Today in Seoul 36: Coffee

November 20, 2016

There’s a coffee shop about every 50m in Seoul — chains, indies, takeouts… I photographed a few on my way to the gym, ignored a bunch more. Korea’s coffee habit started 120 years ago, when Emperor Gojong sought political asylum in the Russian Embassy, enjoyed a cup, and six years later returned the favor by opening a coffee shop for foreign diplomats. Coffee shops developed a subversive reputation during the Japanese occupation that ended after WWII, the universities and their intellectuals, artists, and political radicals carried on the tradition in the 60’s and 70’s, the radical stigma dropped off in the 80’s, coffee shops boomed in the 90’s, and finally went mainstream as the Millennials came of age earlier this century. (Compare: Starbucks was founded in 1971, discovered espresso in the mid-80’s, boomed in the 90’s, went global this century.) The GI’s brought instant coffee with them to the Korean War, in packets with a little sugar and white stuff. They’re still popular — Gillian keeps them around, it’s strangely addicting, we add it to our brewed coffee. Straight espresso is our drink of choice, but Americanos appear to be the locals’ drink of choice. Espresso costs more than in the USA — about 3,500 Won ($3.15) on average. Janet and I decided to make coffee shops a weekly date a couple summers ago in Breckenridge. In time, it became a game to discover new indies, then a way to explore new neighborhoods. But it’s really never been about the coffee or the shops — it’s about the awesome conversations we have. In fact, we hatched the idea of coming to Seoul on one of those dates — carrying on that highly suspect tradition of coffee-fueled radical thinking.

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