Seoul’s got a serious obsession with coffee. A recent visit left me astounded at the sheer number and variety of cafés packed into every block. From postage-stamp-size storefronts peddling fresh roasted Yirgacheffe to 24-hour, tri-level mega-shops, the city is both a dream for a coffee lover and a nightmare filled with temptation, for an addict trying to quit.
To me help navigate the dense web of options, I asked Coffee Libre owner and roaster Pil Hoon Seu to identify his favorite artisan roasters. As Korea’s first Q Grader (a certified specialist in grading bean quality), Seu helped spearhead the country’s specialty coffee movement. During our meeting at his workspace in the lively Hongdae district, he rattled off statistics confirming what I had observed. “Korea now has the highest number of Q graders in the world—nearly 2000—and as many micro-roasters, and Starbucks opened 120 new shops last year. That’s one every three days.”
Despite its location wedged between Japan and China, South Korea’s tea culture was less culturally ingrained, enabling coffee to gain a foothold as the nation’s caffeine of choice. Unlike Americans, however, Koreans don’t consume it unfailingly to jumpstart the workday. In fact, most cafés don’t open until late morning; coffee consumption here is more about socializing, reveling in the experience, and enjoying the nuance of the brew. Four places to do it:
Lucha Libre posters decorate the walls of Pil Hoon Seu’s tiny Hongdae cafés, known for sourcing the highest quality single-origins and Cup of Excellence winners (CoE is a prestigious award given to fine quality coffees). His first and primary location (he now has four) attracts hardcore enthusiasts.
227-15 Yeonnam, Mapo-gu.
Hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 1 – 9 p.m., Closed Mondays.
A former musician converted a defunct shoe factory in the Hongdae district into an avant-garde art gallery-cum-coffee roastery and café space. They roast on-site, boasting several machines including a 1910 museum-worthy Probat. Order drinks on the ground level and relax on vintage furniture in the loft space above. (If visiting Jeju Island, don’t miss their spectacular new location, also in a converted factory.)
357-6 Hapjeong Dong, Mapo-gu.
Hours: Daily from 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Lead roaster and green coffee buyer Junsun Bae has earned the admiration of her peers by focusing on seasonality and exploring blends of different beans, as much as single origins. Whole beans are sold and served in a traditional Korean building near Gyeongbokgung Palace. An inner courtyard leads to serene, wood-paneled rooms evocative of Hanok design.
71 Naesu-dong, Jongno-gu.
Hours: Daily from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Owner Jinho Yang switched careers a decade ago after his opinion of coffee was transformed by one indelible, fruity cup. His sole establishment serves as a roastery and café for selling global coffees, including CoE selections brewed using Aeropress, French press, hand pour, and espresso machine.
481-2 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu.
Hours: Monday-Friday 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.