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Posted : 2018-02-14 17:21
Updated : 2018-02-14 17:22

When javaholic Gangneung met PyeongChang Olympics

"100 People 100 Tastes," held on Wolwha Street in Imdang-dong, Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Feb. 6, drew visitors from outside the city and the country. One hundred baristas made coffee using "peace water," a mixture of different waters from Mt. Baekdu in North Korea, Mt. Halla on South Korea's Jeju Island and the host city of the Winter Olympics, PyeonChang. / Yonhap

By Ko Dong-hwan

On Feb. 5 at Gangneung Art Center, the 132nd International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session's opening meeting was held, four days before the start of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Key players included PyeongChang Olympics organizing committee President Lee Hee-beom, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, first lady Kim Jung-sook, IOC President Thomas Bach and his wife Claudia, and former IOC President Jacques Rogge.

During the day-long meeting, one of the city's specialties was made available for the dignitaries. Stimulating their nostrils with its tangy aroma, cleansing their throats with roasted savor, awakening their senses to its instant freshness ― was coffee.

Yet, it was not just any typical java. The host city's ambitious preparation was courtesy of Terarosa, a heavyweight coffee bean manufacturer and coffee shop chain based in the eastern coastal city of Gangwon Province, which has stirred the biggest cult following in the nation. The "Mecca for coffee lovers," as heralded by its reputation nationwide, scouted eight top baristas among 150 employees across 13 locations and brought them to Gangneung with a mission to impress the guests.

After the dignitaries who sipped the coffee gave the thumbs-up, Terarosa moved on, brewing for follow-up meetings on Feb. 6 and 7 at Kensington Flora Hotel in PyeongChang in Gangwon Province. The opportunity came after the company sold 300 kilograms of its coffee beans to Mosimann's, a British Royal Warrant-holding caterer that oversees hospitality for the meetings.

Hand-dripping is a time-consuming yet worthy job for coffee lovers visiting Gangneung, where the "veranda coffee roasting" trend and vending machine coffees stoked a java boom in the city in the early 2000s. A barista percolates ground coffee at Santorini on Anmok Coffee Street in Gangneung, Feb. 10. / Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

"I think the savor of our coffee is within the top 0.01 percentile of the world's best coffee brands," Terarosa CEO Kim Yong-deok said. "Just like the top-class brands, there is a distinction for the best among different coffees. I want people who came for the Olympics from all over the world to taste Gangneung coffee, the pride of South Korea."

Gangneung coffee is not just represented by juggernaut coffee brewers like Terarosa. Hundreds of local coffee shops are attractive in their own way, roasting selective beans with their own knowhow, percolating before the eyes of visitors, and offering a cozy atmosphere with unique interiors. The experience charms visitors especially during the cold winter that hit the city and most parts of the country late last year.

And the PyeongChang Winter Olympics has brought a boom to the city of over 210,000 where all the skating events are taking place at Gangneung Olympic Park. There are signs that many visitors from abroad have dropped by local cafes. One foreign visitor was Hyon Song-wol, who led an arts troupe from North Korea and visited the city on Feb. 8 to hold a concert.

"Hyon said she heard a lot about Gangneung coffee and tasted it more than once during her visit here," said a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea who was among a joint Korean group getting together for tea time ahead of the historical performance at Gangneung Arts Center.

The Olympic boom was not hard to catch at Anmok Beach. Along the shore stretching northward from Gangneung Harbor across a narrow road are around 30 coffee shops, each cafe accommodating tables on two floors or more with walls of windows providing a beautiful view of the East Sea. The street, known as Anmok Coffee Street, is one of the city's hotspots.

"Before the Olympics, I hardly saw foreign customers," said a female barista at Santorini, one of the coffee shops there featuring a white and blue paintjob outside reminding visitors of a Greek island. "But after the Olympics started, we saw foreigners coming in quite frequently."

Lights from about 30 coffee shops, lining Gangneung's Anmok Coffee Street with Anmok Beach in front, brighten the night sky. / Courtesy of Gangneung City Office

Another barista at Cafe Albero on the street spoke of the change in clientele. "Foreigners definitely started coming in much more than before," the woman said.

Not willing to let the Olympic visitors leave without visiting the popular coffee shops during the Olympic period from Feb. 9 to 25, Gangneung is holding a world winter coffee festival centered around and near the street.

"Jazz Presso," the ninth annual international coffee event prepared by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Gangneung City Office and Gangneung Culture and Arts Foundation, is loaded with events, from hands-on to chill-and-watch. They include do-it-yourself coffee roasting and doll making with used coffee grounds, exhibitions of Gangneung's coffee history, musical performances, seminars on coffee shop entrepreneurship and hand-drips, and a hand-drip performance by 100 baristas titled "100 People 100 Tastes."

In a coffee shop tour with free giveaways entitled "Coffee Shop Stamp Rally," each coffee purchase from the 31 participating cafes gets one stamp ― collect three and win a free mug ― as well as a special gift from each shop.

Santorini, designed in 2011 by its owner who was in love with Greece, gives a free postcard printed with a photo of the much adored shop's facade. Cafe Albero, bearing a Spanish given name a barista alleged had something to do with the owner's fondness for the country, offers a free sample tasting of Cafe Bonbon or Cafe con Miel, both Spanish brews.

Other participating shops, each bearing a theme of a different country, offer free coffee samples or customary items related to the country, like Kona coffee from the Big Island of Hawaii, Cuban hand-drip and Swiss cookies. The Embassies of Kenya, Colombia, Rwanda, Brazil and Finland in South Korea reportedly did not shy away from stepping in to decorate cafes that represent their countries.

"In Gangneung, even a small cup of vending machine coffee tastes awesome," an Anmok Beach visitor said. The thought is maintained by Koreans who come to the city for a sip of "happiness," as defined by Park Yi-chu, one of the first South Korean baristas who, 20 years ago, ushered in the javaholic Gangneung.