The Who’s Who Of Seoul’s Coffee Scene
Getting caffeinated is serious business in the South Korean capital, with countless speciality coffee brewers fuelling weary freelancers and delighting discerning connoisseurs. From converted hanoks to repurposed factories, Seoul’s excellent coffeehouses offer more than just a good cup of coffee - the interiors of some of them are just inspiring. If you’re here for some of Seoul’s best coffee spots, you’ve come to the right place.
Korea’s love for coffee has always been present but it only entered into popular culture when the Korean drama ‘Coffee Prince’ took the country by storm. In it, standard procedures like pour over brewing, bean roasting and espresso machines were all featured prominently, alongside the usual trials and tribulations of love and relationships. Since the drama ended however, coffee culture gained immense popularity in South Korea with independent cafes and boutique roasters popping up across the country.
Unlike coffee consumption in the States however, consuming coffee is more of a social activity rather than primarily an act of receiving stimulants. What’s similar however, are the number of speciality cafes that exist in the country, all of them purveyors of high quality beans and expertly crafted lattes and Americanos. Korean baristas have routinely competed at their highest echelons of coffee roasting and brewing competitions. With the rise of coffee collectives (where everything from sourcing beans to making that iced latte are united under one company) across the globe, pay close attention to what the Koreans do.
In any case, since everyone already has amazingly good beans and techniques, one other distinguishing factor lies with the actual interior of these cafes. Unsurprisingly, they don’t disappoint either. You’re never far away from a good (and visually impressive) coffeehouse no matter where you are in Seoul. We’ll take a look at some of the city’s standout coffee brewers that have called districts like Myeongdong, Seongsu, Itaewon, Apgujeong, Gongdeok and Ikseon home.
Anthracite Coffee Roasters in Itaewon
Despite being a hotspot for all things international (cuisine and fashion), a walking tour of Itaewon would lead many to believe that the area has seen better days.
Despite this, the industrial chic Anthracite Coffee Roasters has decided on locating its coffeehouse along the main road of Itaewon-ro (though it’s much closer to Hangangqin Station).
Its seemingly derelict exterior is nothing short of intentional. Inside, you’ll find small displays of art ranging from potted plants hanging from the ceiling to huge ferns placed as a centrepiece. Other levels of the cafe (there’s three I total) have a wholly different concept, but they aren’t any less creative. It’s said that the company allows fledgling artists to showcase their art (they have to be good of course) at no cost. Think of it as a form of Gentle Monster toned down.
The inspiration for the industrial chic layout originates from Anthracite’s first location in Hapjeong where it took over a former shoe factory. With its store in Itaewon, it thus aimed to replicate the industrial vibe for its three floor coffee outpost.
Manufact Coffee Roasters in Apgujeong
Occupying the highest floor of Gangnam’s Queen Mama Market, Manufact Coffee Roasters is a dream for design lovers.
Taking a peak at its profile on Instagram and you’ll find picture perfect shots of its flagship in Gangnam and its sister location in Sinchon.
At the center of the cafe lies a huge table that sits at least 30 people - two outdoor verandahs flank the cafe, giving patrons a view of the ritzy Apgujeong district. Most would however be enamoured by the cafe’s ultramodern display piece - an elaborate set of shelves designed simply to store boxes of beans and bottles of cold brew. Yet, the placement and design of all these elements blend seamlessly together in perfect harmony. We’ll let the pictures do the talking here.
The cafe’s high ceilings and open concept also gives patrons a sense of freedom as they’re able to move freely throughout cafe. Indeed, the strategic placement of leafy plants and ferns round up what’s perfect about Manufact.
Fritz Coffee Company in Gongdeok
Known for its wacky artistic direction, Fritz Coffee Company is a household name amongst many of Seoul’s coffee addicts.
Located in the business district of Gongdeok/Mapo, it’s also a stone’s throw away from the shopping thoroughfare of Hongdae.
And while most come for the vintage aesthetic of the cafe (its Instagram is so well curated), many become repeat customers after sampling its coffee and most importantly, the many interesting varieties of freshly baked bread on offer. The various origins on offer at Fritz are also up to par. Fritz gets pretty crowded owing to its hyperlocal lunch crowd so it’s best to visit during off peak hours.
Just like some of the coffee spots in this article, Fritz also converted an old Hanok house into a coffeehouse whilst still retaining the various architectural elements that make it feel and look like Korea. Aesthetically, all aspects about the roaster from the design of its packaging and its merchandise to its coffee cups are aligned. We couldn’t have more quickly fell in love with its quirky seal mascot. Though some may feel like the brand is trying to hard to be edgy, the cafe itself is doing well on a spirit of quiet confidence.
Seoul Coffee in Ikseon
If you’re averse to the crowds at Bukchon Hanok Village, check out Seoul Coffee in Ikseon. The clever minds behind the coffee-house have prodigiously converted an old Hanok (traditional Korean architecture) house into a little cafe, combining industrial landscaping with the traditional materials like wood. It retains the original doors and entrances from the previous house, which kind of gives you an idea of how old the district is.
The coffee bar also offers ice cream (in a curious cube shape no less) and small bites to go along with your coffee. Did we mention that the interior is beautiful?
Located in the fast developing area of Ikseon, Seoul Coffee could be called one of the flagships in the gentrification of the district. Indeed, the area’s more ‘upmarket’ establishments like bars, restaurants and speciality boutiques share an area also inhabited by traditional Korean eateries and spaces where Ajummas and Ahjeossis meet. The place was once a red light districts in the post war period. Since then, artists and creatives have slowly shuffled into the area.
For now however, the area is off the beaten path for most tourists as locals make up most of the clientele - expect this to change if even more hip establishment start to move in. Up till now, the narrow winding alleys of Ikseon still give it a secretive atmosphere, perhaps a nod to its more seedy days.
Cafe Onion in Seongsu
Revitalising a large industrial space that once housed a former factory, Onion Cafe has embraced industrial chic as an aesthetic.
With strategically repurposed interiors, the cafe offers patrons a comfortable coffee experience complete with a healthy selection of pastries to keep one satiated. Of course, the main draw of the place is still its industrial chic interior. It’s also pretty cosy for a cafe that embraces raw concrete as its main architectural inspiration. It’s also not as if Cafe Onion simply moved in to the space leaving everything as is. Behind the scenes was an immense effort to perfect the right amount of ‘decay’ from the rust on metal surfaces to the discolouration of tiles and concrete.
That love for decay however, doesn’t transfer to the brewing process - the cafe is equipped with the latest tech in roasting, brewing and preparation with expert baristas on hand. Expect to see some of Seoul’s best speciality coffees here.
At its flagship, a huge and inventive collection of pastries are freshly baked, all excellent pairings to your morning cuppa. When we visited, the avocado & roe roll was particularly impressive. It’s signature Pandoro loaf looked phenomenal.
The cafe’s outdoor area is no less impressive of course though we suspect that the overgrown weeds and exposed steel rebars would appeal most to diehard industrial chic lovers. On the roof of the cafe you’ll find a hodgepodge of chairs suitable for lounging an afternoon away or a great location for a morning chat with friends.
Due to its popularity, its likely that the cafe will be packed on weekends, therefore, head there on a weekday when the crowds are more sparse. Cafe Onion also has a sister location in Mia-dong.
Coffee Libre in Myeongdong
Housed in the beautifully designed and maintained annex building under the Myeongdong Cathedral, Coffee Libre joins a host of independent stores in a building that has stood since the Joseon Dynasty.
Despite its austere size, the coffee bar still sports its iconic lucha mask logo (a shining beacon on a rainy day) and its countertop shines through as a zenith of productivity and brewing excellence.
Similarly brief, their menu (at the time of writing) offers beans from 2 origins through a short list of drinks (espresso, lattes, flat whites and one/two sweetened lattes). The Flat White was the stand out offering, with a creamy texture and a full bodied flavour to beat.
If you ever find yourself in need of a quick pick me up in Seoul, pop by any of the 5 stores - we promise that the Lucha libre beats the Siren.
Not convinced? Well, Coffee Libre’s baristas routinely participate in various cupping competitions, including ones held by the infamous Stumptown Coffee Roasters from Portland and their beans have even been used in various world championships. In fact, the collection of 5 brick and mortar cafes are actually a retail offshoot from the main company: they primarily deal in roasting and distribution.
Long Live the Third Wave of Coffee
As Seoul climbs up the ladder of popular tourist destinations, its innovative purveyors of coffee are making their own mark in their very own ways. Just like how there isn’t one set path to becoming an international city, Seoul’s coffeehouses mix and match different styles of brewing to create the perfect brew. In the midst of the growing hustle and bustle of the city, don’t forget to pop in - you too will hardly forget any of Seoul’s tastefully designed coffee shops.
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