Coffee isn’t just a hot drink. In Korea, it is a fashionable lifestyle (as well as a means to survive).
Linked to the upper middle class social life, cafes became a communal space for meeting and studying. While seeing a friend and studying can all be done at home, it has become a stylish habit to do all this semi-publicly in a place that is more beautiful and comfortable than an apartment.
Coffee is also seen as the miracle juice that is necessary to function and keep up with Korea’s demanding work culture. It has become such a daily necessity that consumer demands have pushed up prices. The average price of a cup of coffee is 10,000 won, which is a staggering cost as a hearty meal can be bought for 7,000 won or even less.
Dawn Of A New Coffee Culture
For a long time coffee has had a reputation for being relaxing, luxurious and glamorous. Coffee labels like ‘Starbucks’ were a symbol of wealth and international sophistication, which is why expensive prices were tolerated. Buying coffee was like buying into the cafe society lifestyle, so many people are willing to pay more to merely spend time in a beautiful place. The actual flavour of the coffee meant very little in comparison.
However, as more young students travel and study abroad, the mentality of paying more for an international coffee is wearing thin. What is defined as stylish is shifting a little. Instead of big international chains, tiny hole-in-the-wall unique Korean cafes have an appeal of their own. Now, the new generation are no longer willing to churn out extra won for something that is not special.
Cheap Vs. Beautiful
Nowadays, Korean 20-somethings want either super cheap no-brand coffee, or pricey coffees from super unique and beautiful coffee houses that have an aesthetic to share on social media.
Cheap coffee shops have been popping all over Korea this summer. Paik coffee started the trend by charging only 1,500 won for an americano (£1.06), then juice bars (summer fad of 2016) also hopped on the bandwagon, serving 1,000 won americanos.
Not only are they cheaper, but they are also bigger, so obviously it was popular with those in their 20s. New stats show that 65% of 20s drink cheap coffee, (but also 22% of 30s, 11% of 40s, 2% of 50s). On average 20s spend 6,782 WON (£4.77), 30s spend 7,869 WON (£5.54), and 40s spend 8,807 WON (£6.20).
The appeal of expensive coffee brand chains is slowly slipping away. Nowadays people are embracing ‘no-name’ brands that are refreshingly hipster, and now the people who know of these unique places have their own exclusive and glamorous private group of coffee connoisseurs.
Coffee culture will most likely never die, however tastes and habits will change. The most stylish and beautiful no-brand balcony coffee shops in trendy areas like Garosu-gil are always packed with sweet young couples, fashionista socialites and creative professionals. Big chains will have to step up, either by lowering prices or investing in unique style.
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