Sunday, February 04, 2007

Real Coffee in Korea? Possibly at Waltz and Dr. Mahn.

Coffee Museum
Bringing true coffee culture to Korea?

Many of my readers -- by whom I mean Antti Leppänen and Sperwer -- will recall my "neverending struggle ... for a cup of decent coffee" in Korea, especially at conferences.

Conferences in Korea -- even international ones -- still pose resistence, preferring to offer scholars that ersatz hot chocolate that Koreans call coffee, but help is on its way, and from an unexpected quarter ... from a Korean coffee expert, Dr. Park Jong-man.

I learned of Dr. Park's existence and -- more importantly -- his obsession with coffee from the Saturday, January 27th edition of the JoongAng Daily, which has a feature-length article by Cho Jae-eun, "Dr. Coffee gives it all to brew a perfect cup," which tells the fascinating story of how Park stumbled into a Japanese coffee shop while on a business trip to Japan in 1989 and found his life's work:

"It was literally like finding a new world. I saw a coffee shop that this company, Waltz, was running and went in. In Korea at that time, coffee shops were ill-lit, smoke-filled places where people would grab the waitresses and pat their behinds. It was a shock to find an intricately decorated small cafe that was open, fresh and friendly."

Park was so impressed that he returned to Korea determined to start his own coffee business, which -- with permission -- he called "Waltz" in honor of the Japanese firm where he had discovered real coffee. At the height of his first success, Park had more than 70 Waltz coffee shops up and running, but by the mid-90s, he was encountering business difficulties:

"We were lacking in management, technique and business skills," he said. By 1996, he had closed all his outlets except a single store in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, which remains open.

Park, however, did not give up. Instead, he decided that he needed to learn more about coffee, so he enrolled in Gangwon University to pursue a doctorate in agriculture and try -- of all things -- to grow coffee beans in Korea! As one might expect:

The effort ... was doomed to failure. Considering [that] coffee beans grow in tropical regions where the weather is hot, Korea does not have the appropriate climate or soil to grow the beans. Mr. Park said there are four main elements that are needed to grow coffee beans -- the right temperature, sunlight, water and soil.

"It's quite a stupid, fruitless thing to study really," he said, laughing aloud. "There is no money to be made in the near future. But these days, with the developments in genetics, DNA and pomology, I think it is quite possible that coffee will grow in Korea somewhere down the line."

By the time that I got this far into the article, I was thinking "This guy is crazy!" But I meant it in a good, caring way. Wasn't I just as crazy, continuing to work on my Coptic skills, as if that were ever going to make me a success here in Korea? But enough about me. Again, Park didn't give up. He decided to open a new coffee business, called it Waltz and Dr. Mahn -- the "Mahn" being derived from the Chinese character for the second syllable in his given Korean name, Jong-man -- and determined to finally learn everything that he could about coffee:

"I read every kind of coffee book they had in Japan and started from scratch," he said of his effort to start Waltz and Dr. Mahn. “After finishing Japanese books on the subject, I started reading Western books in English about coffee and was surprised, actually shocked, at how different the coffee culture was in these parts of the world. For example, in the Japanese books, I read that when blending, one shouldn’t use more than five different kinds of beans but in English books, 10 or even 20 different kinds of beans are allowed during the blending process," he said.

This was the first time that Mr. Park realized that the culture growing up around coffee develops unique characteristics depending on where it was grown and roasted.

"After thinking about it, I realized that both [the Japanese and the Western methods] were right. In Japan, they traditionally mixed only a few coffee varieties because they emphasize the original flavor of each individual type of bean. In the West, however, they focus their attention on being creative and making a new kind of coffee by mixing different flavors in one mix. It’s a difference of where each [place] puts its focal point."

This guy certainly trekked a steep, stony path to get to the place where he realized that he needed to learn more about coffee and coffee cultures, but to his credit, he never gave up. He now has his business operations based about an hour away from Seoul in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, where he operates his Coffee Museum, along with a coffee greenhouse and a cafe, overlooking the Bukhan River.

His next step? He plans a little fact-finding trip:

As a part of his effort to get a more comprehensive glimpse of coffee, Mr. Park is leaving Feb. 8 on a 22-day trip to explore the bean's birthplace. Starting from Ethiopia, Mr. Park -- along with a student studying photography, a student studying literature and a producer from KBS network -- will travel to places including Damascus, Istanbul and Cairo. The KBS producer plans to film a documentary of the trip. Mr. Park plans to write a book (he has already closed a deal with a publishing company) about this adventure and hold a photography exhibition. The documentary will be aired on the show "Wednesday Plan" on KBS.

"I want this adventure to be about more than just cold facts," he said. "I want to bring back rich, personal stories and excite young people who are interested in coffee."
I hear that excellent coffee also gets brewed in Somalia, but I hope that Dr. Park checks the news before going rather than after arriving, for there has been a little war going on in the region, what with Ethiopia invading Somalia to wipe out the Islamists there.

Seriously, I want Dr. Park to return safely and continue his efforts to bring genuine coffee culture to Korea. I've already convinced my wife that we need to visit his Coffee Museum and learn firsthand what he has to offer. From this distance -- an hour away -- Waltz and Dr. Mahn looks like the real thing, but I want to be absolutely sure.


At 8:41 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

You couldn't get a coffee care package from the States? I would have to belong to some kind of coffee club that would ship to me, and take a thermos where I needed coffee. Coffee is my last vice, I would have to find a way.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Ditto what hathor said.

When the Department of Homeland Security was first suggesting what every family should have for emergencies (you recall the duct tape and plastic stories), I thought their big mistake was not including coffee. I could just imagine a city full of residents stuck inside in tight quarters and stale air, eating canned food and drinking bottled water, and all of them going through simultaneous caffeine withdrawal!

Add to that a large number of women without their monthly requirement of chocolate, and you have a volatile mix. Maybe even flammable.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor and CIV, thanks for the thoughtful suggestions.

Fortunately, coffee beans are available here. The problem is that buying a decent cup of coffee has been difficult ... but opportunities for a respectable cup have opened up a lot since Starbucks arrived.

Conferences and other official meetings just haven't caught up with reality yet.

I'm hoping that a real coffee culture will take hold here and transform everything. Ditto a wine culture. And a cheese culture. And a beer culture. And...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:40 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I wouldn't count on cheese, what with lactose intolerance. But I'm surprised to hear about Korea lacking a wine and beer culture. All the Koreans and Korean-Americans I know -- well, the men, anyway -- are beer drinkers, and some are wine drinkers.

At 3:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Koreans like to drink, but they usually drink some cheap Korean stuff called soju. They've enjoyed hard alcohol for years, including Western whiskey, but they tend to drink to get drunk, a state that I'm not much interested in attaining.

I'll post something on wine today.

As for beer, Koreans have and like beer, but in most restaurants, for example, one can find only Korean beer, often just one brand, and generally of mediocre quality.

So, yes, there is a drinking culture here, but it needs to be transformed (and I'd argue some of the same things about the drinking culture of the Ozarks).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, there is a very rich drinking culture in Korea. It's mostly based around Korean acohols, like makkeolli or the more sophisticated rice wines.

I heard that there is a makkeolli festival around Muju in the spring thats pretty great, although I haven't visited.

At 9:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JB, you're right about the traditional alcohols in Korea, but even these tend to be used in the service of getting drunk.

I recall reading something about the Yangban days of old Korea, when a Yangban (nobleman) who drank himself into a stupor would awaken to the congratulations of his friends for having the means to enjoy so much alcohol.

I wouldn't, however, want an influx of wines and beers to crowd out the traditional drinks like makkeolli, insamju, or the like.

Jeffery Hodges

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