March 29, 2012

Korea Cafe Show

It was a trip into the unknown for me. I was personally feeling a little nervous about the project I’d been asked to perform by my good friends from Taehwan Automation, who build the popular Proaster coffee roasters.

Nevertheless, I was on my way to Korea to speak about emerging trends in the café marketplace in Australasia at the annual Café Show in Seoul. I did not know a lot about the café/coffee industry in Korea and had been told by associates it was very advanced and quite unique.

Arriving at the Seoul airport and driving into the city gave me a bit of an idea how a metropolis of over 20 million people looked. Every direction I turned there were immense clusters of skyscrapers, housing the huge population in South Korea.

It was late November, and winter was starting to find its way into this part of the world. The clumps of trees in the parkways were past autumn brown and leaves had fallen, as they prepared for snow cover. The cold weather did not affect the masses of people who were busy filling up the many highways that crisscrossed the city. My host and interpreter, Hana Jang – International sales Manager for Proaster – explained that it was always rush hour in Seoul, as many people owned cars. This is not unusual, I suppose, when you think about the fact that Korea produces the popular Hyundai, Ssangyong and Kia.

We made our way over to meet my host and CEO of Taehwan Automation, Mr Yong Hwan Kim, at the Proaster factory on the outskirts of the city. Mr Kim and his family have been building commercial ovens and rotary roasting equipment for the hospitality and food industry for 25 years. The push over the last five years has been mostly with the coffee roasting side of the business, as coffee has boomed in Korea in shop/café roasting. The company at present is building forty roasters a month to supply the fast growing in house coffee roasting cafés and specialty coffee shops in Seoul and surrounding cities. It was an amazing experience to see the whole process, from design stage through to the actual manufacturing workshops churning out masses of roasters ranging from one kilogram models up to 120 kg industrial machines. Koreans, in general, are very particular in high quality craftsmanship, so most equipment is faultless in its build quality.

My first night was a fun experience at a traditional Korean BBQ house, where our hosts, the Kim family, showed me all the fine dining etiquette of a cook your own meat fest Korean style. The tasty food was well complemented by lots of local Hite beer combined with the local spirit Suju, which is similar to vodka. I had my first taste that night of Kimchi, the favourite staple of Koreans, which is fermented white cabbage and shallot smothered in home made chilli paste. Kimchi is well known for its cancer treating qualities and has been a staple in Korean diets for over one thousand years. I found out later in the trip that Koreans love any food or beverage that has been specially fermented.

On day two, I miraculously found my meeting point with Hana, on the other side of the city via the vast network of the extremely efficient subway system. We were heading to the university suburb of Hapjeong, famous for its cool café scene. Seoul has thousands of cafés and like most Asian cities, is dominated by chain stores.

Some of the franchise stores I visited were up to five levels of café area, and they were all full of coffee thirsty people. Korea has created their own version very similar to the Starbucks coffee models, with a very Korean twist of quality added to the service. In the Hapjeong District, the young crowd drove a very arty subculture that was full of great concepts and high quality coffee businesses.

My eyes widened when I had my first glimpse of an independently owned café. The structure was very cool, with an in-house 2 kg roaster and a great selection of single estate coffees on the menu completing the state of the art espresso and grinding equipment. This was complemented by the right selection of cool and passionate people working the café floor.

What stuck me immediately was that the business was built around coffee, not just an espresso system. Brew bars are the mainstay for all Korean café structures, and elaborate brew bars take centre stage in most café/bars. Straight away, I knew I had a major challenge ahead of me in my future conference presentation, as this coffee industry was very much in an advanced state of coffee presentation and quality practices. I fell in love straightaway with the hand drip concept, which makes up 80% of takeout coffee in cafés. Punters get a choice of coffee origins, then the barista skillfully grinds and brews each coffee to its temperature and infusion time profiles.

Cafés in Korea don’t tend to open before 10am, so coffee consumption goes late into the night.

Koreans generally work long hours, so caffeine is a staple of most people’s diet, and most coffees are consumed without milk. The choice of high quality was amazing, and most cafés had a good range of cup of excellence beans from all world origins.

The in-house roasting concept is very big in Seoul and is almost the norm for quality café structures. The level of passion and quest for knowledge is contagious among the cool coffee crowd, and Korean coffee professionals will comb the earth for high-end coffee education.

I was very impressed  by a small café/roaster called ‘I Do Bean Project’. Owner Jackie Chang had spent a few years in Australia developing his competition skills, returning to Seoul to win many local barista competitions. His café had a Melbournian feel to its layout, and the business was very popular in the Hapjeong district with the cool and well informed crowd.

Day three was the first day of ‘Café Show’ at the Coex building in downtown Seoul. The expo consisted of two large halls filled with mainly coffee/café suppliers’ products and services. I helped out during the day at the popular Proaster stand, with their very impressive range of roasting equipment. The market is driven by café roasting, and inquires were continuous. The Café Show also hosted the 10th annual South Korean Barista Championships and had invited many high-end coffee professionals from around the world to be part of this prestigious event. Café Show was also in its 10th year, and the owner of the event, Mr Sung-dae Hong, was very happy with the growth of his business and its contribution to the success of Korean coffee culture. Mr Hong runs the coffee trade magazine, Coffee Magazine, supporting the Korean coffee and café industry with up to date education and communication. He is well respected by the industry in South Korea, and he has predicted the growth of this unique industry well.

Hana, my faithful tour guide/language and cultural interpreter, had organised for a visit to Roasting House – another concept of Mr Kim – which was an educational coffee retreat where trade could go and learn to roast coffee and perfect their espresso skills. Roasting House is one hour north of Seoul and was set up on a few acres of land, which is very rare in this populated country. Mr and Mrs Kim have a house on the block, which acts as a country retreat for small breaks away from city life. The Kims’ daughter, Miji, looks after the operations of Roasting House, and while we were visiting she had a group of new café owners learning the latest barista techniques. It was great to see that the international education of espresso knowledge was becoming universal in teaching approaches.

Day four was my debut as an international presenter, and the lecture room was full. Much to my surprise, the crowd enjoyed my presentation on the Australian industry, and I answered many questions in regard to different techniques and practices in the café/coffee business that we take for granted. Like most people who travel, I am always learning, and I found the Korean coffee industry extremely interesting and liked many aspects of their approach to fresh coffee brewed simply. I think we have overcomplicated ourselves in Australia and have been led around a bit by espresso manufacturers with equipment trends. The idea of simple pour over filter coffee excited me for future movements in Australia. I also enjoyed the fact that cafés trade well into the evening, and night cafés were very popular as a good alternative to going to a smokey bar.

The last day of my Korean experience was to visit some of the larger coffee companies that Taehwan Automation had built industrial roasters and associated equipment for. Mr Kim is a very innovative designer and has developed many state of the art coffee manufacturing plants, from green bean loading right through to roasted bean packaging.

We visited a number of foodservice sites that were roasting big kilos for the retail coffee industry, and I was impressed by the technology that was associated with the whole roasting process and the accuracy of the temperature profiling being used.

South Korea is a very interesting country, like Japan, that also had an early association with American culture – learning to drink coffee alongside the national beverage, tea. Korea has eventually taken on its own identity in its own special form of coffee presentation. The Koreans I met were super passionate about the beverage and invested heavily in whatever they needed to produce the best beverage for their customers. I suppose in a marketplace of over 20 million people in one city, the point of difference has to be quality, and the good businesses were the ones that kept ahead of the pack.

I know I will make a trip back to this special country and explore more of its unique food and beverage one day. Any country that enjoys beer, meat and coffee is a good place to visit.

Look out for the Proaster roasting concept in Australian cafés. It is definitely the future of our industry.



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