Dunkin Donuts is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year abroad and at home with special deals on donut sets that may be appearing in offices near you. The everyman’s rival brand to Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts trickled into Korea and other parts of Asia after the company went public in 2011.

Economic pundits were skeptical the brand’s gooey baked goods, breakfast sandwiches, and light coffee in Styrofoam cups would be marketable on a global scale. Seoul’s streets in 2013 indicate they were a bit off. Dunkin has worked hard at establishing a strong presence in Korea. Last August the brand infamously sprayed coffee scent inside buses all over the country. Inside a typical Dunkin, you’ll find the familiar donuts and iced coffee along with indisputable Korean flair. Will you take that glutinous rice donut, sweet potato latte and breakfast rice wrap to go, or to eat here?

Dunkin Donuts’ presence may exemplify the state of Korean coffee culture and business today. There are an estimated 17,000 franchise coffee shops in Seoul alone. Independent coffee shops account for less than 10% of the current market, including mom-and-pop shops and independent places that take a leaf out of the Seattle “scene” of a coffee shop. Of the independents, a few shops like Hongdae’s 5 Extracts, Anthracite and Coffee Libre, roast their own coffee beans and offer coffees roasted in meccas like Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya or Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the saturation of franchises gives the appearance of abundant choice. A whimsy latte with a blue beret for a lid a la Paris Baguette or a sturdy eco-friendly paper cup filled with Americano that could’ve come from a Seattle cubby? Ediya Coffee’s blue and white logo is reminiscent of the iconic Greek coffee cups sold at New York delis for under $1.00.

Much like chains in any area of business, many things are uniform in Korean coffee chains. The price of a latte or espresso drink hovers around 4,000 won and menu offerings, from the coffee and tea combinations to the cookies, cheesecakes and famous cubical honeybread, hardly vary from Homestead to Hollys Coffee. Stamp cards encourage habitual return. Wireless internet flows free like oxygen. Sitting inside a coffee shop in Seoul and taking a good look around, soothing piano-pop music playing, Konglish stencilled on the wall telling you to “Take your relaxation beautifully for today,” it’s not hard to understand what makes the concept so popular. Korean coffee chains have captured the conflicting message of a western coffee shop: they’re at once caffeine fuel stations that let you charge ahead at the speed of capitalism while borrowing from the Italian philosophy that coffee is a celebration of leisure and a necessary daily pause.

5 Extracts

5 Extracts, Hongdae

What these Korean franchises have mastered in mimicry, however, they lack in taste. Whether it’s from Hollys Coffee or the Italian-ish chameleon chain Caffe Bene, the coffee is cheaply roasted and weak in strength and taste. Chocolate or hazelnut syrup in caffe mochas and flavored cappuccinos are readily available to mask the taste of a lackluster coffee with a slight burnt flavor.

Westerners are largely the dissatisfied lot–for now. Coffee that doesn’t come from an instant packet and the habit of languishing in plush cafe armchairs are new phenomena to a society historically tea-centered. As coffee carves a cultural place in Korea, what will consumers – Korean and western – demand? 

Coffee is, fortunately, trending toward the progress of fine wine and craft beer in Korea. Until very, very recently, well-made products with a savvy consumer in mind were nearly non-existent. Imports were the only answer. But a combination of heightened awareness, expat presence and a growing entrepreneurial climate seem to be changing things for the better.

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“The coffee culture in Seoul is not so different from that in any other countries,” said Kyong Hoon Lee, who is involved in the independent coffee scene in Seoul. “Coffee is always with you whatever you do; working or having a chat with your friends. Seeing, that there are more and more people who want to drink coffee in a fancy place these days, coffee now is not just a beverage to quench your thirst.”

So where is coffee headed? Could Korea become a haven for indie coffee shops, a Seattle East, or will better coffee come from a wiser franchise? Can independent coffee shops get some elbow room in an ultra-competitive corporate coffee climate?

Sam Kim’s goal is to enlighten the Korean consumer to good coffee. Kim is Korean but grew up in Kenya due to his parents’ professions. It was growing up there, ground zero for some of the world’s best coffee beans, that he learned good coffee: both how it tastes and how it’s made. Kim began his career in finance, but his passions drew him toward coffee trading and the creation of his company KC&K; Kenyan Coffee & Kahawa. In May, KC&K will be opening a factory and coffee storefront near Anyang called Two Point Coffee Roasters which hopes to bring a “farm to cup” experience to Korea’s coffee drinkers. He is hoping to open up two more storefronts this year with atmospheres less conducive to lounging and more focused on the coffee.

Kim started the company as more of a personal need.

“Korea is in infant stage of knowing coffee. To get a cup of coffee is very easy, but getting a good cup of coffee is very hard. That’s why I gave up looking and started making my own coffee,” he said.

Kim spoke to Chincha during this past weekend’s Seoul Coffee Expo in Gangnam. Though not transparent at the Expo, Kim notes that big coffee in Korea is beginning losing steam due to over-saturation. This is not necessarily a harbinger of good things to come for indie coffee, however. As coffee franchises go under, the management (mainly middle-aged and older Koreans) will likely continue to serve coffee as cheaply as possible out from under a corporate umbrella in order to stay in business.

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Coffee Libre, Hongdae

In writing this article, I found that the more people you ask, the more independent and low-lying coffee places you are likely to find. Seoul tends to be a scavenger hunt for culinary delights off the beaten path. Hongdae, for one, is scattered with a few cafe gems with blindingly bold and delicious coffee from South America, Southeast Asia and Africa; all for not much more that you would pay at a Starbucks. Hardworking and taste-driven entrepreneurs like Kim are taking advantage of coffee’s turning point in Seoul and drinkers, foreign or not, who are thirsty for what is next.

Written and photographed by Charlotte Hammond
Cover shot by Mike Beech