Episode #33: The History of Coffee in Korea

2013-11-27

Episode #33: The History of Coffee in Korea

When I went to China for vacation, I found it extremely difficult to find a decent cup of coffee in “The Middle Kingdom.” It made sense, since China was--and continues to be--a tea-dominated society.

I have nothing against tea, but sometimes only a cup of coffee will do.
In Korea, you will not find a lack of coffee shops. You’ll find cafes on every corner, on the streets, and even in the smallest nooks. And if you are in need of more of an instantaneous caffeine fix there are numerous coffee machines dispensing sweet milky instant coffee.
Korea is now very much a coffee society, but how did that happen? Prior to the turn of the 20th century, Korea was basically a tea-based culture.

According to Professor Jia Choi of Ewha University, the popularity of coffee comes from a mix of different influences. One of the main influences was from Emperor Sunjong of Korea. Emperor Sunjong was the last king of Korea and he would often have western style dinner parties at the palace. They would have western-style plate and silverware settings. He would serve food such as steak and potatoes or roast beef. They even sat in western-style chairs and were served on western-style tables. I know that you might think this might sound like a moot point, but before Emperor Sunjong every meal was served on the floor and tables piled with food were brought before the king. So back in the 1920s, a western-style dinner was quite revolutionary.

And after dinner, the Emperor and his father, Emperor Gojong would drink coffee. They were passionate for the drink and other members of nobility would join them as well. The idea of drinking a hot black drink while sitting on chairs instead of the floor was a new concept to Koreans. And since the king represented the idea of nobility and style, the common people started to drink coffee as well if they could get it.

The Japanese found about the king’s affection for this drink and there was even a plot to kill the king by poisoning his coffee. Luckily, the plot was uncovered and the King wasn't killed.
That might explain why coffee is synonymous with being a luxury drink in Korea, but Professor Choi has another theory: it matches the Korean taste. She believes that Koreans really like bitter and strong tastes like chili and kimchi. I agree with her because I have found many great coffee shops selling dark, robust coffees these days. I see many Koreans preferring black to coffee with cream and sugar.

More and more shops in Korea are roasting their coffee. Some of these shops are starting to produce some of the best coffee in the world. The area of Hongdae is a great example of this where there are many shops roasting top quality coffee. The baristas are also becoming famous for their latte art. Some will paint amazing pictures of faces, trees, flowers and more.
Coffee has come a long way in Korea. Come here and enjoy a fine, world class cup.

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