As I mentioned in an earlier post, Seoul has an abundance of coffee shops. While there are cafés all over the city, if you are looking for quality coffee, you should head for the Hongdae area. The area has three different universities, with thousands of students who in need of lots of caffeine to stay focused during marathon study sessions. Bustling with young people, Hongdae is also famous for its nightlife and burgeoning arts scene. New trends, like better specialty coffee, sprout up in this part of the city.
Our first stop in Hongdae was at Coffee Lab. Coffee Lab was founded in 2008 by Bang Jong Koo, the 2005 Korean barista champion. (In Seoul, it seems like every Korean barista champion has his or her own shop—a positive development for Koreans who want better coffee.)
When you walk into Coffee Lab at night, you feel like you are entering a club, where the knockbox provides the beat and the espresso machine the music. Solitary candles on each table add to the intimacy. Lights gleam off the throng of portafilters suspended from the ceiling. The stripped down décor—white walls and a polished concrete floor—communicate simplicity and functionality. Then you order an espresso, and the barista serves it in a gaudy gold demitasse, a garishness that stands out against the shop’s austere design.
Coffee Lab had two different espresso blends available—one they use with milk drinks and the other for straight shots. My espresso, the latter type, was interesting. Surprisingly, the barista did not pull the shot ristretto-style, so compared to what I was expecting, the drink was huge. It was better than I thought it would be.
Coffee Lab’s baristas were reluctant to share which beans were in the espresso blends. One was comprised of “mostly African” beans, and the other “mostly South American” beans. I didn’t press to hard for more details, attributing their elusiveness to the difference between the open friendliness of Portland and the more competitive nature of Seoul. Then again, I would be vague too if some foreigner walked into my shop and started asking a bunch of questions.
In addition to the espresso, we also tried a hand drip (pourover) of the Kenya AA. Judging by the coffee menus at several cafés, Korean consumers are familiar with the more famous coffee-producing countries. I saw Kenya AA being prominently displayed in many shops, both good ones and bad ones. At Coffee Lab, the Kenya AA had a sweet, spicy aroma, almost cinnamon-like. The flavors were just a bit leguminous, like dried beans. Our third beverage, a cappuccino, was the best of the three we ordered. The barista deftly balanced the sweetness of the milk with the flavor of the coffee.
Coffee Lab is proud of its coffee, and not afraid to say so.
“What other cafés would you recommend we try?” I asked one of the baristas as we finished up our coffees.
At first, he looked at me with confusion, like he didn’t understand the question. Then he smirked. “None,” he said. “We’re the best.”
By the time we left the shop, about 10pm, the café was full of people—apparently, people agree with the barista’s assessment. I wouldn’t argue too much—Coffee Lab is a good shop, one I would visit regularly if I lived in Seoul—though I’m not ready to give it the title of “Seoul’s best café” quite yet. Perhaps after the next visit.
Address: 343-10 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, (map)
Subway stop: Hongik University (Line 2), Exit 8
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11am-12am
Recommendations? For an after dinner treat, try something from the “adults only” menu (e.g., Kahlua latte), and avoid the Einspanner (Americano+whipped cream+cinnamon stick).