Although Korea’s coffee market has matured in recent years, there are many places capitalizing on the trend but cutting all the corners they can. This is the second post in a four-part series by Steve Ward designed to you how to find the good hole-in-the-wall Korean coffee shops that are dedicated to producing quality coffee.

In writing the next couple rules, I have taken great measures not to go off on various tangents. The reason? There are a lot of misconceptions about both drip coffee and espresso.

Tip #3) Americano is an abomination.

Americano : Coffee :: The Hollywood remake of ‘My Sassy Girl’ : The original ‘My Sassy Girl’

It’s not even because of the name that I say that. As you may already know, Italian espresso aficionados started calling watered down espresso ‘americano’ as a way to make fun of Americans for drinking weak espresso.

Look, if you like Americano, go ahead and keep on enjoying it. I’m not even talking about issues of personal taste here. I’m talking about how it is used in many establishments in Korea as a sort of coffee substitute that allows them to get away with charging outrageous prices, making it way more profitable than having one of those instant mix coffee machines set up by the exit.

As coffee has become trendy in Korea, various businesses have seen coffee as a way to make some easy extra cash. In fact, a friend of mine that was involved in the opening of a restaurant a couple years back told me that they didn’t even have to purchase their own espresso maker. Contracted to serve only a certain brand’s beans, that company supplied the espresso machine. As to who trained the bored high school part timers on how to use this beautifully complex marvel of engineering, who knows.

The point is, any restaurant, Coffee/Wine Bar, bakery calling themselves a cafe, etc, can get a nice espresso maker at relatively low (or no) cost to them and be up and running making extra cash selling Americanos at 4,000 won a pop. Furthermore, these are the places that start putting signs outside saying things like “1,000 won discount for takeout.”

Good business, wretched coffee.

Any sign offering a discount for takeout coffee is pretty much saying “We’d be glad to take some pure profit from you, but don’t need you around dirtying up the place.” It might actually turn out to be a drinkable espresso, but you’re taking your chances.

Tip #4) If it’s a caffeine buzz you’re after, avoid espresso and americano entirely.

It’s worth discussing briefly what exactly espresso is.

Espresso is a type of coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. Espresso is just one method of extracting flavor from coffee beans that happened to have been invented in Italy. In other words, it is not a special type of bean and you cannot make espresso just by buying a pack of espresso roast beans and putting them into your home coffee machine. Also, for the record, espresso is not spelled, nor pronounced, with the letter ‘x’, unless you’re intentionally referring to the Spanish variation of the word rather than the Italian.

Espresso is produced by forcing very hot water through coffee beans under high pressure. This is not something easily done and, in fact, requires high-quality, expensive machinery. I would be extremely skeptical about purchasing the 50,000 won home espresso maker on sale at the neighborhood supermarket. In fact, the level of engineering sophistication required to produce good espresso is even difficult at the 200,000 won price point, although the ‘Handpresso’ Nitrous oxide-powered espresso maker does a decent job.

The point is, most espresso machines worth their salt are well over a thousand bucks (USD). Commercial-grade espresso makers can be well north of that, into the tens of thousands of dollars range, which is why getting your espresso fix at coffee shops, rather than home, is usually preferable. But just having an espresso machine isn’t good enough. It is a complicated piece of machinery and the user needs to know the subtleties of the proper amount of coffee grounds, just the right amount of force to tamp with and the proper cleaning and maintenance of the machine.

It requires training and skill. Are you really sure that the aforementioned high school part timer working the espresso machine at the Mexican restaurant has the proper training? Plus, for those of you looking for a caffeine buzz, an espresso has only about 50-33% of the caffeine of a cup of drip coffee. For all that most places are going to charge you 3-4,000 won for an Americano that really doesn’t have that much caffeine in it and tastes horrible anyway.

Save your money, and head down the street to the convenience store for an energy drink or Green Tea.

Tip #5) That being said, if you’re not just after a caffeine buzz, go ahead and try getting into espresso.

There is a whole lot to appreciate about fine espresso. It may be an acquired taste, but it is well worth it. Give it a try! At the very least, try easing yourself in the direction of espresso by trying a long black. It’s just americano with a little less water.

Espresso is also the base of the various mochas, lattes, frappes, etc, that we have all enjoyed on occasion, in spite of the sugary calorie-bombs that they are. Espresso is the building block of all those drinks, and there’s like two calories in an espresso. At the very least, I’d recommend trying it just to see what it is that your white mocha frappuccino tastes like before it’s drizzled in chocolate syrup, whipped cream, ice cream, and whatever else they put in those things.

In the third part of this series, we’ll get into why roast is important and how that impacts coffee quality.

Don't make mistakes other travelers have made!

Get regular emails with insider tips on how to maximize your visit to Korea. Sign up now!

Tour Tips Newsletter

You have Successfully Subscribed!