Korean Coffee Culture: From Tradition To Modernity

Korean coffee culture

Are you lost in the sea of coffee cultures around the globe? King Gojong had his first cup of coffee in Korea back in 1896. This blog will guide you through the journey from traditional Korean tea rooms to buzzing modern cafés.

Grab a mug and join us!

Key Takeaways

  • Korean coffee culture bloomed from its royal roots with Emperor Gojong in the late 19th century to a country filled with coffee enthusiasts who enjoy everything from instant coffees to luxurious cafés.
  • Dabangs, Korea’s early 1900s teahouses, laid the groundwork for café culture which later embraced changes like the rise of instant coffee during the Korean War and led to the growth of specialty cafes offering unique brews by skilled baristas.
  • The introduction of international coffee chains in South Korea has stirred up competition and inspired local cafés to enhance their offerings, blending traditional Korean hospitality with global trends.
  • Besides serving as places for coffee, Korean cafés act as significant social spaces that foster interactions and creativity. They host various themed experiences ranging from art displays to board games, appealing not just to locals but also attracting tourists.
  • The upcoming World Barista Championship in Jeju – do highlights South Korea’s growing influence on the global cafe scene. It showcases the nation’s commitment to quality and innovation in coffee making and consumption.

The Evolution of Korean Coffee Culture

Korean coffee culture has taken a wild ride, blooming from royal roots to a nation brimming with coffee lovers. It all kicked off when Emperor Gojong got a taste for this buzz-inducing drink during the Korean Empire, sparking a love affair that’s only grown stronger through eras of instant coffees and swanky cafes.

History of Coffee in Korea

The story of coffee in Korea is as rich as a well-brewed cup. Early 1900s dabangs, or teahouses, started it all. Only the wealthy could afford to sip a steaming mug there. These places were about more than just coffee; they marked the start of café culture in South Korea.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and coffee starts making waves across the country. It’s not just a drink anymore—it’s part of daily life for many Koreans. From instant mixtures one can whip up at home to posh cafeterias where friends meet, coffee has brewed its way into Korean society’s fabric.

The Rise of Instant Coffee & Cafés

Instant coffee caught on in South Korea like wildfire, starting during the Korean War. American soldiers brought it, sparking a widespread love for quick and easy caffeine fixes among Koreans.

Picture a country transitioning from traditional tea ceremonies to embracing this fast-paced coffee culture. Soon after, in 1976, Dongsuh Foods launched the first Korean version of instant brew mix, adding fuel to the fire.

This wasn’t just about convenience; it was a revolution in cups and mugs.

As incomes rose sharply in 1989, so did people’s thirst for places to enjoy their coffee outside their homes. Enter full-scale cafes – plush seats, inviting aromas, and an endless variety of beverages beckoned.

These weren’t just spots for a morning kickstart but became cultural hubs where conversations flowed as freely as espresso shots. With Starbucks opening its doors in Korea by the late ’90s, there was no looking back; café culture had firmly taken root, blending Western styles with local tradition seamlessly.

Now let’s delve into how this evolution paved the way for speciality brews taking center stage next.

The Emergence of Speciality Coffee

Specialty coffee has begun making waves in South Korea, charming both locals and visitors with its quality and craftsmanship. Baristas pour their hearts into every cup, focusing on the origin, roast, and unique flavours of each bean.

This dedication to quality has placed South Korean baristas on the map for their significant contributions to the global java scene.

The “Korea Specialty Coffee Guide,” available in English, highlights 82 cafes across Seoul, Busan, and Jeju. These spots are not just places to grab a brew; they’re where coffee aficionados share stories over meticulously prepared espressos and lattes.

With an increasing number of people craving these carefully crafted beverages, South Korea’s specialty coffee market is set for further growth.

Exploring the Diversity of Korean Cafés

Korean coffee shops offer a platter of experiences, each different from the last. You’ll find everything from traditional teahouses to high-tech places serving your favourite brews.

The Original Dabangs

Dabangs lighted up South Korea’s coffee stage in the early 1900s, serving as fancy spots only for those with deep pockets. These were not your ordinary cafes; they symbolised a leap into modernity.

Picture King Gojong sipping the first cup of coffee in Korea back in 1896, setting off this caffeinated journey. Soon after, Antoinette Sontag opened the doors to the very first dabang near Deoksugung Palace, making history.

As years rolled by and instant coffee hit Korean shores during the war times, dabangs transformed from elite hideouts to popular hangouts where young couples flirted over steamy cups.

By the swinging ’60s, these establishments had become social hearths, central to urban culture and conversation. A sip here wasn’t just about taste; it was about being seen in the buzzing heart of Korea’s emerging cafe society.

Modern Korean Cafés

Moving from the classic charm of The Original Dabangs, modern Korean cafés have taken the coffee scene by storm. They blend tradition with innovation to create spaces that are as much about experience as they are about caffeine.

Imagine stepping into a café where every detail adds to a story – from art cafés showcasing local talent, to animal cafés where you can sip your latte surrounded by furry friends.

These contemporary spots don’t just serve drinks; they’re playgrounds for adults and sanctuaries for those needing a break from the hustle and bustle. With an ever-growing number of themed establishments popping up, like board game havens and places dedicated entirely to popular characters from brands like Sanrio, there’s no shortage of variety.

South Korea’s love affair with coffee has evolved into something much more than grabbing a quick cuppa—it’s about making every sip an adventure.

The Influx of International Chains

As Korean coffee culture embraced modernityinternational giants began setting up shop. Blue Bottle made waves in 2019 as a major American player entering South Korea’s bustling market.

This movement wasn’t just about pouring another cup of joe; it sparked a fresh dynamic in the already thriving world of espresso and cappuccinos here.

These global brands brought with them an air of luxury and an emphasis on specialty beans over instant blends that once dominated local tastes. Their presence challenged homegrown cafes to up their game, leading to a fascinating blend of traditional Korean hospitality infused with high-end global coffee trends.

South Koreans, known for their quick adaptation and love for innovation, eagerly welcomed these new spots, putting their own twist on the exotic animal that is international cafe culture.

The Cultural Significance of Cafés in Korea

In South Korea, cafés are more than just places to enjoy coffee; they’re the stage where social life dances, culture blooms, and art finds its audience. So, stick around to uncover how these hangout spots stitch together the fabric of Korean society.

Cafés as Social Spaces

Cafés in South Korea serve as the perfect “third place”. Away from home and the stresses of work or school, these coffee houses have become vital social hubs. People come together over cups of coffee, not just for the caffeine kick but to connect with friends, chill out with a book, or even strike up conversations with strangers.

With comfy chairs and a welcoming vibe, these spots offer a cosy escape.

Themed cafés add an extra layer of fun. Imagine sipping your latte surrounded by purring cats at a cat café or battling it out over board games at another. These places aren’t just about drinking coffee; they’re about experiences that bring people closer.

They reflect South Korea’s creative identity and knack for turning simple meetings into memorable moments.

Cafés in South Korea have brewed up more than just coffee; they’ve become pivotal scenes in popular TV dramas and films. Picture your favourite Korean drama scene – chances are, a cosy café with steaming cups of Dalgona coffee played a backdrop to heart-fluttering confessions or plot twists.

They’re not just sets but characters that add flavour and aroma to the storytelling canvas.

It’s clear: cafés stir up much more than caffeine in South Korea—they whip up cultural waves that reach far beyond their glass doors.

The Role of Cafés in Korea’s Arts and Entertainment Scene

Moving from how cafés shape popular culture, let’s dive into their impact on Korea’s arts and entertainment worlds. 

They host live music nights, poetry readings, and art displays. This scene gives local artists a platform to shine. It encourages community members to gather not just for a cup of coffee but for an unforgettable cultural experience.

In these spaces, every sip comes with the chance to enjoy fresh talent or discover an exotic animal themed-café that doubles as a mini zoo. The lines between coffee lovers and art enthusiasts blur here, creating a vibrant atmosphere where creativity thrives alongside espresso machines and latte art.

Korean Coffee Specialities

Korean coffee specialities add a twist to your morning cuppa. You’ll find everything from the frothy Dalgona Coffee to creative café lattes that turn drinking into an art form.

Korean Dalgona Coffee

Dalgona coffee exploded onto the scene thanks to social media. People everywhere tried their hand at whipping up this frothy beverage. It’s a mix of instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, all beaten together until creamy and then added on top of cold or hot milk.

The contrast between the thick foam and the milk not only looks impressive but also tastes amazing.

This drink has carved out a special place in South Korea’s coffee culture. Offering various recipes that twist the original formula adds to its charm. Now let’s move on to how cafes are turning into art galleries with their unique games and artistic presentations.

Cafe Games and Artistic Presentations

Korean cafés have mastered the art of keeping customers engaged with more than just coffee. They offer a range of activities and visual treats that turn coffee drinking into an interactive experience.

  1. Board game cafés invite groups of friends for an afternoon or evening of fun. Imagine sipping your favourite brew while battling it out in Monopoly or strategising in Settlers of Catan. These places are stocked with shelves full of games, providing endless entertainment alongside your latte.
  2. Art cafés take the cake for those who admire creativity over a cuppa. Here, patrons can participate in art workshops, enjoy live music sessions or poetry readings. Some even offer art supplies for you to create your masterpiece as you enjoy their special blends.
  3. The trend of themed cafés has taken off remarkably in South Korea. From cat lovers to fans of exotic animals, there’s a spot for everyone. Picture yourself enjoying a mocha while petting a friendly feline or marveling at some tropical birds – it’s all possible.
  4. Several spots have become famous for their barista shows, where coffee preparation turns into a performance. Watch as skilled baristas whip up perfect lattes with intricate designs or perform flairs with shakers for iced coffees – it’s both mesmerising and delicious.
  5. Dalgona coffee workshops popped up as the drink became viral during the pandemic-era social media waves. Cafés quickly adapted by holding sessions where customers can learn to make this foamy delight themselves, adding personal twists to the recipe.
  6. Lastly, environmental consciousness is growing among café owners and patrons alike. More establishments now encourage bringing re-usable cups or offer biodegradable containers instead of disposable ones, making your coffee experience guilt-free.

Now let’s dive into why Korean coffee specialities have gained international fame and continue to enchant palates worldwide.

The Future of Coffee in Korea

South Korea is brewing up something big with the first World of Coffee Asia event set for May 2024. Get ready for the buzz as South Korea serves as host to top baristas from around the globe competing in the 2024 World Barista Championship.

This event will put South Korea’s coffee scene on the map, showing off its love and craftsmanship for coffee to an international audience.

The coffee game in South Korea keeps getting bigger and better. With innovative products like Dalgona lattes hitting the menus and unique campaigns catching everyone’s attention, it’s clear that this country takes its coffee seriously.

The specialty coffee trend isn’t just a phase; it’s here to stay, making South Korea a key player in driving global trends in the café universe. Expect more delightful surprises as they continue blending tradition with modern twists, keeping both locals and tourists coming back for another cup.


From a sip shared by King Gojong to the bustling streets of Seoul brimming with cafés, Korean coffee culture has journeyed far. It’s like watching a sapling grow into a shade-giving tree.

This evolution mirrors not just changes in tastes but also how South Koreans connect and create memories over cups of coffee. The upcoming World Barista Championship in Jeju-do shines as proof – Korea is brewing up something special on the global stage, cup by cup.


1. What kick-started the love for coffee in South Korea?

Believe it or not, the journey of coffee in South Korea began during Japanese colonial rule. It wasn’t all about tea and tearooms; coffee made a grand entrance, blending into Korean culture like sugar dissolving in hot water.

2. Are there any famous coffee shops that are a must-visit?

Absolutely! From the cosy corners of Caffé Bene to the bustling vibes at Tom N Toms and A Twosome Place, you’re never too far from a great cuppa. And let’s not forget Starbucks Korea, practically a landmark on its own!

3. How do modern cafes differ from traditional Korean tea houses?

Today’s scene is like comparing apples and oranges. Modern cafes buzz with espresso culture, serving up everything from drip brews to specialty coffees in paper cups with plastic straws on the side. Traditional tearooms? They’re more about savouring each sip of tea in serene silence.

4. Did historical events influence Korean coffee culture?

You bet they did! Events like the assassination of Queen Min (Empress Myeongseong) under Japanese occupation stirred anti-Japanese movements but also ironically introduced new elements to Korean lifestyle choices including their taste for coffee.

5. Is eco-friendliness considered in today’s Korean coffee consumption?

South Koreans have embraced disposable cups big time due to convenience but hey, change is brewing! With growing consumerism comes greater awareness; folks are gradually shifting towards greener options.

6. Does religion play any role in how Koreans enjoy their coffee?

Interestingly enough, yes! While monks from monastic communities might stick closer to teas and traditional practices within monasteries, you’ll find that many South Koreans—regardless of religious beliefs—unite over their shared love for good ol’ joe amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life.

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