Korean Women Are Starving Themselves to Afford a Cup of Coffee

South Korea has gone mad for Starbucks, whose coffee is considered a status symbol: Its capital, Seoul, has the most locations of the chain of any city in the world.

|
Jan 19 2015, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Neil Conway

For coffee drinkers, it seems as though there's no in-between on feelings when it comes to Starbucks, the java behemoth with more than 21,000 locations in over 65 countries: Either you dig those signature super dark roast beans, or you prefer the brew offered up by your local coffee shop. And sometimes, those personal opinions appear to manifest on a national level: Australia, for example, with its booming craft coffee movement, has repeatedly said no thanks to Starbucks coffee, forcing dozens of under-patronized stores to close. South Korea, on the other hand, has gone mad for the 'bucks. Its capital city, Seoul, is home to the most branches of any city in the world: 284 as of last summer.

It's a surprising figure for a country whose traditional beverages are not coffee, but rather soju, a liquor made from fermented rice, and green tea. But a study released last week shows that Koreans are largely dispensing with tradition when it comes to their eating and drinking habits. According to the International Business Times, which explained the results of the South Korean study, coffee has muscled past kimchi—South Korea's national dish—to become the most-consumed food in the country. On average, the study showed, South Koreans drink coffee 12.2 times per week; they eat kimchi, a mix of fermented vegetables that has been a part of the Korean diet since the 1500s, 11.9 times per week and white rice only 6.9 times per week.

Starbucks arrived in South Korea in 1999, when it opened its first branch in Seoul inside a prestigious all-female university. South Koreans took to the chain's coffee with startling avidity, and as the company opened more and more stores the beverage became something of a status symbol. In Seoul, a cup of joe is enormously expensive, running about $3.80 for a tall Americano, which in the US costs just $2.25. So it seems that South Koreans' taste for the brew is as much informed by their desire to be fashionable as it is by their palates.

"A paper cup from Starbucks and other franchises has become a status symbol when walking down the street—similar to carrying a famous brand handbag," Daniel Jong Schwekendiek, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, told NBC News in an article published yesterday.

Coffee has become such a powerful indicator of class in South Korea that a phenomenon known as "doenjang," or "bean paste girls," has taken hold. The term refers to a set of young women who are so concerned with affording conspicuous luxuries that they'll skimp on meals; doenjang is a fermented soybean paste used to make one of the country's cheapest dishes, doenjang jjigae, a sort of hodge-podge stew that's extremely cheap to prepare at home. The Korean rapper Psy—remember that guy?—popularized the phrase (and satirized the social set it describes) back at the end of 2012 when he released his internet-conquering hit "Gangnam Style." "A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee," he raps, apparently sarcastically, in the song.

South Korea's coffee craze shows no signs of slowing down: the country produced about 657,000 tons of beans in 2013, a bug jump from the 255,000 tons it grew in 2003. And Starbucks is far from being the only choice available to Seoul's hipster youth, with chains such as America's The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Italy's Pascucci opening locations in the city, as well. With so many young women foregoing hearty meals to be able to afford their java, let's hope there's enough bean paste to go around.