2013 Seoul Recap, Part 2: The ABWG

The reason I went to Seoul in the first place was to judge the Angel-in-us Barista World Grand Prix (ABWG). From first moment after I cleared customs in Seoul, Angel-in-us (sounds like “Angelina’s”) made me feel welcome. Despite the fact that my plane was nearly two hours late in arriving (we had a late start and some strong headwinds), my greeter met me with a smile at the airport. He did not complain (at least to me) when it took us two hours to get from the airport to downtown in rush hour traffic. (Travel note: My trip was long, but I had it much easier than some of the other participants. One of the baristas traveled more than 37 hours, from Chile to Seoul, via Atlanta. Two judges, traveling from Europe, spent an unplanned night in a hotel in Istanbul.)

When we finally did make it into Seoul, we skipped the hotel and went directly to the welcome dinner (most of which I missed), where the gathered judges and baristas went over the competition rules. The baristas also drew lots for the presentation order. After dinner, a short walk through Seoul’s Gangnam district to the hotel felt good, despite the cold weather. Seoul’s nighttime brilliance dulled the chill in the air.

The next morning, after a short sleep and a hearty breakfast, we reported to the massive Coex exhibition hall for a short calibration session prior to the start of the competition.

Read More

Café I Do (Hongdae, Seoul)

[This is another in a series of articles about Seoul and its coffee scene. The trip took place in early November, and I’m posting my recollections as I finish them.]

Squeezed in between a mobile phone store and a small office building, it would be easy to walk past Café I Do without even noticing the café. The oversight would be your loss, however, because the café is one of the most inviting in Seoul.

On a chilly November afternoon, Jinsu and I ambled up the old wooden porch at Café I Do, in Seoul’s Hongdae District. We stepped into the shop and took a look around. At the front of the café, a narrow passage separated the coffee bar on the left from the sample roaster on the right. The floorboards creaked with each step as we made our way to a small table in the back of the shop.

Cafe I Do. Photo courtesy JInsu Lee

“What do you think?” Jinsu asked, gesturing at the décor.

I looked around. The shop felt familiar, homey. Electric heaters rotated slowly back and forth, keeping frosty drafts from outside at bay and providing a welcome refuge for my cold hands and tired feet. An array of photos and knickknacks were spread throughout the café. It was the type of place that might remind you of sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen while sipping cocoa and eating popcorn as snow falls outside.

“I like it,” I replied. “It’s so….cozy.”

Photo courtesy JInsu Lee

Jackie Chang, a well-known competitor in Seoul’s barista competitions, founded the shop in 2010 with a couple of his friends. Chang was not at the shop the afternoon we were there, but one of his co-founders (and head barista), who goes by the name of Spike, was.

Spike sat down with us to tell us his own coffee story, a story that begins far from Seoul. Spike studied hotel management in Switzerland, and as part of his education, he worked at a hotel in Italy, where his co-workers introduced him to espresso.

“When I got a cold,” he explained, “my Italian friends gave me coffee. ‘Drink this, you’ll feel better,’ they said.”

Leaving Italy, Spike returned to Korea to fulfill his mandatory two-year Korean military service requirement. When that was finished, he was ready for something new.

“I didn’t want to learn more hotel management. I wanted to find something that I really wanted to do,” he said.

He tried several different jobs, eventually ending up as a barista in another café. Coffee soon caught his attention.

“I got the passion six months later,” he said.

Jinsu and Spike, talking coffee

Spike liked that he had more influence over the quality of coffee, compared to wine.

“With wine, I could choose certain ones for people. This one’s better than that one, or this one goes with that meal. But with coffee, I could actually make different tastes and aromas for customers. That’s really interesting for me. That’s why I want to make coffee and be a barista.”

Spike credited Chang, for fueling his desire to learn more about coffee.

“Our owner, Jackie Chang, taught me how to taste espresso,” said Spike. “He’s a real barista. He just loves coffee. He’s not in it for the money.”

Spike was confident that Café I Do could stand out in Seoul’s crowded coffee industry.

“All our customers know we’re different,” he said. “They know that at the chains, the employees have no skills as baristas. They go to those places because the coffee is really cheap. When they want something that tastes different, they go to a smaller shop. Our customers know that.”

Getting customers excited about the coffee is a big step for growing the specialty coffee scene. Seoul’s coffee drinkers display an curiosity about coffee that bodes well for the future of the specialty industry.

“Every day we have to change the beans in the blends because the beans change every year,” he said. “All the customers ask me, ‘today’s blend, what’s in it?’ They really like to talk about it with the barista.” Where the magic happens. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Café I Do has two different blends, one for straight shots and one for milk drinks. The shop does not serve single-origin espresso shots, though they do offer several single-origin drip coffees. The café’s AeroPress bar indulges customers who want to emphasize the brightness in the coffees.

“These days, Korean customers and baristas really like acidity in their coffee,” Spike said.

My espresso was sweet and light-bodied, well-balanced with a strong chocolate aftertaste. Jinsu enjoyed his mocha, though he would have preferred dark chocolate. Knowing we had further coffee stops ahead, we held off trying the AeroPress coffee.

Café I Do is not as slick or polished as some shops, which is one of the reasons I liked it. Of all the cafés we visited in Seoul, it seemed like the one that would most likely be found in Southeast Portland. On a rainy day, Café I Do would be an ideal spot to hide with a novel or a notebook.

Address: 1F, 410-10, Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea (map)
Subway stop: Hapjeong (Line 2 or 6), Exit 6, or Sangsu (Line 6), Exit 1
Hours: Monday-Sunday 12pm-12am
Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommendations? Bring poetry or your best friend
Website: cafeido.com

Coffee Lab (Hongdae, Seoul)

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.)  

Coffee Lab. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Read More

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


Read More