Just when you thought a new wave of coffee and brew stops from abroad could not possibly squeeze into Seoul’s already saturated turf, they did.
If the West Coast ― i.e. Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf ― is largely credited with being the motherland of the first generation of overseas drink chains to help popularize the caffeinated brew, the new generation ― Tavalon, La Colombe Torrefaction and Think Coffee ― hails from the East Coast.
Both Tavalon, a tea company founded in 2005 by John-Paul Lee, Sonny Caberwal and Chris Cason, and Think Coffee are based in New York, while Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti started La Colombe, a coffee roasting and coffeehouse business, in Philadelphia in 1994.
|Tavalon Tea Bar’s iced Moteajo (left) — a green tea-based non-alcoholic mojito — and Earl Grey Martea — a non-alcoholic martini-style beverage with an Earl Grey base — and Peach Oolong and NYC Breakfast tea-infused macarons (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
Think Coffee, which opened in Jongno-gu last May before opening a second outpost in Sinsa-dong last December, was the first to open, with La Colombe and Tavalon launching their shops in Sinsa-dong this February.
“The biggest reason why we opened in Garosugil is because it attracts lots of young people,” said Tavalon Korea CEO Jason Park, 35.
Park explained that the “unique and stylish” vibe of their tea appeals to the Garosugil crowd.
La Colombe also decided to open their first Seoul shop in Sinsa-dong, ironically enough, directly across from a Starbucks, in the Apgujeong area.
“We certainly aren’t afraid of competition,” La Colombe sales manager Stephen Steinruck, 33, said of entering an extremely saturated coffee market in an e-mail interview. “We always seem to be opening a cafe next to a Starbucks (or two). It’s hard not to.”
“We want the people of Seoul to experience what the people of Philadelphia, New York and Chicago have been enjoying for years,” Steinruck added.
According to La Colombe Korea director Steve Chung, business is “picking up.”
“More and more people, especially the people that work or come around here a lot, they are starting to realize that the coffee is good,” said Chung, 30.
In terms of public awareness, it might help that La Colombe recently teamed up with actor Leonardo DiCaprio in a much buzzed-about charity project to launch Lyon ― a blend of beans from Haiti, Peru, Ethiopia and Brazil.
Given the increasing coffee consumption in Korea, it makes sense for companies like Think and La Colombe to venture into a market that, while packed to the gills with coffeehouses, in the opinion of Think Coffee owner-operator Jason Scherr, has “great potential.”
Tea, on the other hand, may not be so intuitive and the launching of a tea bar in Seoul may seem like a potentially risky venture, yet Tavalon Korea’s Park thinks otherwise.
“I see a lot of movement towards tea,” he said.
According to Park, interest in tea here has been growing, with it being seen as a healthy alternative to coffee. He credits this to a higher living standard and to the inclusion of tea as part of the spa treatment package, which fosters the connection between tea and beauty.
“People are becoming more aware of the health benefits that come along with drinking tea,” said Tavalon CEO John-Paul Lee.
By Jean Oh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tavalon Tea Bar specializes in special ice teas like their Genius (a white tea and peppermint concoction), Moteajo (a green tea-based non-alcoholic mojito) and Earl Grey Martea (a non-alcoholic martini-style beverage with an Earl Grey base). The establishment’s black tea latte is well-executed ― a rich, fragrant and creamy brew.
Tavalon Tea Bar; 1F 549-7 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; (02) 544-2563; www.tavalon.co.kr; open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; tea costs 4,500 won to 5,500 won.
La Colombe serves an amped-up iced coffee, where a shot of Nizza (a blend of beans from Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia and Honduras) espresso is added to Corsica (a blend of beans from Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico) drip coffee for a strong, lean and acidic brew. The DiCaprio project’s Lyon beans are used for French press coffee and americanos.
La Colombe Torrefaction; 644-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; (02) 518-9199; www.lacolombe.com; open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays; coffee costs 4,000 won to 5,000 won.
Think Coffee serves cold-brewed coffee that has been extracted for over 16 hours along with iced Spanish lattes. The two-story Sinsa-dong shop has a collection of newspapers on display near the entrance for customers to read while downing their brew of choice.
Think Coffee; 572-3 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; (02) 546-6860; www.thinkcoffeekr.com; open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily; coffee costs 2,800 won to 6,200 won.