World·CBC in South Korea

A stroll down Coffee Street in Coffee City: South Korea's java obsession

There are so many cafés in South Korea the government has floated the idea of establishing a minimum distance between shops. Take a stroll down Coffee Street in Coffee City to get a handle on a country that has seen a 63 per cent increase in cafés in just two years.

With the number of cafés seemingly outpacing consumption, the country may have reached 'peak coffee'

According to Moon Hyun Mee, coffee makes up about 70 per cent of the economy in Gangneung, South Korea. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The three vending machines stand like museum pieces, the last of their kind. A South Korean man plunks a few coins into the one marked Nescafé and a few seconds later, out pops a small paper cup filled with cheap, steaming coffee.

Years before the advent of the iced caramel macchiato, these three relics from the early 1990s were part of a larger army of about 50 machines that once formed the cornerstone of Gangneung's now-famous Coffee Street. 

These three vending machines are what remain of the dozens of coffee-vending machines that once gave Coffee Street its name. Now South Koreans prefer to get their coffee from the huge number of shops that have spread throughout the country in recent years. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Coffee Street sits on the coastline, along Anmok Beach in the city of Gangneung, about 150 kilometres east of Seoul. Fifteen years ago, visitors would buy fresh seafood, then grab a 50-cent cup of coffee and sit by the sea. Nowadays you can't throw a stone without it landing in a $7 cup of single-origin organic pour-over.

There are about 40 cafés lining the half-kilometre stretch of road. And according to Moon Hyun Mee, a manager at Coffee Cupper, these days it seems as though half the women in Gangneung have been trained as baristas.

Coffee Street in Coffee City

"Coffee makes up about 70 per cent of the local economy in the Gangneung area," she says as she whips up a latte for a customer. "Many people come from overseas to go on tours of Coffee Street." 

According to Statistics Korea, there were about 88,500 cafés nationwide in 2017, up 63 per cent from two years previous. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Gangneung itself is known as Coffee City. It epitomizes a craze that has swept South Korea in the last decade.

According to the Korean Ministry of Agriculture, the coffee market has tripled over the last 10 years to $5.7 billion US. According to Statistics Korea, there were about 88,500 cafés nationwide in 2017, up 63 per cent from two years previous. Some estimates suggest that every month as many as 300 new coffee shops open their doors.

Coffee is popular, but almost half of new South Korean coffee shops go out of business within 12 months. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Some have attributed this to the arrival of Starbucks in 1999, which introduced the concept of high-end coffee as a status symbol. Almost 20 years later, Seoul has more Starbucks locations than any other city in the world, testament, some say, to the nation's affinity for American culture.

The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince

But Shim Seung Su, the son of a coffee roaster who's now opened his own café near Coffee Street, has another theory. Coffee shop culture, he says, actually took off 10 years ago because of a smash TV show called The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince.

"Before that drama we didn't have that many customers," he says. "But after Coffee Prince started airing, the number of people buying coffee has gone up a lot."

Shim Seung Su fears South Korea may have reached peak coffee.

But Korea may have already reached peak coffee. The growth of cafés has seemingly outpaced consumption. There are so many cafés the government floated the idea of establishing a minimum distance between shops. According to a report in the Korean Economic Daily, almost half the new South Korean coffee shops go out of business within 12 months. 

"The coffee industry is shrinking because there are so many shops," he says. "But I know that there are lots of people who still love to drink coffee, if you make it with passion." 

Olympic top-up

Passion for Anmok Beach is what convinced Vancouver's Melvin Palmiano to move to the area 17 years ago.

Melvin Palmiano believes the influx of visitors is essentially turning the area into a coffee theme park. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"This road used to be a dirt road, there never used to be any parking spots, there wasn't a walkway," he says, pointing to various spots along Coffee Street.

Now, he says, it's now almost unrecognizable, and the Olympics may be partially to blame. According to Olympic volunteer Shin Gwan Yong, the government expected a deluge of tourists. So it spent big.

Olympic tourism volunteer Shin Gwan Yong says the government has poured money into Coffee Street in anticipation of the tourists visiting for the Games. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It wasn't that famous before the Olympics, but five years ago the government started developing this area," Shin says. "Not just the beach but also the restaurants and coffee places so it could develop as a tourist place."

A bad taste

For Palmiano, this coffee fetishization is leaving a bad taste.

"A lot of the people are very happy now with the amount of people coming here, a lot of the people who are visiting really love it," he says. "But there's also the other side."

Out 20 metres or so in the surf sit two black mounds that at first glance look like rocks. They appeared suddenly a couple of years ago, Palmiano says, and he'd never been able to figure out what they were until I pointed out they were sculptures.

"They're coffee cups!" Palmiano exclaims.

To Palmiano these cup sculptures are symbols of the fetishization of coffee. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Further proof, he says, that what used to be a quaint seaside street has become more like a coffee theme park.

"I loved the sense of exclusivity because there wasn't a lot of people. In a selfish sense, I don't like it," he says. "But it's really hard to fight upstream."

So he's planning to leave town and move somewhere less spoiled, less commercial. Even if the coffee isn't quite as good.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.