2013 Seoul Recap, Part 1

The trip to Korea was great fun, and highly exhausting. A week after returning to the States, my body still wondered what time zone it was in. Regardless, traveling to Seoul to judge in the Angel-in-us Barista World Grand Prix (ABWG) was worth every minute of the battle against fatigue. —WH

With around 26 million residents, the Seoul-Incheon metropolitan area has one of the largest agglomerations of people on the planet. Accordingly, the energy level you encounter when you visit the area is as lofty as the high-rise apartments lining the Han River running through downtown. Seoul has the air of a city racing toward the future, and if you visit, prepare yourself for being on the move the entire time.

Seoul’s residents are known for their long work hours and late nights, and fueling that work ethic are large quantities of coffee. Coffee is everywhere in Seoul. It might sound like an exaggeration, but in many parts of the city, every block has at least one café. Most have more. Sometimes, different cafés are stacked on top of each other in the same building! You can find cafés surrounding the busiest intersections, tucked into quiet corners on a hidden streets, inside designer clothing stores. Everywhere you turn, someone in Seoul is serving coffee at all hours, every day.

The Café Show

Since coffee is such a large (and quickly growing) part of Korean culture, it should have been no surprise that the Seoul Café Show was huge event. That said, the Café Show seemed enormous—much larger than the SCAA Event that came to Portland in 2012. Over four days, approximately 100,000 people came through the doors to try various coffees, conduct business, see the latest in coffee roasting, grinding, and brewing technology, and to look at anything you could possibly imagine related to running a coffee company.

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Portland Coffee’s Got Seoul: The Korean-Portland Coffee Connection

At the beginning of October, I had the pleasure of hosting sixteen Korean coffee professionals for a tour of the Portland coffee scene. In two and a half days, we visited eight cafés, five roasteries, two coffee equipment stores, and attended three different educational events. The itinerary was probably a little too ambitious—by the end of each day, the everyone was floating around in a caffeinated haze. Jet lag contributed to their exhaustion, but so did the crammed schedule. It was the first time I had ever organized a group like this, and I wanted to show them as much of Portland coffee as I could in a short time  (mission accomplished). On the last day, we decided to skip several planned stops so everyone could go shopping (there is more to life than coffee, after all).

Even with the slightly-too-busy schedule, the group seemed to have a good time. We had perfect weather (something I look back upon fondly, watching the falling rain), several laughs, and some in-depth coffee discussions. The best part was exchanging a bit of each others’ cultures and connecting over coffee. Portland did a great job of hosting, and the passion of the city’s coffee people came through as they showed us their companies and explained what made them each unique.


Our group at Nossa Familia's roastery.

This week, it will be the Koreans’ turn to show me around. I will be in Seoul, South Korea, to participate in theAngel-in-us World Barista Grand Prix (AWBG) as a sensory judge. Angel-in-us is a café chain in Korea, owned by Lotte, a large food retail conglomerate founded in Japan, and long-established in Korea as well. For the past several years, Angel-in-us has sponsored barista competitions in Korea, but this will be the first time competitors (and judges) have come from outside Korea. The competition will be held during the Seoul Café Show, one of the biggest coffee trade shows in Asia.* COFFEE Monthly magazine, one of the main sponsors of the Korean-Portland coffee tour, is also a sponsor of the ABWG.

I can’t wait for the trip. I don’t know if the schedule will be quite as full as our tour in Portland, and I’m sure I won’t want to shop as much as some of my new friends did, but it should be a great week all the same.


* The ABWG is separate from the Korean Barista Championship (KBC), also taking place this week



Korean Coffee Tour Group Coming to Portland

As it has for centuries, coffee continues to bring people together from all over the world, including here in Portland. The first weekend in October, a group of sixteen Korean coffee professionals is coming to Portland for a tour of the local coffee scene. Sponsored by COFFEE Magazine, based in Seoul, the group is coming to Portland to visit cafés, talk to coffee industry people, and look for ideas to take back to Korea. As I wrote last November, Seoul has one of the fastest-growing coffee cultures in the world, with cafés seemingly everywhere. This is Portland’s opportunity to influence how that culture develops.

(On a related note, today’s Oregonian has an article about the importance of trade with South Korea to the Oregon economy.)

One of my espressos in Seoul last yearThe idea for the tour came from Jinsu Lee, a friend of mine who spent several years in Portland before returning to Korea. He wanted to maintain some ties with Portland, so he approached Mr. Song-dae Hong, the owner and CEO of COFFEE magazine, with the idea of  putting a coffee tour together. The proposal received a great response, and sold out. I am in charge of organizing the Portland leg of the tour, which runs from tonight through Saturday. After visiting Portland, the group heads to Seattle to attend one day of Coffee Fest, before leaving for Seoul on Monday.

The group is sticking to a coffee-based agenda while they are in Portland. We have put together a long list of cafés and roasteries to visit in and around Portland, for both casual and educational visits. (If your café is on our casual stops list, I will give you a heads up at least one day before we visit, so you can pass the word on to your staff that a large group will be coming by.) The tour will be a great opportunity to share Portland with others, and should be a fun cultural exchange, too. If you’re sitting in your favorite café and a bus pulls up and unloads a large group of Korean tourists (and one six-foot-four American), come over and say hello!  

The Coffee Test (A cultural lesson on dating in Korea)

[Thanks to my friend, Ji-Yoon (Jade) Choi, another former Portlandian who moved back to Seoul, for telling me about this.]

One of the fun parts of traveling is that you get to learn about other cultures. Being in an unfamiliar place forces you to follow new patterns. If you are open-minded, you gain a better understanding of how other people see the world.

I learned several things that stretched my perspective while I was in Seoul (did I mention the lunch with squirming octopus chunks?). One interesting part of Korean culture I learned about is called the coffee test.

In Korea, coffee has become part of the dating ritual, at least among the younger generation. When young couples go out to dinner, they often follow up the meal with a trip to a café for coffee and/or dessert. When the pair goes out for the first time, this café visit can be a strong indicator of the future of the relationship.

Typically, the man pays for the couple’s dinner and the woman pays for the coffee. If the woman doesn’t like the man, however, she will make no move when it is time to pay for the coffee. When this happens, the man has failed the coffee test—he has the double misfortune of paying twice and of being rejected.

While this test is a rather indirect way of communicating lack of romantic interest, it is effective. Therefore, gentlemen, if you ever take a Korean woman out for coffee after dinner and she doesn’t pay the tab, you’re probably not the one she’s looking for.

You failed the coffee test.

Caffeinated Seoul

Last week, I went to Seoul, South Korea, to attend a friend’s wedding and participate in a reunion of sixteen present and former Portlandians (currently living in four different countries)—Gangnam style. The trip turned out to be a fantastic cultural, social and culinary experience. In between rounds of Korean barbecue, soju (a popular Korean spirit made from rice) and even some still-squirming raw octopus (not as bad as it sounds), I spent some time checking out the city’s coffee scene.

Compared to Portland, Seoul is huge. Actually, compared to most places, Seoul is huge. The city has more than ten million residents and the entire metro area has more than twice that. In most ways, Korea is as modern as the United States, and in some ways—the efficiency of its public transportation or its communication networks, for example—more developed. Seoul’s specialty coffee scene, though not quite as cutting edge as Portland’s, is growing rapidly, with more good coffee available to Koreans than ever before.

Korea is a very welcoming country, though the language barrier can sometimes be a challenge. My own Korean is limited to hello and thank you, but fortunately, I did not have to explore Seoul’s coffee on my own. Jinsu Lee, one of the team members who worked on our Caffe PDX project, organized the coffee tours. Cory Klatik, another team member, joined us for some of the coffee expeditions as well.

Prior to the trip, I knew coffee was very popular in Korea—this summer Reuters published an article that detailed how quickly the number of cafés has grown in Seoul. Regardless, the sheer volume of cafés shocked me. In some parts of the city, each block has three or four cafés. Sometimes they are literally next door or on top of one another.

One of Seoul's more interesting cafe iterations


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