Black & White marries the cool, frothy decadence of cream and milk with an intense espresso blend of Ethiopian and Columbian beans (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Coffee has long become a fixture of Korean food culture. It seems impossible, in fact, to walk one block down a street in Seoul without encountering a coffee shop.
While the primary purveyors of the cafe experience are major franchises and chains, a growing number of specialty cafes have been steadily carving out a market for themselves.
Hand-dripped, cold brewed, roasted in-house; a coffee aficionado can indulge in many a caffeinated fantasy in this metropolitan hub. The options are endless, and now that origin, roast and method have come into play, it looks like the potentially saturated cafe market still has room for growth, especially when it comes to premium coffee.
Take Coffee L E C for instance. What might just be the cafe equivalent of a star chef-fronted restaurant not only doubles as a roastery, it steps outside the standard menu and offers up signature drinks created by its CEO and medal-toting barista An Jae-hyuek, including a Limited Edition creation that will cost you up to 15,000 won.
An won the Korea National Barista Championship twice, placed sixth in the 2008 SCAE World Latte Art Championship and 15th in the 2010 World Barista Championship. He not only has the credentials to run his own enterprise, he has the star power.
He teaches. He has authored his own book and he has been on TV. Well aware of his prominence, An is on Twitter and runs his own blog, in part, he says, to keep his fans updated.
All of this serves as a platform for a bigger dream. The 31-year-old business administration major wants to turn Coffee L E C into a 50-to-100 store cafe franchise. Clearly, An sees a potential market for quality, artisanal coffee.
“Back then, people didn’t go for the coffee,” An mapped out his take on what has changed since 1999, when today’s cafe culture had yet to fully take root and Starbucks had just opened its first store in Korea, till now, over a decade later.
At barista An Jae-hyuek’s Coffee L E C, brews are extracted from beans that have been roasted in-house (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
“People went for the ambiance. But right now, people want to know what they are drinking and they want to know the quality of what they are drinking.”
An’s goal is to help them do just that.
“I want my store to subtly educate customers about specialty coffee,” he said.
An first opened Coffee L E C in Bundang a little over a year ago, then moved to his current location in Sinsa-dong last October.
From the corner on which it is perched, on of one those Serosugil side streets neighboring Garosugil, Coffee L E C is a small establishment, with a Dutch coffee roaster near the front window, and a long bar where An and his team of one spin out their craft.
The menu appears relatively straightforward, yet it is, quite possibly, somewhat cryptic, because around nine of the drinks are An’s signature creations.
For a coffee aficionado, the simple drink name “Black & White” might present itself as more or less a dare, an open invitation to take a risk, refrain from asking for a description and instead, order up and find out what it is.
It is a dare worth taking.
“Black & White” is a brew created from an espresso blend of house-roasted Ethiopian and Columbian beans that is then topped with a mixture of cream and milk that has been rendered foamy and cold in a cocktail shaker.
Visually, the contrast of dark chocolate-hued espresso and white cream and milk in a clear glass is stunning. The strong, prune-like brew, with its punchy acidity and round, deep flavors is balanced by the cold, rich and frothy light texture of the cream and milk.
An, however, is not one to stop there. Aside from his own creations, he also has the Limited Edition drink.
“We always have a Limited Edition menu here and it is much more expensive than other items,” he explained.
For the Limited Edition menu, An develops one special drink, with a focus on quality, uniqueness and presentation. For example, the current 15,000 won Limited Edition drink is served tableside, with a full presentation, complete with an explanation.
When An first began the Limited Edition drink it cost 5,000 won. Now it costs 15,000 won. Plans are to eventually serve a 30,000 won drink that can only be reserved in advance.
Suffice it to say, Coffee L E C’s menu, with its in-house roasting, various coffees, signature drinks and Limited Edition drink, tends more toward upscale, which might explain the last three letters of his shop’s name, which stands for “Limited Edition Cafe.”
“In the end, coffee is a product,” An explained how he came up with the shop’s moniker. “So I thought about what kind of name one might give a luxurious product.”
In keeping with his aim to provide premium coffee, An stated that just a month ago he and his friends spent around 15 hours making a winning bid for a micro-lot of “very expensive” Brazilian beans at an online auction.
Clearly, An is serious when he says he wants to bring specialty coffee to his customers. Yet, he does not want to force-feed it to them.
“It is all about indirect education,” he said.
By Jean Oh (firstname.lastname@example.org
)Coffee L E C
Coffee L E C is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
To get there go to Apgujeong Subway Station Line 3. Walk from Hyundai Department Store to Hyundai High School, turn left and cross the street. Turn right at the first intersection at Starbucks. Walk straight for one block. Turn left and walk approximately six blocks. Turn right.
Coffee-based drinks cost around 4,300 won to 10,000 won. For more information call (070) 4250-9723 or visit www.coffeelec.com