In Korea I tried a lot of cafes, and drank a lot of bad coffee on the way to finding the great cafes that I’ve written about here. Coffee is expensive (I’ve paid as much as $15 for a bad cup of coffee in Seoul), so after a while I started avoiding places with signs that the coffee might not be good. Here are those rules of thumb – but keep in mind that there are numerous exceptions and you sometimes just have to try a place and hope to be surprised!
1. If the shop roasted its own coffee in house on a prominently displayed small batch roaster (or especially an air roaster), it probably meant that you were going to get either bland or terrible coffee. Naturally there are many exceptions, but in Seoul it was very very common for all kinds of cafes to roast their own coffee to give them the aura of artisan production and promote misguided ideas of freshness, when in reality someone on staff just burnt the beans every time. I went to one shop who literally roasted the coffee for you AFTER you placed your order (it was bad). You have to judge whether the roaster is there for style, or if it’s there because someone that works there knows what to do with it, which is hard to do just by looking in a store window.
2. If the signage includes Chinese characters it probably means the owner is from the old school of coffee pioneers in Korea, and thus influenced by (what I assume to be, based on bits of information here and there) older Japanese philosophies of coffee roasting that dark roast, or even burn all the different coffees to achieve a ‘caramel’ and ‘roasty’ flavor. Avoid, because it’s depressing to see so much great coffee wasting away as dark roasts with very little flavor nuance.
3. If the menu offers 10-20 single-origin coffees, chances are none of them have been carefully roasted to bring out the best flavor and instead they’ll all taste fairly generic. They’re also probably stale because that much variety doesn’t turn over quickly. There are, again, exceptions at the places that really take their coffee seriously – you can see some of them in my reviews. But the practice of offering a huge selection of poorly roasted single origin coffee is so normal here that the good cafes really are exceptions to the rule.
If you have any other suggestions for what to avoid, chime in with a comment! Or if you object, tell me why :)