Café Review: Blue Bottle Samcheong

Apparently I have made it my quest to visit all the Blue Bottles in Korea. I have been to the one in Gwanghwamun Square and on Jeju Island, so it was only appropriate that I introduce the new teachers to Blue Bottle in a new-to-me location: Samcheong.

the iconic Blue Bottle logo on a white brick background

The Blue Bottle website describes the Samcheong location as follows:

“In the heart of Seoul’s historic Samcheong neighborhood, our three-story cafe all but shapeshifts as you climb its floors. Conceived by Schemata Architects, each level is as much about the breathtaking views as it is about coffee. The stand alone building is set between past and future: the Gyeongbokgung Palace of the Joseon Dynasty on one side, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) on the other. The ground floor offers a view of the museum. After you place your order there, you can head to the second floor, where baristas prepare pour overs and espresso drinks, and where the picture window frames the sweeping lines of the terracotta-tiled roofs of the hanoks, traditional Korean homes. Take your coffee to-go and meander the labyrinthine surrounding streets, or head to the third floor. There, on the outdoor patio on low-slung couches or inside by the topmost picture window, you can enjoy a siphon coffee or take in the panorama of the palace and the soaring hills beyond.”

I get what they were going for, and it’s true: one can easily peer out the windows onto the rooftops of hanoks, but it’s a bit annoying having to order on the first floor and walk upstairs to get your beverages, and then walk up another flight of stairs to (maybe, if you’re lucky) find a seat. Seats here aren’t plentiful but if you wait around long enough, a spot or two might open up. Good luck watching a barista prepare your siphon coffee though–I’m not sure what the protocol is here if you order one and there already happens to be someone sitting in front of them. (At Mint Plaza, we would kindly ask if guests would move so the siphon-buyer could get the most out of the experience.)

I confused the barista because I ordered two drinks. No, really. I want two coffees. First, a pour-over, because pour-overs are what Blue Bottle does best. Second, since the location has oat milk, I’m going to get a latte, and this location had an orange blossom latte that I decided to try because Blue Bottle doesn’t serve your typical caramel-mocha-praline-hazelnut-frappa-gatos. (Rumor is they never planned on selling mochas, but after adding chocolate to the menu to make hot chocolate, they couldn’t ignore customers’ cries to sell a mocha. For what it’s worth, Blue Bottle mochas are my go-to, because they make their own chocolate ganache in-house with Tcho chocolate and it is delicious.)

The Guatemalan pour-over I had iced would have been better hot, but the orange blossom latte was surprisingly really well-made. The orange blossom flavor fit with the espresso in a very nice way that balanced out the acidity of the espresso and the brightness of the orange flavor. It was tasty.

The space is bright and inviting and it was certainly busy when we went. We had to wait about ten minutes until we found a spot where we could sit on the first floor. There was a steady stream of guests that day and the baristas seemed equipped to handle the volume, even my sudden realization that despite asking the cashier if they had oat milk, I forgot to actually order my latte with oat milk and had to go back to the cashier on the first floor and change my order and had her run to the second floor to ensure my drink was made with oat milk. Whew. If only there was a better way to communicate to the baristas on the second floor.

Follow them on Instagram: @bluebottlecoffee_korea

Address: 76 Bukchon-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea 03053

Summer Vacation 2021: Jeju Island

Two four feet tall dol hareubang statues with masks over their faces flank a sign reading “Welcome to Jeju International Airport” in English and Korean

My co-teacher Mary and I went for a quick trip to Jeju Island for summer vacation (which was only three working-days off). Jeju, for those of you who don’t know, is a Korean island located to the southwest of the mainland and is a popular resort island. Because of travel restrictions due to Covid, Jeju Island has become even more popular this year for Korean tourists who normally might have considered Guam, Japan, or the Philippines as their vacation spot.

The flight was only an hour long, but by the time we reached our hotel in Jeju it was after 5pm and we were beat. We ordered pizza and I ran a bath–something that came with my upgraded “couples” room. It was totally worth the extra cost. I used the Temple of the Sky Lush bath bomb.

On Sunday, we went to the Manjanggul Cave, which has an impressive lava tube that is accessible for about a kilometer underground and ends with a stone pillar that is the largest in the world. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so busy watching my feet as the floor was both uneven (thanks, lava) and wet. There were some wooden bridges over the more uneven parts, but even still, I trekked slowly and was amazed at how many people blew past me wearing flip-flops or even, in one case, platform flip-flops. The lava tube takes about an hour in and back, and going back was certainly easier than going down, although I was wheezing after climbing back up the stairs at the beginning.

What was not lost on me was the fact that there were several handicap parking spots out in front of the entrance and a ramp for wheelchairs, although the cave is completely inaccessible for wheelchair users and many others who have walking problems.

There was a memorial outside the cave that read, “Bu Jonghue and young expedition party: In 1946, Mr. Bu was a teacher at Gimnyeong Elementary School. He and 30 of his students set out to go spelunking without proper equipment. They only had a few torches and wore straw shoes. However, they were well organized into three groups each in charge of the torch, supplies, and measuring the cave. Manjanggul Lava Tube had become known to the public thanks to their numerous expeditions. It was a remarkable achievement of Mr. Bu and his little explorers, which was led with tenacity and an adventurous spirit. Mr. Bu named the cave using the word “Man” meaning long and the word “Jang” come [sic] from the name of third entrance “Manjaengi Geomeol.”

Ah, the 1940s, when you could still take your 10-year-old students spelunking without the proper equipment.

After the cave, we went to visit the recently opened Blue Bottle, located in the middle of nowhere. Having just opened on the 30th of July, there was still a queue and we had a lot of confusion about where to stand, as the information was not explained very well in English. A couple in front of us turned around and showed us their phone, asking if we had made a reservation. When we nodded our heads, they showed us how to make a reservation on an iPad that was on the other side of the line we were waiting in. Our wait from that point on was half an hour, but it would have been much longer had that couple not taken pity on the foreigners who had no idea what they were doing, so thank you kind souls!

Despite the long wait, we were able to get seats after about ten minutes. Blue Bottle is an excellent example of why cafes shouldn’t have wifi–if there were people camping out all day, sales would suffer and people would get annoyed at the lack of available seating. Without wifi, people come in, have a drink, and then leave, creating a much-needed turnover. But I digress.

Blue Bottles everywhere are all the same and yet all different. As each cafe is designed for the space in which it exists, this Blue Bottle had a beautiful open window into the Jeju countryside and a barn-like structure with a high, triangular ceiling fit with strips of lighting. All of the chairs and tables were that recognizable light wood, and there was built-in cabinetry under all of the display shelves.

I ordered an iced mocha with oat milk, a blueberry fizz, and a piece of chocolate pound cake as they were sold out of the liege waffle. Mary ordered the lemon yuzu fizz and a scone. I assisted a woman behind us who basically asked what all the fuss was about and what she should order. I sincerely hope her drinks lived up to the Blue Bottle name and was worth her wait.

I also bought two bags of the Jeju Blend coffee, which has notes of mandarin orange, rose, and caramel. I am excited to try it!

For dinner on Sunday, we went to a spot along Black Pork Street. The black pig is a domestic breed native to Jeju Island, and apparently was kept as a means to dispose of human waste up until the mid-century. In the restaurant we chose, the worker refused to let us just buy one portion of pork belly as we were two people (but Mary doesn’t like pork so she wasn’t going to eat it) but that ended up being just fine as I ate enough for two and also had an entire bottle of beer myself.

Normally I don’t like the fatty bits on meat and will sometimes leave it on my plate at lunch. However, black pig fat makes me understand how some people say that fat “melts in the mouth.” The skin was chewy, and the meat was juicy. The attending kimchi was perfectly sour instead of mind-numbingly spicy, which I prefer, and the ssamjang was excellent on the perilla leaves, which normally I do not like as it tastes too much like herb (it’s related to the mint family). I dipped the perilla leaf into the ssamjang, dipped the pork into a little mixture of salt and pepper and oil, added a string of kimchi, a little rice, wrapped it all up and ate it for one amazing flavor bomb unlike any other. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had.

That night I ran another bath, this time using the Rose Jam Bubbleroon. In retrospect, I probably should have broken it in half as the entire bar made a bit too many bubbles.

On Monday, we went to the Gwaneumsa Buddhist temple, the oldest on Jeju Island. This wasn’t the temple we were going to originally see, but one that was closer to us so we decided to visit it instead. After the first gate, you’re greeted with a large statue of the Lord Buddha off to the left, and if you continue further ahead, there’s a beautiful path lined with hundreds of various Buddha statues, most holding prayer beads that worshippers have given to the statues.

Further on, there is a small cave. By this time, it had started to drizzle a bit, and upon entering the small cave, one was taken aback by just how incredibly warm the cave was, owing to the hundreds of candles that had been lit inside. (Don’t worry: there was a fire extinguisher inside as well.)

There was a giant gold Maitreya Buddha statue, behind which were thousands of smaller Buddhas. There was the pot-bellied, laughing Buddha of wealth with some coins sitting atop his belly. There was a Buddha statue in the middle of a pond with a small bridge atop a goose’s body. It was a very lovely temple site, with a rich history that tells of Korea’s tumultuous past, as well as the tumultuous path of Buddhism in Korea.

And just like that, the two days in Jeju were over. We left early Tuesday morning as we had to be back at work Wednesday. It was way too soon, in my opinion, but still a relaxing and interesting break. It was the first “proper” vacation that I’ve had since moving to Korea and I plan to make my way to Jeju another time and checking in a cart of fruit for the flight home like all the other Korean tourists.

One thing I really enjoyed was how Jeju does its contact tracing program. We have to pull up our QR code in the KakaoTalk app and scan it in, which sometimes takes several tries. In Jeju, after we downloaded the app, we essentially took a picture of the QR code the business had, and our phones would beep right away. It was much easier to use.

Café Review: Greem Café, aka Cartoon Café

My friend Nora took Mary and I on a super exciting trip for my birthday back in January. Up first was a stop at Greem Café, also known as that instagrammable cartoon café in Korea.

a four-layered tulip heart in a latte on a black and white table

We ordered breakfast and drinks and everything was lovely. We got two free mugs because we ordered a certain amount, but I was a little disappointed that they weren’t the mugs that were being used in the cafe. (I would have paid extra for one of those 2D mugs.)

My advice would be to go when they open, as once they get busy, your instagram shots are going to be harder to take since you can’t roam around the cafe.

Follow them on instagram: @greem_cafe

Address: Seoul, Mapo-gu, Yeonnam-dong, Seongmisan-ro, 161-10 카페 1.5층


Café Review: Coffee Class

Where does a barista go for good coffee? Well, technically I go to Starbucks by my work most mornings and get a grande iced blonde roast latte with an extra shot (whew!) unless there’s an interesting seasonal drink. It’s not my fault, really: café culture here tends to start at 11am and end pretty late, much different than the 7am starts and 7pm closes I’m accustomed to!

On the weekends, you can find me at Coffee Class, a bright and inviting coffee shop not too far from where I live. They have your usual fare: lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, green tea lattes, and they also have manual hand drip (pour-over) coffee.

I have enjoyed their Costa Rican Asoporaaa Valverde Abarca Natural (notes of dark chocolate and lime), a Nicaragua whose information I didn’t catch but tasted of milk chocolate and raspberry, and an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Lalissa Natural GI that was like a green grape explosion in my mouth. My only issue is that they do their pour-overs a little differently than how I was trained, and stir the coffee after it blooms. The average coffee drinker is not going to notice the difference, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t either.

Today I had their tiramisu and it was lovely. They offer waffles and some other light fare and pastries which they bake in-house. The aesthetic is bright and airy with fun cat silhouette pillows and in the center of the café are several small round tables on small pebbles, almost giving it a café-on-the-beach vibe.

They get bonus points for always having beautiful latte art.

They are open 12pm to 9pm.

Follow them on Instagram: coffee_class2

Address: 경기 의정부시 평화로562번길 8 (의정부동)

Café Review: Orange Elephant

Situated north of the downtown cluster of Uijeongbu cafés (of which there are enough to caffeinate a modestly-sized writing group), and next to a beautiful park, is the Orange Elephant café.

View of a corner café called Orange Elephant, which features several panes of large windows. You can see my friend Nora leaning out the front door waving a peace sign.
Two tall glasses of iced drinks, one being milky and having long dark streaks of sugar in the glass and the other being an ombre iced americano, with a diner mug of black coffee in the middle just behind a plate with a lemon scone with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some berry jam. Photo credit: Leonora Balajadia

When my friend and I visited, there were no other guests in the café. Our drinks came out promptly and the café staff were very accommodating, even though they mentioned that they did not have any available outlets to charge electronics. (So make sure you’re juiced before heading their way!) The sunlight filtered in the windows at just the right angle to warm the Saturday morning. There is a display of locally crafted goodies, from rings to notebooks.

Interior shot of Orange Elephant featuring several round tables and chairs in various hues, along with a big leafy plant in the background. Photo credit: Leonora Balajadia

If you’re planning on visiting, make sure to come Tuesday-Saturday, as they are closed on Sunday and Monday.

Follow them on Instagram: 5range.elephant

Address: 218-29, Uijeongbu-dong, Uijeongbu-si, Gyeonggi-do 1F 경기도 의정부시 태평로155번길 36 1F

A Visit to Fishtown & La Colombe’s Roastery

Back in October, I had the amazing opportunity to visit La Colombe’s Philadelphia roastery and their Fishtown cafe with a few of my co-workers.

Please click on individual images to see descriptions!

Upon entering the roastery, we had to put on hair nets. First, we got to see some green coffee. “Green coffee” is coffee that has yet to be roasted. It’s got a unique green hue and comes to the roaster in large burlap bags. (I asked, out of curiosity, what happens to said burlap bags, and those get recycled in various ways.)

Then we checked out the Workshop station! Workshop coffees are usually single-origin coffees and are roasted in much smaller batches than the Cornerstone coffees, which are blends. (The big exceptions to this are the -Towns, e.g. Frogtown.) The Workshop coffees are placed in beige bags and boxes for retail, whereas Cornerstone coffees are in red/blue bags and boxes.

Next up was the Cornerstone roaster, which compared to the Workshop one, was a beast. Internal temperatures in the roaster can reach up to and beyond 385°F, so it’s important that the cooling tray moves fast so the beans can cool down evenly. La Colombe does not only roast coffee for its cafes, but also the entirety of its wholesale business, so your favorite cafe in Houston just might be brewin’ up a cup of Corsica!

After we viewed the rest of the roastery and got to watch as boxes were labeled and prepped for delivery, we headed over to the Fishtown cafe. It’s the largest cafe and comes with a full food and drink menu along with selling a variety of La Colombe merch. They make their pastries in house, and I had some amazing French Toast with a dirty chai (one of the latest company offerings!). It’s a full service cafe, but the first thing that I noticed was that they have oat milk located on the bar for guests to use. I hope more cafes will have alternative milks readily available, because it can be annoying to have to bug a busy barista for the oat milk.

While chowing down, we got to chat with several La Colombe employees, including one of the founders, Todd Carmichael.

His passion for coffee really comes through and he is a super interesting guy. If you’re interested, he had his own show on the Travel Channel called “Dangerous Grounds” and you can watch it here.

Before we left, they popped open two cans of the then-newest offering from La Colombe: Hard Cold Brew Coffee. While I enjoyed it, I don’t think I could drink a full one.

It was a fascinating experience and thank you to all who helped! (Special shout-out to Ali!)

The Koffee…

A five-layered tulip latte art image in a white porcelain cup with matching saucer and demitasse spoon. Poured August 2019.

One of my earliest memories is of my paternal grandmother drinking a coffee-like substance out of a tiny china cup. Apparently, she would let me take sips of whatever it was she was drinking, coffee or tea. I was primed for a love of coffee early on.

Like many others, I first started really drinking coffee in college. It started out with visits to Starbucks for caramel macchiato breaks from studying but didn’t really grow from there until a few years later when I became a regular at Dunkin’ Donuts. (Sometimes they would have my medium-iced-coffee-cream-and-sugar ready for me when I reached the register.)

In 2014, as manager of a small grocery store/sandwich shop, I invited a small coffee roaster to come by the store and offer individual pour-overs as well as bags of coffee beans for sale. I was given a free pour-over and was mesmerized by the experience of it. And then I didn’t know what to do. Because here I had this amazing, fresh cup of Colombian coffee, and I thought it rude to go dump half and half in it. And so, I drank it straight, black. It wasn’t as bad as I thought.

My coffee experience has taken me from Peet’s to Blue Bottle to La Colombe and a few other places we won’t mention here. I have spent hours in training, trying to get my milk the correct temperature and the right consistency. I’ve wasted at least two cow’s worth of milk trying to perfect my rosetta. I’ve spilled coffee on at least one customer and myself, frequently. My index finger is permanently encrusted with espresso dust and I sometimes find coffee beans in my shoes.

Even though I’m leaving the world of coffee for education, coffee will always be a part of my life and I look forward to taking you along with me as I visit cafes all over Korea!