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Korea: coffee republic

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I had been in Korea less than 24 hours and already the number and diversity of coffee shops had surprised me. Whilst some people may call Seattle the home of the coffee shop, Seoul seems to have far more at least in terms of raw numbers.

The quality of them seems to vary enormously and they seem to be very segmented in terms of their offering. Whilst Starbucks is in the Korean market with a substantial footprint – it hasn’t managed to achieve total market dominance in the way it has in the UK.

From the small mom-and-pop shop feel of Mr Coffee to the mega-chain to Tom Tom Coffee there is something for everyone:

  • Coffee Bean – Korea’s oldest successful coffee shop brand isn’t as trendy as Caffé Bene. It has a mix of coffee and tea drink alternatives similar to Starbucks. It uses  wi-fi enabled buzzer to let you know when your order is ready. Coffee Bean is much better quality coffee than many of its competitors including Caffé Bene
  • Caffé Bene – the shop aims for a third-space type feel similar to Starbucks – but with a Korean modern design aesthetic.  The restaurant has a range of coffees on its menu including Ethiopian blend. Generally the coffee is milder than Starbucks. It also is known for its food; which is a grade above Starbucks.  Caffé Bene uses wi-fi enabled buzzers to let you know when your order is available to pick up from the counter.  Drip coffee is about two and a half times the price of the UK. Despite weak coffee, Caffé Bene has grown to 700 branches throughout Korea
  • Angel-in-us – aimed more at female customers, apart from the cute mug designs is is very similar in terms of its product and feel to Caffé Bene
  • Mr Coffee is a kiosk operation found at local mass transit stations – it makes a passable cup of coffee
  • Tom n Toms: ubiquitous chain, not known for the quality of its coffee. Inside it is very similar to an American style family restaurant like Dennys
  • Twosome Place – aimed at women.  It has a selection of beautifully presented cakes as an indulgence. . Advertised with a good-looking male celebrity selling a fantasy experience. It is also the chain with the best coffee. if you can handle the smooth marketing alongside The Coffee Bean, A Twosome Place is probably the best major chain to frequent

Things to watch out for:

  • Prices are generally a third more expensive than Starbucks in other countries such as the UK, Hong Kong and US
  • Forget the flat white, the trendy coffee to order here is the ‘hand drip’ served in a lot of the independent coffee shops
  • People generally don’t understand what a black coffee is; they call it an americano even when its a filter coffee
  • Paid for wi-fi – this maybe due to the ubiquity of LTE | 4G networks and wi-fi bundled into domestic cellular deals. There is one variety of milk available – diary | full-fat. If you don’t have Internet Explorer | PC chances are that you won’t be able to sign up for a temporary account due to Korean reliance on ActiveX for online security – insane, but true
  • Milk – if you are on a diet or lactose intolerant go for black coffee, as milk generally doesn’t have any choices that you can make to customize your drink