Sunday, November 6, 2011

Black Gold

Written by Karen
The smell, the taste, the oral sensation of rich, fresh and strong coffee swirling around your mouth is always the best part of my morning routine. It always seems to get me going.  It also makes me happy.  Drinking a good cup of coffee through a straw in my to-go cup allows me to savor the moment multiple times as I meander my way through the traffic patterns to my office.

It seems as if there are more cafés in Seoul than there are in places like Paris or San Francisco.  Seoul could be coffee heaven.  At first we didn’t notice them.  But then, just like unwrapping little gems, we discovered the personality of the Korean small coffee-shop.
We awoke our first morning in the Hongik University district, still jet-lagged but charged up from the adrenalin of beginning our first day in Korea.  I couldn’t wait to see if my first crush on Seoul from last night still held me under its spell.  
We hit the streets around 9:00 am, and it was strangely quiet, particularly if you compare it to the night before.  We saw a sign down the street with the familiar shade of green that Starbucks trademarks and picked up our pace.  The Starbucks turned out to be somehow closed.  What?  They opened at 11:00 a.m.?  Adam asked, ‘What’s their business plan - customer desperation?’  Unclear on the concept, obviously.  This must be corrected - call business consultant! 
We cast our eyes around for another coffee place and didn’t see anything, so we kept on walking.  After a block or two, we passed a young lady on her way to class carrying the familiar green to-go Starbucks coffee cup.  We knew we had to be close to another Starbucks that was actually in the early morning coffee business.  
From the outside, the Starbucks could have been located in San Jose, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, and that was okay with us.  We were desperate for some coffee and craved the consistency of what we knew we could expect at a Starbucks.   I usually order a venti Americano - starting the morning war with 4 shots.  Inside that particular Starbucks, we noticed some subtle menu differences: green tea latte; honey tea; and, there were no cups larger than grande-sized.  
We took our coffee to the window bar and took our seats and drank deeply.  Phhht.  Sputter.   Argghh.  What wimpy coffee!  In our morning fog, did it somehow say Denny’s outside?  It turns out that for both a tall or the grande cup of coffee, you only get one shot.  1 shot!  That will never hit the target.  The difference between a tall and a grande?  More hot water.  And, for this we paid a premium of 3,600 won, or roughly $3.25 USD each!
That was the last Starbucks we visited while we were in South Korea.  After that traumatic experience, we sampled coffee in a multitude of tiny, almost microscopic little cafés.  Some were so narrow inside that you could not have two people passing by each other at the same time.  But each café had their own distinct style, taste, concept, and menu items that defined their vision of java nirvana.  
The spirit of entrepreneurship seems to thrive in Seoul.  You can easily get caught up in that sense of optimism and endless possibility. It seems everyone has visions and goals of starting up their own business - there were so darn many.  It didn’t take long for me to feel the energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm that seemed to be a part of the air we breathed.  
Hey, I can do this too. We could teach English, or I can launch my Seoul line of warm glass artisan bowls and plates.  Hmmm.  Maybe I should come up with some little bowls for the rice wine?  Maybe Adam can get a gig playing electric guitar at one of the music venues on the weekends?  Korean caffeine makes you think silly thoughts.  
So off we went exploring again through the narrow alleys and up the back stairs leading to the second or third floor where we found entrepreneurs who believed in their coffee philosophy enough to start up their own café.  We tried lots of cups of coffee (and pastries) in all sorts of locations.  It was terrific.
Variety of Pastries and Tiny Bites

What was the very best cup of coffee that I had?  It had to be the latte that I had at Cafe 05:59 right outside the Hongik University subway station.  This little coffee shop already was meaningful to us as it was the place where we first met Simon on our first night in Seoul (Welcome to Seoul blog).  It was the best latte of the trip, hands down.  It might even be one of the very best lattes I’ve ever had.  Seriously, it was that good.  

Cafe 05:59 Owner: Choi Joong Rok
The entrepreneur slays the Starbucks dragon, that’s for sure.  At least this time, when we needed that great cup of coffee we struck black gold.  I’m feeling lucky with my silly ideas all of sudden...

1 comment:

moneyIQGuy said...

As I read your Caffeine-Centered Experiences, i kept taking sips of my own coffee: how some people can live without it, I'll never know.
Korea sounds like an interesting place, and the vibrancy sounds really appealing. And, to a coffee lover like me, having lots of places to go like that makes it even more enticing (I'll stay away from Starbucks, though)