Our Head of Asia, Grant Rattray reflects on a trip to Asia’s fastest-growing coffee hotspot, Korea.
In the country that brought us the hit TV show – ‘The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince’ – it’s no surprise that the fascination for all things coffee shows little sign of abating. The first impression of Seoul and other major Korean cities is a downtown that is dominated by many large national coffee chains including Caffè Bene, A Twosome Place, Hollys Coffee, Ediya Coffee, Angel-in-us and Tom n’ Toms as well as international brands such as Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Caffè Pascucci and of course Starbucks.…it’s a busy marketplace.
But step off the huge central thoroughfares of the capital into the neighbourhoods such as Sinsa-dong and Insa-dong and you’ll soon find a great many small shop roasters all working independently and with their own unique style. They by-word here, not surprisingly, is quality. Some have developed into well-established and highly diverse businesses that often feature in-house roasting and high quality baked goods. The most popular extend over several floors and remain busy until midnight. They also feature training facilities for staff and often an educational element for customers. It’s this self-sufficiency that is perhaps the difference between these more mature and integrated businesses and the the ‘cookie cutter’ third wave coffee shops (name brand espresso machine and grinder, fashionable specialty roasted beans) of many major Western cities.
Korea is a small but densely populated nation and you’ll find great coffee countrywide from Seoul in the west to Gangneung in the east and south to Daegu and the port of Busan. Great coffee is no longer the preserve of the country’s urbanites.
Korean roasters and retailers are equipping themselves very quickly with the skills to compete in an ever more crowded marketplace with huge participation in the new SCAE courses, Q grader training, Cup of Excellence juries and the many additional courses offered at the growing number of independent coffee schools.
But don’t think the ‘big boys’ aren’t also investing in the most up to date training. Quality in the mainstream is getting better and the chains are about much more than the brand and their portfolio of real estate. Their attention is now turning to the middle ground – the opportunity to bring specialty coffee to a mass audience. This is great news as this new departure should place high quality coffee in front of consumers who perhaps have get to get the bug.
Koreans are also innovating in machinery. As well as the usual array of international names, a new espresso machine from Vidastech is firing the imagination of the baristas with its striking styling and high tech approach to delivering optimal espresso. And when it comes to roasting the Koreans are also doing their own thing very successfully and small roasters from national manufacturer, Proaster, are visible in many shops.
In a climate of temperature extremes – the countryside from Seoul all the way to the city port of Busan, 3 hours to the south was blanketed in the first snow fall of the winter – customers enjoy a range of espresso based drinks, single serve pour overs known as ‘hand drip’ and also cold extraction coffee. This last presentation is brewed overnight in many leading coffee shops and marketed for home consumption. Kept in the refrigerator it’s good for 2-3 weeks and when mixed approximately 1 part extract to 4 parts water – hot or cold – you’ve got ready-brewed coffee.
The leading roasters have the skills and the momentum to source much of their coffee direct. The smaller guys may follow the lead of the larger vanguard roasters or club together into buying groups to give them more sway with producers and exporters at origin while also, critically, sharing the costs of shipping. Specialty importers continue to provide an important alternative to direct sourcing – as well as added security and peace of mind – by supplying a wide variety of green coffee on assorted pallet orders to smaller roasters not seduced by the direct trade model.
Looking ahead to 2014, the coffee-fuelled Korean market looks set to continue growing and pushing quality boundaries and could well lay claim to being the most exciting and innovative anywhere in the world.