In 2009, Anthracite Coffee was established in a renovated abandoned shoe factory in Seoul, and now has 5 shops in Korea. While in pursuit of delicious coffee, the company is unique in that it offers not only specialty coffee but commercial coffee as well. We spoke to Ms. Hyun Ju Bang (hereinafter, referred to as “Bang”), a founding member of the company.
Not old-and-worthless but old-but-beautiful
things by reforming an abandoned shoe factory in Hapjeong-dong. The first founder came to Korea after studying music and philosophy in New York in the 2000s.
“In New York, he studied about what was popular in America at the time, and prepared to bring it to Korea. In Korea back then, there were almost no examples of establishments taking an old space and combining it with the new, like in the industrial style, so perhaps it looked kind of fresh to people.
In the meantime, Anthracite, which was a cafe in the first place, started from a small discussion with a cup of coffee ; the unique essence found in old things, the longing for a gaze that looks into the aesthetic beauty, and the philosophy that everyday life is very closely dissolved in our lives.
However, rather than going out of our way to find something old, we looked for a cheap yet high-quality space, making sure we were getting a good value for our money. We chose this place not only for it’s antiquity and beauty, but its practicality as well.”
Unique taste that has gained the support of others
Since the summer of 2007, a coffee truck called “Kim Yak-guk”, the predecessor of Anthracite, Kim’s drug store, has been conducting light coffee roasting for about three years under the concept of ‘No machine, only drip coffee’. It was a serious experiment that was conducted with the determination to make coffee without capital.
“In order for people to understand the quality of our coffee, we talked to almost every single customer about how we brew our coffee, why our coffee has a floral flavor, where the chocolaty taste comes from. Whether it was 10 or 100 customers, we talked to almost every single one of them.
Perhaps because of that, the number of people who enjoy our coffee as well as the number of coffee fanatics has grown, including the people who come buy our coffee right after eating a meal, those who come during lunch, and those who come during the last 30 minutes of their break before they have to get back to work. I think those times were the best opportunities to really get to know and talk to our customers.”
Specialty > Commercial is not always the case
While many coffee shops that sell specialty coffees claim to be “specialty coffee shops”, Anthracite Coffee is unique in that it sells both specialty and commercial coffees.
“This is because we believe that we should not only collect specialty coffee, but also produce coffee beans that are commercial and comparable to specialty coffee. It would be easier to appeal to customers if we said ‘we only deal with specialty coffees’ but we didn’t take such a policy and would rather use those that are more cost effective.
Commercial coffees can also have an undiscovered charm. I believe that we have a duty to introduce to the world and our customers coffees that are as good as specialty coffees (although we, of course, deal with many specialty coffees). We still have a lot of work to do but I would like to discover many coffees that are still unknown, rather than dealing only with famous ones.”
I want to talk about what goes in our coffee
Anthracite Coffee is making its own blended coffee, those names are inspired by the works of world-famous writers and poets such as Natsume Souseki, William Blake, and Pablo Neruda.
“What they have in common is that they were people who expressed their philosophies to the fullest, people who talked about their own personal revolutions. I think they were people who walked their own path without wavering. The way they thought about the world and their words were both very soft.
Soseki’s Natsume works have many direct expressions, but each sentence is beautiful, isn’t it? His novel, which depicts human ugliness and folly without concealing it, but the way he talks about himself frankly is attractive. We put everything we want to say into our coffee too.”
Where there is light, there is shadow
Old things, commercial coffee, and the world of writers and poets. Anthracite coffee is unique in the way it sees the beauty in these things.
“I think there are two sides to everything. There is a bright side and a dark side. Just as there are two sides to a coin, they do not exist as separate things, but as one.
The same is true of life. Even small matters or stories contain many elements, some visible and some hidden behind the scenes. For example, we eat apples to feel satisfied and healthy but in the background there are many invisible processes from the seed to the tree, from picking until transportation to the market.
I believe that everything, seen and unseen, is beautiful, and that is why the world is running smoothly.”
Bang, who frequently travels to Japan to research coffee market trends, said, “Japan, which has quickly absorbed modern culture in Asia and adapted to Western society, is open and yet sometimes conservative, so it is appropriate to look at global trends in coffee.
Take the multinational coffee companies operating in Japan, you can feel the diversity. In Japan, there have been some civil wars, but I don’t think there were any wars that destroyed the culture. Therefore, the traditions survive today and it is fascinating to see how the people work to integrate them into the future.”
In a country like Korea, Anthracite Coffee, must be a rare thing. If you consider their use of an abandoned factory, or their acceptance of commercial coffee, looking at it objectively one can view Anthracite Coffee as shining a light on buried treasure.
“It’s not something I was particularly conscious of. However, our store is in a ruined building that many people didn’t pay attention to, and I think there is an invisible beauty to what we have created here with our own view of the world. We are currently working with five stores, starting from Hapjeong, Hannam, Seogyo, Giheung, and Yeonhui. Our guests come to talk with Anthracite over coffee.”
New or old, specialty or commercial. All of these are just standards set by humans. It is not the thing itself that is beautiful but the mind that tries to see the goodness in it. That may be the message to us hidden away in the way Anthracite Coffee operates.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
I believe that delicious coffee is coffee that someone makes for me with affection. You can tell it from their action and process. I can feel the sincerity of the person who brewed it, their energy and effort, in the coffee. I appreciate the fact that someone else is brewing the coffee for me, and no matter what kind of coffee it is, it tastes better than coffee I make for myself.