Get to Know Canada’s Coffee Scene

For Monthly Coffee‘s February issue, I wrote a piece about Canada’s Coffee Scene. It was published in Korean, but I was given permission to upload the English version online for those interested.
You can find the Korean article in the February Issue of Monthly Coffee Magazine, available for subscription online or at Korean bookstores.

Monthly Coffee Magazine, February Issue (pages 122-123)

When I used to live in Canada, my experience with coffee was limited to a single purpose: keeping me awake. Those long nights in university where I wrote entire final papers, or where I studied an entire month’s worth of material for an exam? They were made possible because of coffee. But surely there must have been more to Canada’s coffee scene than this, was there not? So now, in an ironic turn of events, I’m now living on the other side of the world and have set out to learn about Canada’s coffee scene by speaking with some of its coffee experts. 

The first step was to better understand the inner workings of Korea’s coffee community, so I would have something to compare Canada’s to. Having only been in the community for a little over a year, I knew that I hadn’t yet gained a deep enough understanding of it. So, I sat down with Pont Coffee, located in Yongsan, to get a professional overview of Korea’s coffee scene. To put it briefly, they shared that the specialty coffee culture here started around 10-15 years ago, and during this short time it has grown quickly. It was noted that these days, we’re finding ourselves at a transition point where we’re seeing more people moving from commercial coffee towards specialty coffee. But at its heart, coffee has acted and continues to act as a medium to bring people together.

Pont (Yongsan, Seoul)

When it comes to its history, Canada’s coffee culture parallels Korea’s – where although quite young, it has also been on a quick upwards trajectory. Specialty coffee in Canada made its debut around the years 2005-2010, though it was closer to 2010 where stronger local efforts were made to create a vibrant coffee scene. At this time some earlier coffee shops began to offer very comprehensive support to other cafes. Roasters also began to offer more local support in many ways – such as through products, supplies, expertise, and training. People began to execute at a high level and build organizations around that, because it became apparent that if they put in great effort, Canada could also do coffee as good as anywhere else. And from there, things began to take off. 

Pont (Yongsan, Seoul)

At present, Canada is going through a transition – one similar to the transition taking place in the Korean coffee scene. It is undergoing a shift from coffee shops serving just drip coffee with cream and sugar, to ones that are more specialized into providing different types of coffee with much more information about them. This transition is being led by the younger generations who are showing a strong preference for more specialized coffees. Two factors play into this. The first is that specialty coffee has become more available as opposed to only catering towards a specific class of people who can afford a more expensive beverage. Secondly, the younger generation appears to care more about the quality of products – and that’s what specialty coffee delivers. There is a hunger for younger consumers to understand where the products come from, if they’re ethical, and if there are things in place to ensure the well-being of everyone that touched that product. So, they don’t mind paying a little bit more for that. 

Namusairo (Jongno-gu, Seoul)

Some differences in the coffee scene between Korea and Canada come directly from the size of each country. If we directly compare the size of South Korea to that of Canada’s, we’ll find that almost one hundred South Koreas fit into one Canada. As a result of the vastness of this country, you won’t see a strong coffee culture all across Canada, rather there are pockets of growth. This could be directly related to population density. The more people there are, the more likely you will find a coffee shop of higher caliber. It is statistically less likely that the very best is going to be in less populated areas, because they would need to be supported by a community who is into that specific approach to coffee. So, it appears that specialty coffee paces with urban development. But although spread out and sometimes appearing segregated, the community has been developing more synergy and togetherness than before, aided by two major developments: competitions and the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Competitions create an opportunity for the country to come together. They drive the standard of quality coffee and push boundaries, all while allowing people to learn from one another and expand their sense of Canadian coffee culture outside of the city where they work. The formation of the Canadian chapter of the SCA has also created a bit more of a connection. Where before different organizations and committees would organize and coordinate coffee events, now the SCA takes on these roles as a singular entity.

One of the biggest advantages of the Canadian market is that people are drinking a lot of coffee. However, the majority of coffee drinkers in Canada don’t think about the quality of their coffee, rather they just drink coffee because it is coffee. The majority of coffee consumption in Canada is for functional purposes. Coffee is observed as a sort of daily ritual, as a means to support waking you up and starting your day. According to their interests, people will substitute that out for coffee that is of higher quality, but you won’t often see people foregoing a coffee in the morning to enjoy it socially in the afternoon. 

Do I have coffee in morning meetings? All the time. But how often am I in a meeting at 3-5pm and someone’s having coffee? Not much. Or how often do I go out for dinner and then go for an evening coffee? Not often. It’s just less common in Canada.

Brett Johnston, product developer in coffee

This perception of coffee as a way to start your day plays a pivotal role in coffee shop open hours. Whereas Korean coffee shops will remain open past my bedtime, Canadian cafes open and close earlier, typically somewhere between 7:00am – 4:00pm. Another factor playing a role in these opening times might be coming from a wrong approach to coffee. You could say that many Canadians drink coffee like it’s water. They will end up drinking too much coffee in the morning, which later results in exhaustion. They become over-caffeinated because they haven’t supplemented their coffee drinking with other sustenance. Another compelling reason for earlier cafe times is Canada’s family-centered culture. A lot of people finish their work and go straight back home to spend time with their family. If they spend time with their friends, they will typically invite them over to their home. If they want to drink coffee, they will drink it at home and not at a cafe. As opposed to Korea where social life typically takes place outside of the home. And many times it’s coffee shops that become the space for these interactions to take place in. 

Upstanding Coffee (Yongsan, Seoul)

“Americano! Americano! I’ll have one Americano please!”, we’ve all heard this ordered so many times in Korean coffee shops, haven’t we? Does the same remain in Canada? Not quite. Canada’s drink of choice is called a “double-double”. It’s not an item that’s found on the menu, but it’s a term that everyone is familiar with. “I’ll have a double-double please!”. So, what is it? A double-double is simply a coffee with two creams and two sugars. Simple, and unbeatable. You can’t compete with the popularity of this drink. But it’s trending down a little as younger generations are preferring more specialized coffee. Now how many more times have we heard “One iced Americano please!”? So much in fact that there is a term for people who drink them all the time, right? “얼죽아” (ul-juk-ah). In Canada, it’s the opposite. Canadians prefer their coffee hot, even in the summer. When I first came to Korea I was shocked by the number of people who continued to order iced drinks into the winter. Even now, as I sit writing this article at Pont Coffee, with the weather outside chilly enough for snow, I look around and see that people have for the majority ordered iced drinks. In minus degree weather! As I sit here with my hot drink, praying for warmer days. 

Camouflage Coffee (Seongsu, Seoul)

Tipping also plays a unique role in the Canadian coffee scene. It is customary to leave a tip of anywhere between $2-$5 (approximately ₩2,000 – ₩5,000) for a cup of coffee. If you don’t tip, it’s an unsaid understanding that the barista didn’t provide good customer service. During holidays, some customers give bigger tips because of the gratitude and close friendship they feel with baristas. Which leads into another point that sets Canadian coffee shops apart from Korea’s: the degree of friendship created between customers and baristas. Both countries have incredible customer service, but in Canada friendship seems to be taken to another level. Customers and baristas know each other on a deeper level, many times the same level as friends – what their hobbies are, what their favourite things are, the kind of people they are, and more. They know each other on a more personal basis. And this friendly interaction can start right away from the very first meeting. 

While some points may differ between Korea and Canada’s coffee culture, to me the heart remains the same. At the centre of each lies the idea that coffee is something complex, yet also simple. In the past, people took this complexity and made it difficult for others to be involved in the coffee community, but these days there has been a shift towards greater inclusivity. Although each country has its own preferences for the types of coffees being consumed, or the way in which cafes function, they both are creating a greater focus towards creating a community, rather than just selling an exclusive product. I’m excited to see where these shifts in coffee will take us, aren’t you?

Acoffee (Buamdong, Seoul)

A special thank you to 강호영 (Co-owner at Pont Coffee), Damian Durda (Director of Green Coffee and Quality Control and partner at Ratnagiri Estate), Sam Le (Head of Business Operations and Strategy at Pilot coffee roaster / National Coordinator at SCA Canada), Brett Johnston (product developer in coffee), and Jaimee Juhee Noh (Head Roaster & QC at De Mello Coffee, 2018 World Roaster Winner) for providing their expertise and without whom this article would be a shell of what it is now.