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Korea's coffee culture


When Russians come to Korea for the first time, they are often taken aback by the country's habit of drinking coffee, due in part to the preconception that Koreans prefer tea, like their Asian neighbors. In reality, however, Korean coffee consumption is reported to be higher than that in South America or the U.S.

According to the results of a 2013 study by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea ranks as one of the countries that drinks the most coffee in the world. The average Korean in a typical week drinks more coffee than he eats kimchi. Based on Starbucks data, Korea is the country with the most Starbucks branches, with over 284 locations serving its signature brew. In 2013, it was estimated that around 657,000 tons of coffee were sold. If you consider the ratio between total population and consumption, Korea comes out the winner. This leads one to wonder: Why are so many Koreans hooked on this non-traditional drink?

In Korea, coffee is more than just a drink. It's a part of people's work-life culture. The reason why office workers grab a cup in the second half of their lunch hours is not only for a caffeine boost. They want to enjoy the moments of leisure that arrive when they sit together for a chat, coffee cup in hand. Whether it be with business partners, coworkers, friends or with dates, coffee plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere for social interaction. Put differently, coffee is never drunk just for the sake of drinking it.

Korea has a very developed dining out scene. Unlike Russia, where coworkers and friends are usually invited for a meal at the person's home, in Korea people typically meet outside at restaurants or cafes. This is why the city abounds with coffee shops; why drinking coffee is so prevalent. Coffee is an excuse to socialize and to catch up with friends. The cafes in central Seoul are especially busy during lunch hour. For office workers, grabbing a cup of coffee after lunch has become part of their daily routine, a familiar ritual. This is so despite the fact that in some cases a cup of coffee may end up costing more than the actual meal.

There are many specialized, well-decorated cafes in Korea. In bustling neighborhoods like Myeongdong or Hongdae, you can find over five cafes within a 50-meter stroll. The nice thing is that each cafe has its own character, and different menus from which to order. Mind you, in order to survive in such a competitive coffee market, it's probably not a choice but a necessity to differentiate your business from the hundreds of others in your vicinity.

Another merit of Korean cafes is the friendly customer service. Many people work from cafes, laptops open and coffee mug in hand. Cafes are designed with power outlets under every few tables to cater to such customers. Such services would be hard to find in Russia or the U.S. I myself have spent hours and hours at cafes, too, chatting with friends. In other words, cafes play an important social role.

I never used to drink coffee when I lived in Russia, but since moving to Korea I've picked up the habit. When I was a college student, I would get a to-go cup on my way to class. When I worked at an office, I would drink a cup during lunch hour. Now, as a freelancer, I start my mornings with a cup of hot brew. According to a recent study, drinking two cups of coffee per day can supposedly help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

So, here's to another morning spent drinking an aromatic cup of coffee.

Ilya Belyakov is a local TV personality and a frequent presence on Korean media.
Translated by Staff Writer Lee Hana

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