Sure, I haven’t tried ALL the coffee shops.
But, after slow traveling the world for a decade, I believe that Korea is home to the best coffee roaster and cafe in the world.
Sure, you could always get a mean ice americano, but until very recently, coffee in Korea needed to do better.
But there was one couple quietly making exemplary coffee since 1992 on an unassuming side street in Mapo.
I don’t come from a coffee country. The one independent cafe in my neighborhood closed down when three Starbucks opened up around it in a sweet death embrace of capitalism.
Things didn’t get better when I moved to Korea when most cafes were trying to be Starbucks.
I actually stopped drinking the stuff for a decade until a friend of mine brought me to Ilya, a cafe I had passed by many times in my neighborhood.
It was run by an artsy elderly couple who had been together so long their styles matched.
I ordered a hand drip with “today’s special” beans and was hooked immediately. It had flavors I didn’t know were possible in a cup of devil’s bean juice.
My palate is a work in progress, but they were pronounced enough so I could recognize the nutty, chocolatey notes of one cup and the floral, fruity hints of another.
I don’t have a large enough vocabulary to express how complex and enjoyable each sip of their coffee is. I still believe that any word would fall short in doing it justice.
I could say their coffee is sublime while being playful yet mysterious. Or I could say that it tasted like a party in my mouth, and the right amount of people are invited.
Either way, for five years I visited their place at least once a week until I left the country.
I went through phases in my life from freelance slacker to jaded salaryman to scrappy entrepreneur, but their coffee always remained a constant. A special treat I could look forward to that would make whatever was going on in my life a little bit sweeter.
We didn’t exchange much in the way of conversation other than me awkwardly remarking that their coffee is good (it’s uncommon to say things like this in Korean for whatever reason).
We didn’t even know each other’s names.
Korea is good like that. I’ve been treated like family by people I simply call sajangnim (owner) in Mapo for a decade.
But over time they seemed to accept the fact that I wasn’t going anywhere.
So what makes their coffee better?
“Best” is often a subjective term based on preference.
For example, Australians take their coffee seriously and have been quick to tell me how they chased Starbucks out of the country like St Patrick did with snakes. But after living there for a few months I’m of the opinion that their coffee tastes like a well-made cup of acid.
Their best is different from mine.
I held this notion until I went to a craft beer brewery in Brussels and tried to order an IPA. The bartender made a tremendous effort to not roll his eyes (he was a good sport) and recommended a beer that was balanced but slightly skewed toward hoppiness.
I took one swig and realized two things. One, that I had been drinking ground-up pine cones for years, and two, that there was such a thing as “better”. The beer was fresher and more complex while being more pleasant to drink than anything I had before.
I could objectively say that their beer was better crafted (pun very much intended) than others. Whether you like it hoppy, fruity, or chocolatey is a minor detail when you’re having something at the top of its class.
The little I know about coffee, I mostly learned from conversations with the owners of Ilya.
When I came with my Korean partner, the owner would open up with Korean words well outside my range. My partner summarized the important parts including:
- water temperature matters
- beans should be roasted evenly so their sizes are consistent
- beans should be ground at a uniform size with a better grinder for even flavor
They kept it mostly a two-person show over the years with a few part-timers here and there. The coffee was always amazing. Consistency is underrated.
The male owner handles most of the roasting while the female owner does most of the baking and hand drip. She’s a virtuoso and wields it like an instrument. It’s a pleasure to watch her take meticulous care ensuring that the type of coffee is brewed at its correct temperature using a thermometer, timer, and an eagle-eye for detail.
While most cafe owners are thinking franchise after a year in business, I don’t recall them letting anyone else touch their roaster. They’re that devoted to providing the best beans and cup of coffee possible.
They’re also the reason I can’t take “tea-makaze” type places seriously when they just source the leaves.
The most surprising and refreshing part about the owners is that over the years I’ve never detected a hint of pretension in them. The male owner will speak enthusiastically at length about roasting techniques, simply because he’s passionate about the subject. The female owner has a kindness and depth that’s subtle and warms my cold, dead heart.
I’m still surprised that they use jondemal (high form of speech) with me even though I’m their kid’s age (taxi drivers will talk down to younger people within seconds of getting in their car).
You can find volumes of books on numerous subjects in their cozy cafe, including many on coffee. It brings to mind the old saying that goes, “they’ve forgotten more about coffee than I’ll ever know”.
The cafe itself plays tasteful classical music and is appointed with comfy chairs, although I would still come even if they had rusty thrift shop benches considered trendy at other places.
They don’t have an Instagram account or a loyalty card, they just make the best coffee I’ve ever had the privilege of trying.
You’ll find high-powered executives, senators and all manner of rich housewives, so don’t expect influencers and young couples.
They even have a downstairs area where they keep their roaster, oven, and all manner of coffee-related accoutrements. It’s complete with a smoking room that’s vacuumed sealed and has a fan that sucks smoke out so thoroughly that even the most sensitive asthmatic would not be disturbed.
The last time I was there, the owner mentioned that he was 70 years old and wanted to keep working for at least a decade.
If you’re someone who appreciates good coffee, I’d get it while it’s hot. I know I will.
312 Dongmak-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
서울 마포구 독막로 312 1층 일야커피
You can order beans on their website to anywhere in the world!
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