When visitors from Western countries explore Asia they often expect that they’ll find nothing more than tea to drink. The consumption of tea is synonymous with Asian culture, and many people are surprised to find that South Korea’s beverage choices range far beyond the tea that their parents and grandparents embraced in days gone by.

South Korea has emerged as one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world, and this is evident everywhere you look. Coffee shops line the streets and much of Korea’s youth has given up on the leaf and turned to the bean.

But how did this happen? The story is one of both traditional Korean customs and Western influence, with a healthy dose of java thrown in, as well.

Bridging Two Cultures

Coffee is in no way new to Korea. The beans were first introduced to the area in the late 1800’s, but it’s only been within the last fifteen years that coffee culture as we know it has taken hold in this Asian country. However, it’s only been within the past five years or so that cafes have taken hold and Koreans have adopted coffee culture as their own.

Many credit this change with the rise of the Starbuck’s chain, and this can be said for the ride of coffee in any part of the world. However, as Koreans begin to look toward more boutique varieties of coffee and treat their cafes as personal oases, the Starbuck’s theory now holds little weight. Korea has created its own coffee culture, one that has little to do with the global chain.

Coffee and Collectivism

As any budding sociologist knows, the debate about individualism versus collectivism in regard to society is one that can be discussed for hours. As Eastern societies value the group and Western societies value the individual it;s clear that these differences permeate every aspect of daily life, which includes eating and drinking.

Many Eastern cultures, including that in Korea, have traditionally looked at the consumption of tea as a group or family activity and the consumption of coffee as something that one would do alone. The image of a solitary Western businessman supping coffee while reading the newspaper was synonymous with the West and wasn’t initially attractive to a nation of tea drinkers.

However, as Korea has moved to a slightly more Westernized culture in recent generations, their cafe culture has morphed right along with them. Cafes in cities like Seoul cater to individuals in the form of themed coffee shops. Gamers, dog lovers, travel buffs, and fashionistas can find a cafe that suits them and their tastes, whether they visit alone of with a group of friends and family. It is in this way that Korean coffee lovers can still acknowledge their ties with their communities, while at the same time recognizing their individuality.

The Future of Coffee in South Korea

The growth of the speciality coffee market in South Korea shows no sign of slowing. This relatively small Asian country is currently the 11th largest consumer of coffee in the world and coffee growers and roasters around the world have their eyes on this emerging market.

In fact, Seoul is gearing up to host Coffee Expo 2015 in late March of next year. This event brings growers, buyers, and coffee lovers together to discuss new trends in the worldwide market and learn more about harnessing the incredible potential that the Korean coffee market has to offer.

As cafe culture and boutique, luxury coffees have come together in a perfect storm over South Korea, this exceptional market shows no sign of slowing. From themed cafes to K-Pop stars penning love songs to the bean to Korean television shows centered around coffee shops, coffee is becoming an integral part of life in this part of Asia.

Will coffee ever be in a position to put tea out in the cold? Only time will tell, but if the current market is any indication, that could very well be the case in the not too distant future.

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