An Ocean of Cafés and the Comforting Scent of Coffee: Korean Café Culture

By Tran Trieu

One of the first memories I have of Seoul is walking up this street to the university my friend was attending. The most prominent thing: cafés everywhere. Granted, it was a considerably long street, but at every corner, you'd be able to spot a café. Whether it was small or big, chain cafés or independent ones—they were everywhere. Sometimes even multiple stores of the same chain, such as Starbucks or Ediya!

As someone who comes from a rather small city in Germany, it was highly unusual for me to see so many stores in just one street. I began wondering: why are there so many cafés and what is the secret behind their popularity? Is it the beverages? Or the cozy and homey atmosphere? Or maybe both?

Coffee was first introduced in 1896 by King Gojong (고종) after having enjoyed the beverage in Russia. The first café, then referred to as dabang, was opened in 1902. Back then, coffee was considered something luxurious, something that only the upper class could afford. However, with the introduction of cheap and fast instant coffee and Starbucks in 1999, more and more people began to discover coffee for themselves. Coffee became so popular that Korea is now one of the top consumers of coffee and has a sheer unimaginable number of cafes throughout Korea, 18,000 of them being in Seoul alone.

Though there are so many cafes and coffee shops, not nearly all of them manage to keep up their business. 56% of the ones opened will close within a year, being pressured by the fierce competition. But why does café-bought coffee then remain at the top? Instant coffee is just as popular, being a cheap and fast alternative that you can make yourself at home or even on the go. While instant coffee might have a bad reputation in western countries, Asian instant coffee is far more developed and has undergone many transformations. They now boast many flavors, including many different variations of mochas and lattes. 

It's the atmosphere and space that people are essentially paying for, something that you cannot have with instant coffee. Whether you splurge on a fancy drink or buy a cheap Americano, the café makes up in other services for the price. RoadsAndKingdoms argues that coffee is fast and carefree, and names it as the reason why Koreans drink so much coffee and might treat themselves to an evening in a café. Seoulbeats, however, argues that it is not about the coffee, but rather the comforting atmosphere of a café. "Cafes are essentially social places," they say. In a country where it is normal for people in their mid-twenties to still live at home or have a tiny room (고시원; goshiwon), people would rather spend time in a comfortable and cozy space, such as cafés, in stead of a stifling small home where you might not have as much privacy as you'd like. You make cafes your second home. 

Keep in mind that for Americans or Europeans, cafés are mainly for pastries and coffee or tea. Korean cafés don't necessarily stick to that role. Many are themed cafés that one might not consider as cafés because they don't serve coffee or pastries. They might serve only bottled drinks, for example (that is something you have to do in animal cafés!). Seoulinspired names three types of cafes: chain cafes such as Starbucks, independent cafes, and Korean cafes. 

In Korean cafes, coffee is not the main attraction but rather what the cafe is offering you: whether it be comics or pets. In these cafés, purchasing a beverage is a requirement as the price includes any additional fees. In return, you can spend as much time there as you want. Cafés are very convenient and easily accessible for a lot of people. With multiple stores on just one street, the choice is yours. If one is too overcrowded for your liking, choose another one. Or hop through all of the cafés and find your favorite amongst those. Cafe-hopping is something that I very much enjoyed that is not so widespread in Germany.

Recently, I've visited a friend at work—she works at a small café downtown, one of the very few that actually offer WiFi. I took it as the perfect opportunity to study, enjoy a nice drink and snack while also keeping her company while she had a break. However, sometime after she resumed her work and I was studying alone, a customer came in. He complained about "the person sitting there with their laptop and taking up space in the café." My friend defended me, saying I was just as much of a customer as anyone else. I'd bought a drink and snack, and while I was enjoying those, I just happened to study. Something like that would have never happened in Korea, where cafés are almost seen as an extension of home.

When you don't have enough space in your own home to host guests, you just take the meeting outside. Most cafés are open until late into the night, and some study cafés even 24 hours a day! You can choose your favorite café to meet up or rotate between regular and new ones. Not feeling like just sitting and talking, but you also don't want to splurge too much on going somewhere fancy? Try theme cafés! They're the perfect space to try out new things without the commitment of having to buy something that you're just going to use once. They're also the perfect place to socialize, forget your worries and have some fun!

For many, the interior plays a vital role as they might spend the majority of their time there to study, work, or just enjoy time by themselves or with a date. As long as a café is Instagramable, distance and location play no role. Most will travel wide and far just to be able to take a photo of the incredibly beautiful and thoughtfully-decorated spaces. It's a win-win situation for everyone; cafés get the recognition for their interior design or delicious and beautiful desserts and drinks while customers get to enjoy these spaces and food and also a photo for keepsake. Though, not everyone focuses on just creating Instagramable spaces! For some, events that involve the consumer such as “exhibitions, flea markets, community events, or live music” are much more important.  

This is what makes cafés such an essential part of Korean culture: they represent the perfect place to meet up with friends or a date, have business meetings, study or to try out things at specific theme cafés, such as VR-Gaming or making DIY phone cases. The stores cater to their audience, adjusting to fit their wishes and including them in the experience that they create for them. Through these, you get to know the café, the atmosphere, and people that spend time there. Essentially, it's not the café that comes with the coffee but the other way around—people come for the café and coffee just happens to be a bonus!

Written by Tran Trieu

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