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Korea’s Café Culture

Despite being relatively comparable with other countries’ café cultures, Korea has seen a meteoric rise in its homegrown coffee industry, overhauling a previously missable experience with its now-prevalent array of unique cafés boasting high-quality coffee.

According to the city’s data, Seoul – Korea’s glimmering and ever-growing capital – has over 17, 000 cafés catering to the city’s ten million residents, meaning there are at least seventeen cafés per ten thousand people.

Like the majority of trends, Korea’s café culture began with Korean youths. Prior to the 1970s, cafés or dabang (다방), as they were previously referred to, were mostly frequented by politicians who used these places to host political meetings.

Fun Fact: Other names for cafés include da-shil (다실) and chat-jib (찻집), both of which refer to tea-houses or places where tea is served.

However, as the eras changed – so did the customers. The politicians were quickly replaced with clusters of trendy couples and university students who would use these dabang as places of refuge, where they could escape the everyday stresses of life and vent their thoughts, expressing themselves freely whilst listening to live music.

©Photo by Nani Williams, 25.03.2019, unsplash.com

By the 80s and 90s, vending machine coffees began appearing both in universities as well as offices, which put pressure on dabang around the major cities.

To prevent themselves from losing their clientele to the cheaper and readily available vending machine coffees, dabang shut their doors and later reemerged as themed cafés that provided everything from traditional coffees and teas to sodas and snacks, as well as fresh and relaxing atmospheres – something their mechanical competitors couldn’t provide.

These themed cafés are now a part of what makes Korea a unique and exciting place for travellers and residents alike. Seoul alone is home to hundreds upon hundreds of cafés whose themes cover massages, skincare products, K-Pop idols, lego, comic characters, K-Dramas and animals – which include cats, sheep, raccoons and even meerkats.

©Photo by Manki Kim, 24.03.2019, unsplash.com

From the 90’s onward, Korean cafés began taking coffee more seriously by branching out and finding new methods of making coffee – such as espresso-based drinks, coffee roasters, drip brewing and importing unique blends from all around the world, including Latin America, India and Africa.

In recent years, South Korea’s coffee culture has gone from a relatively small market to a thriving industry with the majority of the adult population drinking at least 1 and a half cups of coffee a day, rounding up to roughly 42 cups a month and 512 cups per year*.

As a result of this upsurge, cafés and the booming coffee trade have come to play a vital role in both South Korea’s economy and tourist trade, and in the everyday lives of residents; many of whom are now employed by the industry.

©Laptop by Bundo Kim, 24.03.2019, unsplash.com

Much like the dabangs of the 70’s, Korean cafés are little sanctuaries peppered across bustling cities where students, office workers, friends, couples and tourists alike can come and relax in these bustling social networking hubs where the worlds of industry and personal life can be found entwined and indistinguishable from one another.

In a previous IMK article on the rising trend of ‘Sokhwakhaeng, or ‘Small but Certain Happiness’, we discussed how, for many youths in Korea, even a simple cup of coffee can bring them little bits of happiness during their day – such is the significance of Korea’s café culture, and how it is now an integral part of Korean life.

©함흥커피 Busan by rawkkim, 25.03.2019, unsplash.com

As independent coffee roasting houses and unique cafés continue to surface throughout South Korea – be it in shimmering high-rises jutting upward in the trendy districts of Seoul, or nestled within an unassuming house in Busan, or tucked away in the crevices and the quiet side streets of Daejeon – Korea’s café culture continues to grow and thrive in a society where cafés are scattered oases and coffee is more than just a drink – it’s happiness in a cup.

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Want to read more about Korea’s unique cafés? Check out our article on Seoul’s Insta-Worthy Cafés. Or if you’d like to discover what other sights and experiences Korea has to offer, explore our Travel section.

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*Statistics and data taken from World Coffee Portal

Feature Image Source: ©당신의계절 by rawkkim, 24.03.2019, unsplash.com

Claudia Deborah (이보라)

Book-dealer by day—writer by night. Instant coffee, Thai food and trot music get me through the day. 나 생명은 조금 심심하고 단순하지만 나 인생은 한 번이야. 그래서 저는 단순한 일상에 감사함을 느껴.

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