November 30, 2016

Want to Understand Korea’s Coffee Boom? Look to Latte Art


South Korea’s coffee industry has exploded over the last five years, with dramatic increases in both import and consumption. This boom has catapulted the small country to its position as the 11th largest coffee market in the world.

But what caused the sudden upswing of the specialty coffee industry? Exposure to new information about coffee? Appreciation for product quality? A strong Western influence? Yes, yes, and yes – but a factor that should also not be overlooked is latte art.

I spoke to several big names in the Korean latte art industry at Cafe Show Korea. Here’s what I learned.

SEE ALSO: Does Latte Art Make Your Coffee Better – Or Worse?

A competitor pores over his design at the World Latte Art Battle at Cafe Show Korea 2016. Credit: Christine Seah

A Culture That Values Beauty

In South Korea, beauty is valued. While in some countries beauty is seen as being natural, or even shallow, here it is seen as the product of hard work. And that makes it a goal worth aspiring to.

A recent Vice documentary on Korea’s $6 billion dollar beauty industry explained that one in five women undergo plastic surgery. The country has one of the fastest growing and most technologically advanced beauty industries in the world – it’s no wonder that women all over the globe are now buying Korean products in what The Wall Street Journal calls a “beauty boom”.

The Korean passion for all things aesthetic has led to a society of beautiful perfectionists. And it’s not difficult to see how this has spilled over into the specialty coffee industry, breeding a World Latte Art Champion and an entire community of “latte art idols”.


The World Latte Art Battle at Cafe Show Korea 2016. Credit: Christine Seah

Creative Designs

Korean-born latte artist and 2015 World Latte Art Champion (representing Australia) Caleb Cha told me that “Koreans are very dexterous, and they are also very creative when it comes to thinking up new designs. I definitely see us as a latte art powerhouse in upcoming competitions.”


Some of Caleb Cha’s latte art pours. Credit: Caleb Cha

Colourful Additions to the Latte Art Scene

Latte art started off as 50 shades of brown, but Caleb tells me that Korean artists were one of the first to use food colouring in their designs. And this been catching on quickly worldwide.

Another big presence in the Korean latte art scene, Lee Kang Bin, has taken colourful accents to the extreme with his invention of Cream Art.


Lee Kang Bin’s cream art. Credit: Lee Kang Bin

When does the art become more important than the drink? When one of the most famous pieces of artwork ever is in your cup. Oh, and when there’s no coffee in it.

Surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic fans at Cafe Show Korea, Lee Kang Bin said:

“I wanted to surpass the limitations of traditional latte art by introducing colours and a wider range of designs. I think it’d be a great addition to the art bar section of the WLAC, and I hope to breathe new life into an otherwise isolated path in the industry.”


One of Lee Kang Bin’s latte art designs. Credit: Lee Kang Bin

Is Korea Leading Us Into the Future of Latte Art?

Korea’s not just an innovator in terms of latte art designs, though. They’re also creating new latte art technology. The latte art printer on display at Cafe Show, and already in use in Korean cafés, means you can get your selfie printed – in colour – on your coffee in a matter of seconds.

I’ll give you a second to take that fact in.


Yes, that’s me. Selfie latte art at Cafe Show Korea. Credit: Christine Seah

“In five years, I think Korea will dominate latte art competitions. Everyone’s getting super serious and the industry is picking up so fast. Asia in general is the place to look out for in the near future,” Caleb told me, grinning.

It looks like the Korean coffee scene has a bright and beautiful future ahead of it.

With thanks to Caleb Cha and Lee Kang Bin.

Perfect Daily Grind

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