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Specialty coffee is like coffee, but done right

Apr 15,2019
A new type of coffee is making a splash in coffee-loving Korea.

Specialty coffee - coffee that has been verifiably produced at the highest standards, from selective hand-picking to fully-certified buyers and baristas - has made it to Korea, where a dominant cafe culture sees Koreans using 25.7 billion disposable coffee cups a year as of 2015.

According to regulations laid out by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), only coffee buyers that are “certified by the SCA as a Certified Coffee Taster or the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) as a Licensed Q Grader” can buy specialty coffee - premium hand-picked coffee bought by anybody else loses its specialty status. Of the 4,500 Q-Graders in the world, 2,500 of them are here in Korea.

“The competition among cafes in the Korean market is so intense to the point that running a cafe is difficult, and this intense market has led Korea to the front lines in the specialty coffee business,” said Woo Jong-ho, the head of the Coffee Cupping Association of Korea.

“From now on, it will be hard to run a cafe in Korea without specialty coffee,” added Kim Jae-wan, the head of Santorini Coffee. “It is proof that Koreans’ level of consuming coffee has elevated.”

Specialty coffee can also go for big bucks.

At an auction in Panama organized by the SCA in August last year, Geisha green bean coffee was sold at $803 per pound. The price was the highest on record, with a box of the coffee weighing 50 pounds costing $39,457, almost the same as 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of gold, at $47,348.

The fact that a box of beans is so expensive shows just how popular specialty coffee is around the world right now.

“While Starbucks coffee has a bitter taste and sweetness, specialty coffee offers a variety of flavors including sourness and sweetness as well as the aroma of fruit,” said Jeon Ju-yeon, a 35-year-old barista.

“The prerequisite for specialty coffee is that it has to have distinct characteristics and its background should be traceable. That is why direct transactions with the production chain are important,” said Kim Jae-wan.

He added that only the top 5 to 7 percent of coffees in the world are chosen as specialty coffee.

“In the case of Korea, if instant coffee with the addition of sugar and cream was for the first generation, coffee with additives like milk and syrup are for the second, and specialty coffee, which enables people to enjoy the natural taste and flavor of beans, is for the third generation,” said Woo Jong-ho.

The arrival of Blue Bottle, a high-end U.S. coffee chain, in Korea also shows the popularity of specialty coffee. Although Blue Bottle announced that it will launch its coffee shops here within the second quarter this year, the prestigious arrival of the well-known chain is never far from local headlines.

The specialty coffee market is estimated to grow even further after Blue Bottle arrives. Industry analysts say that the U.S. chain will transform the coffee consumption culture in Korea.

“The key is whether the attention on Blue Bottle in the early stages can be maintained,” said a senior researcher from Euromonitor, a market research institute.

“It is necessary for Blue Bottle to differentiate itself from existing brands like Starbucks Reserve.”

BY KIM YOUNG-JU [kim.heyu@joongang.co.kr]