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 first post in a four-part series by Steve Ward designed to teach you how to find the good hole-in-the-wall Korean coffee shops that are dedicated to producing quality coffee.

Imagine this Situation: You’re on a lunch date and it’s going very well. After finishing up at the restaurant, your date agrees to continue the conversation over a cup of coffee. You walk onto a street where you see two mom-and-pop coffee shops across the street from each other and a Starbucks a ways down the road. What do you do?

I’m going to help you answer that question. My intention in this series is to arm you with the knowledge to identify certain warning signs that you might not be getting the best bang for your buck at a given cafe. These ten tips are warning signs. Think of them like the infamous ‘Brown M&M’ clause Van Halen always put in their tour contracts; each tip is really just a signifier of the attention to detail that a cafe puts into its craft. If they cut corners in just one of these very visible areas, they will probably cut corners in other, if not all, areas.

Additionally, you can think of this series of posts as a sort of ‘starter guide’ to coffee appreciation, much the same way as you might take a wine tasting class if you wanted to learn a little bit more about wine.

I am not the first person to have blogged about the Korean coffee scene. In fact, other bloggers have been doing a great job. Korea’s history with coffee has been covered by The Marmot’s Hole, and if you’re looking for the cream of the cup, so to speak, you can head over to FRSHGRND and check out the places he explored (it’s slightly out of date since he moved away, but his google map may still be the best way to locate a good coffee shop near you, if you’re in Seoul.). Kiss my Kimchi has reported on some nice ones, and of course Eat Your Kimchi is in the fray as well, beating everyone else by making a segment on Arirang TV about it.

I myself have learned about some fantastic coffee shops from the above. However, there is a gap in the existing body of work, so to speak, about the Korean coffee scene: How do you seperate the real deal from the imposters? How can you know at a glance which, if any, of the three coffee shops right next to each other will be any good?

It was a random walk through the fabled Land of Oz Garosugil when I knew I HAD to write this.

I ended up in the area with time to kill, so I hadn’t had a chance to do my due diligence on the reputable coffee shops and was on my own. Exploring the back alleys of the neighborhood and was drawn in by a sign advertising hand-drip coffee made from premium Jamaican Blue Mountain beans for a ridiculously low price. I assumed it must be some limited time promotion to get new customers to this trendy-looking new cafe. But no, actually, the “premium” beans they were serving were robusta.

Tip #1) if you see the word ‘Robusta’, give the place a pass. Luckily, this occurrence should be pretty rare. In fact, I’m surprised I even need to mention it at all, but apparently I do.

It’s true that, according to the intertubes (specifically Wikipedia), Robusta beans make up about 20% of the world’s coffee trade, but the vast majority of these end up in instant coffee or as cheap filler beans in some proprietary blends. They have more caffeine, but that is to the detriment of the taste. Anyone proudly advertising their premium robusta beans fully deserves to go out of business, which they inevitably will.

I might welcome robusta in the high octane QuikTrip brand coffee at 3am on a drive across Kansas, but it is unacceptable if I’m paying more than 1,000 won and have any expectation of actually enjoying it.

Tip #2) If you’re looking for a good cup of coffee rather than just a cheap caffeine boost, avoid any place that is a coffee shop + something else (ie, Beer/wine + Coffee, Bakery and coffee, Pasta and espresso, etc, etc, etc).

I’m going to be bold and say that the plain old regular coffee I make at home is better than 90% of the coffee shops in Korea. That does not necessarily mean that if I opened my own coffee shop, that I could maintain that statement. The reason is that it takes me a good 15-20 minutes to make that cup of coffee. If I owned a coffee shop, that would give me time to serve 3-4 customers per hour. I would be exhausted by the end of that hour. How many customers per hour do you think your typical Caffe Bene sees?

Making a good cup of coffee takes time and dedication; art, if you will. It just isn’t economical for a place devoted to serving quality coffee to also have to deal with the hassle of setting up beer taps, uncorking wine bottles and checking whatever red bean/donut hybrid is cooking in the oven. A coffee shop that tries to be more than a coffee shop is spreading itself too thin.

Most people haven’t had the chance to try quality coffee. Even most coffee lovers out there take it for granted as a bitter drink to be diluted with milk and sugar. Or, in Korea’s case, coffee is associated with those little packets of sugar and creamer with a sprinkling of instant coffee on top. The ‘Bakery Cafe’ and ‘Hof and Coffee’ take advantage of this fact. It’s not necessarily an intentional deception. In fact, they may not know the difference themselves. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter to their bottom line because people don’t know any better… or just don’t care.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series, in which we will learn what exactly espresso and americano are. In the mean time, if you’re a fellow fan of the bean, go ahead and mark your calendars now for the Coffee Expo Seoul 2012 at COEX April 26-29th (I have no connection with the expo whatsoever, I’m just a fan).

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