In Search of the Perfect Cup: Seoul Coffee Culture

My Korean class officially finished last Thursday, and though I’m glad I learned some more of this language I loved, I’m also glad I’m going to get the chance this August to refocus on my writing and explore more of the Korean countryside. I’ve applied to volunteer at a farm through the WWOOF program (Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming) and will have to see if the host accepts me (and if not, for whatever reason, I’ll apply somewhere else). My homestay sister and I also have plans for a couple weekend trips to get away from city life here in Seoul. (Gangwon-do, a northeastern province that has plenty of things to do to cool yourself off during the hot summer months, is at the top of our list!)

In the meantime, I thought I’d take a moment to acknowledge one of the best things that’s happened in South Korea since I first came here ten years ago: the phenomenal rise of Korean coffee culture.

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So much yes. (From the stairwell of my Korean language academy.)

 

Anyone who knows me knows I love coffee. But more importantly than my love of coffee is my love of coffeeshops. They’re great places to work and write. They’re noisy, but not too noisy. There are other people doing work, so I don’t feel like I’m working alone. And they’re places where I can sip on something delicious (and caffeinated) and really get lost in whatever it is I’m doing.

That is, if it’s that kind of coffeeshop. I’ve gone to plenty of coffeeshops where it was just a little too loud, or where everyone was studying except these two people over in the corner so I heard every word they were saying, or where the music was 90s Seattle Grunge and somehow that just didn’t inspire my fiction writing.

When I lived here 10 years ago, I struggled with the lack of good coffeeshops (particularly in the medium-sized city I was in). I was frequently offered coffee after meals, but it was Maxim Gold (the best version of instant available here, which I still have a fondness for–but doesn’t count as “coffee” for me). It came from a little vending machine. It was in a tiny Dixie cup. It wasn’t what I was looking for. Or I would go to cafes, but they were more for couples or giggling troupes of teenage girls than for hours of solo studying or writing. “You go to coffeeshops alone?” a Korean friend asked me once, in surprise. Aloneness, quietness, dark roast–these were not things cafes were about at the time. Not in Yeosu, at least.

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Cafe near Yeongdeungpo, which I was told is the newest “arts area” in Seoul, since gentrification is pushing folks out of Hapjeong.

Fast forward 10 years, and everything has changed. Everyone drinks coffee. People get barista certifications just for fun. I discuss with my homestay brother in Yeosu not only our mutual love of coffee but also the intricacies of the flavor palate that we like best. I’m almost out of my league here.

So, these days, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Seoul’s coffeeshops for several reasons.

  1. I love coffee. And coffee here is good.
  2. If I don’t drink coffee, I kind of walk through the world like a zombie. I tested this last weekend when I was in Yeosu with my homestay family. We went to the beach on the remote island of Dolsan (where my homestay family lives), and since the rest of my family aren’t coffee-drinkers, I went without that morning. About halfway through our beach day, my homestay aunt was like, “I haven’t heard Alexis’s voice in a long time.” Indeed, I was staring into space, wondering at the cloud around me that was preventing me from processing Korean and producing it. Then, my homestay aunt bought me some disgusting dabang coffee (weak, overly sweet, instant-style coffee that used to be served in Korean “tea rooms,” one of the earlier versions of cafes in Korea). We all agreed it wasn’t good, and even though it wasn’t good, I still drank it and everything was beautiful and bright and clear again.
  3. It’s hot. I live in a rooftop apartment (a little apartment on top of a three-story apartment building). We don’t have air conditioning. Coffeeshops do. They also have iced coffee. Everybody wins.
  4. They’re great places to write and study. When I was an undergrad, I wrote my entire Honors College senior thesis in Cool Beans, staying there most nights until they closed. In grad school, I studied constantly at drip and Immaculate Consumption. It just works for me. And when I couldn’t make it to a coffeeshop, I’d turn on coffivity while I wrote/worked.

The thing is, Seoul is not lacking in coffee options. You could walk down one street and run into three different coffeeshops before you hit the next block. Especially in the Hapjeong, Sangsu, and Hongdae areas (off of subway lines 2 and 6), Korea’s coffee game is in its prime. You can get single-sourced coffee from destinations all over the world. You can get fancy espresso concoctions that you’d never even dreamed of. You can hang out with cats and dogs at cat/dog cafes. Korea takes coffee seriously.

But as much as I love a good cup of Joe (and turn my nose up at the instant stuff, except for Maxim Gold), what I’m most interested in is that delicate balance of atmosphere, quality, and price. I’m a traveler on a budget who’s also a writer and intends to stay in said coffeeshop potentially for hours. So, with my countless days on the hunt for the perfect place to write and caffeinate, I’d like to offer up some of my findings to those who might be interested. There are plenty more wonderful coffeeshops in Seoul. These are just a handful that I have tested out for all my fellow coffee lovers/writers/remote workers out there.

Bean Brothers / 빈브라더스

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Bean Brothers, Hapjeong

There are seven Bean Brothers cafes in South Korea and one in Malaysia. I’ve only made it to two so far in Seoul (one in Hapjeong and the other in Gangnam) and might check out the cafe in Sindorim later, as that’s right along the subway line by my apartment. But let’s talk about the two I’ve gone to.

The main draw of the Bean Brothers cafe is the refills. You pay ₩6,000-7,000 ($6-7, depending on the location) for your first drink of choice off of their menu, including espresso drinks, cold brew options, and a selection of in-house roasted drip coffees. After that, you can get refills of any of their (delicious) drip coffees for free (iced or hot).

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From the Bean Brothers website
Even for folks back home, that might seem like a cool deal, but for coffee-lovers in Seoul, it’s amazing. Coffee here is expensive, and in many cafes, drip coffee or a simple Americano will run you ₩5,000 (about $5)–and that’s the cheapest thing on the menu. Add to that that20160720_154033 iced coffees are usually more expensive than hot ones, etc., coffee costs can add up.

So, if you’re planning to hang out in a coffeeshop all day, this is the place for you. Additionally, there are plenty of plugs and a bunch of table options (big/small, window view, elevated, bar-style, etc.), depending on your studying/working needs. Both the Hapjeong and the Gangnam locations are full of worker bees, and the background music is there but usually not too loud (and often pretty chill).

Plus, whenever you order their drip coffee, you get a “tasting notes” card. I recommend Black Suit, for obvious reasons (I mean, mostly because I like dark roast, but I also like the bowtie).

  • Locations and Hours
    • Hapjeong (35-1 Tojeong-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul), 11am-11pm
    • Gangnam (Yeoksam-dong 819-1, Gangnam-gu, 2nd Fl.), 9am-10:30pm
  • Cost
    • ₩6,000 at the Hapjeong location and ₩7,000 at Gangnam ($6 and $7, respectively) plus free refills on drip coffee

Cafe Namusairo / 나무사이로

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Atrium/outdoor seating at Cafe Namusairo

 

The thing I love best about Cafe Namusairo is that it’s quiet. It’s tucked away in a little corner of the world, a short walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace (and subway stop), and is really the kind of place that you go to because you’re looking for it. After being overwhelmed by too-noisy, big coffeeshops or chains that played K-Pop music too loud, this was just the space I needed to get my head together and get to work.

It’s relatively small but has both indoor and outdoor seating as well as private rooms with big tables for work meetings. I kept feeling like I was finding secret rooms tucked away everywhere. The main interior seating probably has 7 smallish tables (one that seats 6) and bar-style tables up against the huge windows that seat 4-6 total. Plus, its large windows let in lots of natural light and make the cafe feel more spacious than it is.

The two times I’ve gone, the music selection has been so perfect for studying/writing (jazz, or chill indie, etc.) that I didn’t even need my own playlist. Most people there were also studying/writing/working, so the volume level was low.

Additionally, there are a proliferation of plugs (it seemed like one per seat for the interior seating), and for my fellow gender non-conforming (and trans) travelers, the bathroom is unisex single-stall, which is an added bonus.

So, if you want a quiet space to escape from the busyness of Seoul, come here.

Check out this review by The Coffee Chaser for more pictures and info.

  • Location and Hours
    • 21 Sajik-ro 8 gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
    • 10am-10pm
    • Gyeongbukgong Station, Line 3, Exit 7
    • Directions/map from their website here
  • Cost
    • ₩5,000-7,000 for standard espresso/drip coffee drinks, but there’s also a ₩20,000 single-origin drip coffee, if that’s the kind of person you are

Cafe Comma / 카페 꼼마

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This is what a book cafe looks like.

Cafe Comma is easy to get to (out Hongdae Station, exit 3, just on your left), but that’s not the biggest reason to come here. The biggest reason is the books. Owned by one of the largest publishers in Korea, Cafe Comma is what’s known as a “book cafe,” and the shelves and shelves of books are there to prove it. Sure, most (if not all) of the them are in Korean, but that doesn’t mean the literary inspiration won’t seep into your bones.

It’s also just a lovely environment to work in. It’s got high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that let the light stream in throughout the day and give you the perfect people-watching spot, day or night. There’s tons of seating and a lot of space for folks coming here alone, including a row of study cubbies/desks. Music is low-key, and when I was there, most everyone was studying or working, so it made for a great (and quiet) writing spot. Bathrooms aren’t gender-neutral, but there is one accessible bathroom that’s single-stall.

Coffee starts in the ₩5,000-7,000 (about $5-7), and they also have pastries, teas, and other goodies. And plenty of plugs to charge your stuff!

  • Location and Hours
    • 192-42 Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
    • 11am-12am
    • Hongdae Station, Line 2, Airport Railroad, Gyeongui-seon Line, Exit 3
  • Cost
    • ₩5,000-8,000 for standard coffee and espresso drinks

Takeout Drawing

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Takeout Drawing is part art-space, part cafe, all goodness. Located in Itaewon, this coffeshop wraps you up in creativity and welcomes you to take part in it. I felt particularly good about this space for a few reasons:

  1. It was super quiet (I don’t even think there was background music).
  2. They have good-sized tables with easy access to plugs.
  3. It had socially conscious art and books all over the place.

I felt creative and empowered just sitting there. So I sat there for hours. Two days in a row.

I got an iced cappuccino for ₩6,000 or so. Drinks tend to be a little on the pricey side, but they also have really interesting concoctions, if you want to try something new, and a bunch of non-coffee drinks, too. Check out their menu (in English and Korean) here.

Also, they’re not gender-neutral, but the bathrooms they have are single-stall, which is useful when I get tired of folks telling me I’m in the wrong bathroom (which has been happening a lot lately).

  • Cost
    • ₩6,000-9,000ish for standard espresso and coffee drinks, and there are a bunch of fancy options, too

 

So, that pretty much sums up my coffee life. But you know, if you’re just looking for a quick caffeine fix for a good price (we are desperate sometimes, and coffee costs add up here), get something to-go from Paik’s Coffee (also known as Paik’s Dabang). It’s not really dabang coffee (and it isn’t too bad, really, if you just want to get caffeinated), and they’re everywhere. Plus, at ₩3,000 for a large iced latte, it’ll get you through your morning Korean class or morning meeting or whatever else you have to do (until you can overcaffeinate at the Bean Brothers in the afternoon… not that I’ve done this).

Happy coffee-drinking!

 

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2 thoughts on “In Search of the Perfect Cup: Seoul Coffee Culture

  1. This is some great information for coffee shops! The atmosphere of the right kind of place is so comforting; the aroma, the sounds, all of it. You have some nice pictures of the cafes in this post too!

    Like

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