January 20, 2016

6 Insider Barista Insights into Korean Coffee Culture


South Korea’s coffee culture is growing ever more international, yet visitors shouldn’t expect it to be like “back home” (wherever that may be).

On the one hand, Café Show Korea is one of the world’s biggest coffee festivals and, in 2015, was attended by over 555 exhibitors (111 of which were from outside Korea) and 140,730 visitors from 76 different countries (plus Perfect Daily Grind!) On the other hand, if you took the average American, Australian, or even Singaporean barista and put them in Seoul… you might just end up with a few customer complaints.

Spanish Version: 6 Cosas que los Baristas (Todos) Pueden Aprender de la Cultura de Café en Coreana

You see, there are a few things that sets Korean coffee culture apart from the rest of the world – and we’re not just talking about the crazy amount of cafés you’ll find. So if you’re looking up flights (or work visas!) for this beautiful, coffee-loving country, here are six things to expect.

  1. Certification, Certification, & More Certification

You may find it harder to impress your customers in Korea, where almost 350,000 people are certified baristas. Let’s put that in perspective: that’s more than any other country in the world. That’s also twice as many employees as Starbucks has globally. Yes, Starbucks’ entire company could be replaced, twice, just with Korean baristas.

Surprised? Korea may be a tiny little country, but it has 147 AST (Authorized SCAE Trainers) – again, the most in the world. This is a country that takes its coffee education seriously.

Then there are the professional cuppers: Korea has 2,041 Q-graders (not to mention the 157 R-graders, who cup Robusta). Do we need to mention that, again, this is the most in the world?

So when you serve a customer their cappuccino, bear in mind that they might just be a certified barista, barista trainer, or cupper about to judge your crema. When Koreans love your coffee, you know you’re serving something special.

barista certificate

Barista Certificate: Possessed by 350,000 people in Korea. Credit: @Bean_Krush

  1. Latte: Hotter than an Asian Summer

Your customer orders a latte, so you get some good-quality cold milk, pour it into a jug, and steam it to silky perfection. Then you pour it into the espresso to create one gorgeous piece of latte art. You hand it to the customer, expecting at least a smile… but instead, they want it replaced.

Why? Because in Korea, they expect their latte to be EXTRA hot. So get ready to steam your milk more than you’re used to.

barista pouring coffee

That milk had better be hot! Credit: @moments_mk

  1. Cappuccino, But Not as You Know it

So what’s the difference between a latte and a cappuccino? Latte has less foam than cappuccino – unless you’re in Korea. There, a cappuccino is a latte with cinnamon.

Don’t try to fight the barista (or the customer). Cappuccino first came to Korea with a coating of cinnamon on it – and the recipe has never been changed. Don’t like cinnamon? Order a latte. Like it? Order a cappuccino.

heart latte art

Latte art? Or cappuccino art? Credit: @moments_mk

  1. Americano: The Standard Coffee

In some countries, ordering “one coffee” will get you a filter coffee. Yet if a Korean customer asks for “one coffee”, don’t make this classic mistake. Instead, give them an Americano.

If you think this is confusing, you need to understand the history of coffee in Korea. We used to have something called “hazelnut coffee”, which was an old, filtered coffee with a hazelnut flavor. Yet then the espresso arrived and coffee really took off. The espresso itself was too strong for most Koreans to drink; however, there was normally a Frappé or Americano option on the menu. With this, filter coffee became something of the past; the new default was the Americano.

barista at work

You want coffee? One Americano coming right up! Credit: Bean Brothers

  1. Americano: Gangnam Style

Gangnam: wealthy, elegant, and trend-setting. So maybe that’s why this new type of Americano is being labelled as the drink of Gangnam ladies. The drink? One hot Americano with two ice cubes, please!

Americanos are hot, but if you’re not used to this order it can seem pretty strange. After a few requests, however, you’ll get used to it.

korean coffee shop

One Americano, two ice cubes – the height of cool. Credit: Bean Brothers

SEE ALSO: Korean Coffee Culture 101 – History & Timeline

  1. Dutch Brew: The New Cold Brew

Like everywhere else, cold coffee is trending in Korea. It’s long-lasting, you can make your own, and – thanks to how long it takes to brew it – it holds this mysterious charm. In fact, we love to give it as a gift.

Except, while most of us like to have a cold brew, most Koreans haven’t even heard of it. Instead, we drink Dutch coffee, a cold coffee brewed in just a few hours with ice-cold water and equipment that looks like a bit like a complex hourglass.

Dutch cold brew

A Dutch coffee maker adds all sorts of cool to your cold coffee. Credit: Dutch Lab

So there you have it: the six ways Korean coffee culture is different. Expat baristas, you’ll know exactly what to serve your customers. Traveling coffee lovers, you’ll be able to navigate the cappuccino/latte confusion with ease.

Did we miss anything from our list? Let us know in the comments, on facebook, or on instagram.

Edited by T. Newton.

Feature Photo Credit:Bean Brothers

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