Korean Coffee Culture: From Tradition To Modernity

Korean coffee culture

The evolution of coffee culture in Korea is a fascinating story of change, reflecting the country’s dynamic history and shifting social landscape [2]. From its introduction during the Korean Empire to its ubiquity in modern-day life, coffee has woven itself into Korean society.

The seeds of this coffee revolution were sown in the late 19th century when Emperor Gojong first tasted the beverage [3]. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, with the rise of dabangs (traditional coffee houses) and the influx of instant coffee during the Korean War, that coffee began to permeate everyday life [4].

The economic boom of the late 20th century further fuelled the coffee craze and led to the proliferation of modern cafés and the emergence of a distinct Korean café culture. Today, coffee is more than just a drink in Korea; it’s a social ritual, a symbol of status.

History of Korean Coffee Culture

The history of coffee in Korea is a story of gradual adoption and adaptation, characterised by distinct phases. In the early 1900s, coffee was a luxury item enjoyed primarily by the wealthy in exclusive dabangs (tea houses). These establishments served as social meeting places for the elite and symbolised modernity and Western influence.

The Korean War (1950-1953), introduced instant coffee to the masses, thanks to American soldiers. Its convenience and affordability quickly made it a household staple, democratizing coffee consumption across the country.

In 1976, Dongsuh Foods launched the first Korean instant coffee mix, cementing instant coffees’ place in Korean culture [6]. This shift towards instant coffee not only made coffee more accessible, but also paved the way for the rise of café culture.

The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of ‘music dabangs,’ where young people gathered to listen to music and drink coffee, further solidifying coffee’s place in Korean culture. With increasing disposable income in the late 1980s, Koreans began seeking out spaces to enjoy their coffee outside of their homes.

This led to the emergence of full-scale cafes, offering a more sophisticated and social coffee experience. These cafes quickly became cultural hubs, where people gathered to socialise, relax, and enjoy a variety of coffee drinks. The introduction of international coffee chains like Starbucks in the late 1990s further accelerated the growth of café culture in Korea.

Today, coffee is an integral part of Korean life, with a diverse range of options available, from traditional hand-dripped coffee to elaborate espresso-based creations [7]. The history of coffee in Korea is a testament to the country’s ability to embrace and adapt global trends while maintaining its unique cultural identity.

The Emergence of Speciality Coffee

In recent years, speciality coffee has taken South Korea by storm, captivating coffee enthusiasts with its emphasis on quality, craftsmanship, and unique flavour profiles [8]. Korean baristas have received international recognition for their skill and innovation, contributing significantly to the global coffee scene [10].

The “Korea Speciality Coffee Guide,” available in English, showcases 82 cafes across Seoul, Busan, and Jeju, each offering a distinct coffee experience [11]. These cafes prioritize single-origin beans, meticulous brewing methods, and latte art that rivals the best in the world.

Korean baristas have also made their mark in international competitions, showcasing their expertise and creativity. Their dedication to quality and innovation has helped to elevate the standards of speciality coffee in South Korea and beyond.

The growing demand for high-quality coffee experiences has fuelled the growth of the specialty coffee market in South Korea. Consumers are increasingly seeking out unique and flavourful coffees, and cafés are responding with innovative brewing methods, diverse bean selections, and educational workshops.

The emergence of speciality coffee in South Korea represents a shift towards a more discerning and sophisticated coffee culture. It’s a testament to the country’s passion for coffee and its commitment to pushing the boundaries of flavour and craftsmanship.

Exploring the Diversity of Korean Cafés

Korean cafes offer a diverse range of experiences, catering to a wide array of tastes and preferences [9]. From traditional tea houses steeped in history to modern themed cafes that transport you to another world, there’s a cafe for everyone in Korea.


Dabangs, the original Korean coffee houses, offer a glimpse into the past. These establishments, often housed in historic buildings, exude a nostalgic charm with their wooden interiors, antique furniture, and traditional Korean decor. Dabangs typically serve a variety of teas, traditional Korean snacks, and coffee brewed using time-honoured methods.

Modern Cafés

Modern Korean cafes are a testament to the country’s innovative spirit and love for design. These cafes often feature sleek, minimalist interiors, cutting-edge technology, and experimental coffee drinks. Many modern cafes also double as art galleries, bookstores, or co-working spaces, providing a multifunctional space for customers to work, relax, and socialise.

Themed Cafés

Themed cafes are a unique and popular aspect of Korean café culture. These cafes transport customers to different worlds, from the whimsical world of cartoon characters to the cozy comfort of a cat café. Some popular themes include:

Animal Cafés: Cat cafes, dog cafes, and even raccoon cafes offer the opportunity to interact with animals while enjoying a cup of coffee [12].

Character Cafés: Cafés dedicated to popular characters like Hello Kitty or Line Friends offer themed drinks, desserts, and merchandise.

Board Game Cafés: These cafes provide a space for friends to gather and play board games while enjoying snacks and drinks.

Book Cafés: Book cafes offer a quiet and cozy atmosphere for reading, often with a curated selection of books available for purchase or borrowing.

The diversity of Korean cafes reflects the country’s vibrant and ever-evolving culture. Whether you’re seeking a traditional experience, a modern ambiance, or a themed adventure, you’re sure to find a cafe that suits your taste in Korea.

The Influx of International Coffee Chains

The arrival of international coffee chains like Blue Bottle in 2019 marked a significant shift in the Korean coffee landscape. These global brands brought with them not only their signature drinks and brewing methods but also a new level of competition and a heightened focus on speciality coffee.

The influx of international chains has had a multifaceted impact on the Korean coffee market. On one hand, it has introduced Korean consumers to a wider range of coffee options and experiences, raising the bar for quality and innovation. On the other hand, it has also posed challenges for local cafes, who must now compete with well-established global brands with significant resources and marketing power.

However, the Korean coffee market has proven to be resilient and adaptable. Local cafes have responded to the challenge by focusing on their unique strengths, such as personalised service, innovative menu items, and a deep understanding of local tastes and preferences. Many local cafes have also embraced the speciality coffee movement, sourcing high-quality beans and developing their own signature brewing methods.

The influx of international chains has also sparked a renewed interest in coffee culture among Korean consumers. Coffee has become more than just a daily ritual; it’s now a lifestyle choice, a form of self-expression and a way to socialise with others [13]. This heightened interest has led to a proliferation of coffee-related events, workshops, and publications, further enriching the Korean coffee scene.

The presence of international chains has undoubtedly changed the Korean coffee landscape, but it has also spurred innovation and growth. The result is a more diverse and dynamic coffee market, where local and global brands coexist and thrive, offering consumers a wider range of choices and experiences than ever before.

The Cultural Significance of Cafés in Korea

In South Korea, cafés have transcended their role as mere purveyors of coffee to become integral components of the social fabric, cultural landscape, and artistic expression [18].

Cafés as Social Spaces

Cafés in Korea serve as a “third place,” a space distinct from home and work where individuals can relax, socialise and connect with others. They offer a welcoming and comfortable environment for people of all ages and backgrounds to gather, fostering a sense of community and belonging.

The ubiquity of cafes in Korea, with a seemingly endless variety of themes and atmospheres, caters to diverse interests and preferences. From cosy book cafes where patrons can curl up with a novel to bustling board game cafes where friends can engage in friendly competition, cafes provide a space for shared experiences and socialising.

The rise of “study cafes” is another testament to the social significance of cafes in Korea. These cafes offer quiet and focused environments for students and professionals to study or work, often with amenities like private booths, Wi-Fi, and charging stations.

Korean cafes have become iconic settings in popular culture, frequently appearing in Korean dramas, films, and music videos. These depictions often portray cafes as romantic settings for budding relationships or as places where characters contemplate life’s challenges and triumphs.

The “cafe date” has become a cultural phenomenon in Korea, with couples frequenting cafes for intimate conversations and shared experiences [14]. Cafes have also become popular spots for group gatherings, birthday celebrations, and even business meetings.

Cafés and the Arts

Cafés in Korea play a vital role in supporting the arts and entertainment scene. Many cafes host live music performances, art exhibitions, and poetry readings, providing a platform for local artists to showcase their talent and connect with audiences.

Some cafes even collaborate with artists to create unique and immersive experiences. For example, the “Greem Café” in Seoul features rotating art installations and hosts regular cultural events, while the “Cafe Moim” in Busan is known for its live jazz performances and open mic nights.

The cultural significance of cafes in Korea extends far beyond their role as providers of coffee. They are social hubs, cultural landmarks, and artistic havens, enriching the lives of Koreans and shaping the country’s cultural identity.

The Future of Coffee in Korea

The future of coffee in Korea looks bright and brimming with potential. It is characterised by continued innovation, diversification, and a deepening connection between coffee and culture.

Innovation and Diversification

The Korean coffee scene is expected to continue evolving with a focus on innovation and diversification. We can anticipate the emergence of new brewing methods, unique coffee blends, and creative coffee-based beverages. Cafes will likely experiment with new flavour combinations, incorporating local ingredients and catering to evolving consumer preferences.

The rise of speciality coffee will continue to drive the demand for high-quality beans, sustainable sourcing practices, and expertly crafted coffee experiences. Korean baristas, already renowned for their skill and creativity, will continue to push the boundaries of coffee craftsmanship, participating in international competitions and setting new standards for excellence.

Technology will also play a significant role in shaping the future of coffee in Korea. We can expect to see more cafes adopting digital ordering systems, AI-powered brewing machines, and personalised coffee recommendations based on individual preferences.

Sustainability and Social Responsibility

As consumers become more environmentally and socially conscious, sustainability and social responsibility will become increasingly important in the Korean coffee industry. Cafés are likely focus on reducing waste, using eco- friendly packaging, and sourcing ethically produced coffee beans.

We can also anticipate a growing trend towards supporting local farmers and communities, with cafes showcasing single-origin beans from different regions of Korea and partnering with local roasters and producers.

Coffee and Culture

The relationship between coffee and culture in Korea will continue to deepen [19]. Cafes will remain important social spaces, fostering community and connection. They will also continue to serve as platforms for artistic expression, hosting cultural events, exhibitions, and performances.

The Korean coffee scene will likely become even more intertwined with popular culture, appearing in films, television shows, and music videos. Coffee-themed merchandise, events, and experiences will continue to proliferate, further solidifying coffee’s place in Korean culture.

In conclusion, the future of coffee in Korea is a dynamic and exciting landscape, characterised by innovation, diversification, and a deepening connection between coffee and culture. As the Korean coffee scene continues to evolve, it will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the global coffee industry and inspire coffee lovers around the world.

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