large department store just outside Jangsan station exit 4 and has been roasting fresh beans since 2001. You pick the beans and Kim Young-han roasts it up for you right away. 1544-1895

Translation by Junnie Ahn and Kim So-yeon

Jay Song contributed to research for this article.



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