Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Korean Coffee Conundrum

I like coffee. I suppose I could also say that I need coffee. But let's not get into whether I am or am not addicted to coffee (am) but rather get into the meat of this thing: the coffee in Korea sucks. It's not like there's a lack of it either. There's actually a surprising surfeit of coffee. No matter where you go, no matter how small the hamlet, there will be coffee at every turn. And all of it will be swill.

Surely I'm exaggerating, you say. I wish to God that I were. The situation is incredibly dire. No, really. I don't often use words like "dire" but it describes the coffee situation in Korea perfectly, I believe.

Allow me to explain.

Although you might think of Korea as being primarily a tea-drinking country, being part of Asia and all that, the country has taken to coffee in a big way. There are coffee shops and cafes everywhere. Even my small town of Jeomchon has at least five places that I can think of that serve coffee. Go to a big city like Seoul and you can't stumble 10 feet without passing another coffee joint. So what's my beef, with so much coffee around? The coffee is invariably going to be bad.

Let's start with the big cities. Seoul has seemingly billions of variations on Starbucks, all with circular logos and frothy lattes and all that other unnecessary coffee claptrap. I don't drink that stuff. I like drip coffee, and I like it black. That means that I actually taste the coffee, not the syrup and the whipped cream and the fireworks and whatever else they're going to dump in there. I want a cup of coffee, not another meal. And when Starbucks is considered the top of the line, it goes downhill quickly.

This is assuming I can find drip coffee at all. Most places don't serve drip; they only serve espresso. This means I usually have to resort to drinking an Americano if I want something resembling a cup of coffee. Even coffee places that profess to serve drip, and have the hardware to do so, often don't even brew it. I can recall asking for a cup of drip in Seoul at 8 in the morning and being told they were "sold out." Right. You never even bothered to brew it. In my town there are exactly zero places that will brew a cup of coffee. Aside from my kitchen, of course.

But far and away, the majority of coffee consumed in Korea is of the instant variety. Pretty much any business has a small machine that, with the press of a button, will fill a Dixie cup with coffee, milk and sugar. Always with milk and sugar. Anytime you have the occasion to wait for some service—at the bank, while getting a prescription filled, at the mechanic—a cup of this "coffee" will invariably be pressed into your hand.

My school used to have one of these machines but it has recently been replaced with packets of instant coffee that also contains milk and sugar. My fellow teachers have given up offering it to me, as they do to everyone else, because I am lactose intolerant and thus can't drink it. This is always embarrassing at a business because it appears I am refusing their hospitality when I don't drink the instant coffee. For that is really what this is about, hospitality. It's a small symbol of the bond that unites the people in a community. I would love to partake of this bond. I would happily do my part and drink this sour, so-called coffee if it weren't for the built-in milk. I tried it a few times. The results were catastrophic.

I hope and pray that single press coffee will make it to Korea in a big and affordable way ($10 for a cup at a Seoul hotel doesn't count). In the meantime I will drink Americanos and politely refuse the instant coffee, bonds be damned.

1 comment:

  1. i only drink black drip, too! and i totally agree that the mix stuff tastes sour; i mean, that's just wrong!