People packed the streets near Ehwa University, using Saturday to take advantage of the area’s abundant shopping and dining venues. But just a few yards from the crowd, tucked away on a side street, a quiet cafe is trying to make big changes to Korea’s coffee shop culture.
All About Cha, whose logo incorporates both English letters and the Chinese character for tea, or cha, is one of a handful of new tea franchises popping up across Korea. According to the company website, All About Cha opened in 2006 with the hopes of bringing traditional Korean beverages back into a now coffee-obsessed country, promoting a self-described “Post-Orientalism.”
Before the appearance of these cafes, venues for traditional Korean tea were limited to Buddhist temples, specialty shops and the aging dabang cafes.
Though “espresso specialty shops have positively popularized high qualities of coffee to everyone,” writes the All About Cha founder on the company website, “some negative aspects have been introduced… [S]incerity in making tea or coffee was often ignored. All About Cha was formed in an attempt to develop a new teashop by accepting only positive aspects of the culture of espresso and reinterpreting oriental beverages within the culture.”
All About Cha is one of several major players in a rapidly growing tea cafe market. Other companies include Ogada, which focuses on Korean medicinal tea (hanbang), and Tea Oreum.
All About Cha’s menu features more than 50 different beverages, all mixed and prepared by specially trained “Tea-Baristas.” Ogada, on the other hand, worked with traditional Korean medicine doctors to develop just five blends of hanbang each with different health benefits. But both companies are hoping to shift the perception of tea in a coffee-obsessed country.
Before the appearance of cafes like All About Cha, Ogada and Tea Oreum, venues for traditional Korean tea were limited to Buddhist temples, specialty shops and the aging “dabang” cafes that were increasingly viewed as seedy and backwards. Now you can order an omija tea or a chrysanthemum tea to-go at almost every major intersection in central Seoul.
Stepping into an All About Cha franchise makes it clear that it isn’t completely different than a typical Korean coffee shop. Couples frequent the location on post-dinner dates, business men in suits smoke on the patio while talking on their cell phones, and 20-somethings hunch over glowing computer screens, taking advantage of the free Wi-fi.
“We live in the neighborhood, and we like this place because it’s quieter and less crowded than other cafes around here,” said Jo Sun-young, 29, who sat with Yang Joon-young, 31, in front of a laptop.
With dozens of options, it would be hard for anyone not to find something they like at All About Cha. For tea people, the blended green tea with chrysanthemum and buckwheat makes a light but satisfying drink. And the cafe Iced Green Latte provides a refreshing, sweet respite on a hot day.
Even people without a taste for tea can appreciate the shop, said Marion Sevez, a regular customer at All About Cha. Sevez isn’t a fan of tea or coffee, so she usually gets chocolate-based drinks. Unlike most Korean cafes, All About Cha manages to match the European flavors she is used to in her native France, she said.
Sevez also appreciates the atmosphere of the shop, where she comes about once a week to give French lessons. “It’s very calm, a good place,” she said. “I would recommend it really highly.”
Ogada tea shops share a similarly soothing aesthetic but have menus pared down to highlight Korean tea. Entrepreneur Choi Seung Yoon decided to open Ogada because he saw a gap in the cafe market in Korea.
“Korean tea culture is excellent compared to coffee culture. But even though traditional (tea culture) has the possibility to appeal to many people in these modern times, it was disappearing,” Choi said. “And since Starbucks launched its business, the cafe market rapidly became huge. There were too many cafes in Korea. So I thought that if I opened a special cafe with modern style for traditional tea where people can take teas out also, it would be really successful and meaningful.”
Keeping the drinks of Korea’s past alive by packaging them in convenient take-out containers and offering them in attractive venues with free wi-fi may be helping with the franchises’ goal of bringing traditional tea back into popularity – Ogada opened its first store in Seoul in 2009 and now they have 41 locations all over the country. And All About Cha just opened its first international franchise in the United States this year.
“There were few young people in Korea who enjoyed traditional tea. But now more than 50 percent of our customers are in their 20s and 30s,” Choi said. “That means it’s getting young people’s attention.”
Jo and Yang, the All About Cha customers, agreed that tea cafes have a future in Korea. The cafes “may be new and unfamiliar, but they fit into the recent well-being trend, and it can be popular amongst people in their twenties,” Yang said.
The fact that there are multiple new chains trying to create a niche in the tea cafe market may be another sign that the trend is resonating with customers. More chains mean more competition for Ogada, of course, but Choi sees the increase in tea shops as a positive shift. “The market is still small, so if [other companies] compete positively to expand the market, the culture of traditional tea takeout shops will be well-established.”
Until then, it’s a caffeinated race to take center stage in Korea’s coffee-dominated cafe culture.