Biroso Coffee opened in Seoul, South Korea, in 2016. A roastery and specialty coffee shop, Biroso Coffee is on a mission to bring fun coffee experiences to a broad swath of people. Its proprietor Kim Lio says coffee saved him from the suffocating depths of stress when he was worn out by the hyper-competitive society. By retracing his steps to this day, we’ve set out to uncover the meaning of the true happiness Lio is trying to create through coffee.
For casual coffee experiences
The Gyeongui Line Forest Park is a respite in the urban center of the South Korean capital Seoul. Rich with greenery, this area is also known by locals as Yeontral Park, an ever-evolving place that was designed to encourage citizens to add their own touches to the streetscape. The discontinued railroad-turned urban oasis attracts men and women, young and old, living in the neighborhood. Biroso Coffee stands right by this park, with its red brick walls announcing its presence loud and clear.
The glass-fronted entrance offers a peek inside the store. On the second floor, which has seating for customers, large windows provide a view of trees changing their appearance by the season. Open and spacious, this store echoes Lio’s wish to allow people of all stripes to enjoy coffee casually.
“Quite a few cafes in South Korea ban children or pets,” Lio says. “At Biroso Coffee, on the other hand, we welcome customers with children just as much as others, and pets are allowed inside, too, as long as they are kept on a leash. We consider and respect the needs of customers in an effort to create an inclusive place that rejects no one.”
When it comes to coffee, however, Lio is picky. He visits origins whenever that’s possible when he selects which green beans to source for the shop.
“Before green beans arrive at Biroso Coffee from across oceans, there are producers who pour their heart into growing coffee. Our role is to figure out the character of each coffee, roast it and carefully brew a cup at a time. The beauty of this job is to share that process with customers and enjoy delicious coffees together.”
Even before starting Biroso Coffee, Lio was curious about the roots of coffee, such as how altitude, variety, weather, and other production conditions affect taste and what it smells like when coffee cherries are laid out to dry. It was in 2019 when he could finally afford a trip to coffee farms.
“I met various farm owners and producers, and witnessed their work and production steps first-hand. It struck me that taste shouldn’t be the only criteria for coffee. After that visit, I started to consider producers’ mindset and laborers’ working conditions when sourcing green coffee.”
Saved by coffee
It wasn’t until Lio was in his mid-20’s when his life had intersected with coffee.
Lio was born and bred in the rural province of Jeolla, southern South Korea. Near his family home, there is a centuries-old castle. The barks of dogs and the chirps of birds announce daybreak some distance away. In this idyllic life with family and friends, the warmth was palpable.
A turning point came when Lio was in his mid-20’s, while he was in Australia for a working holiday. There, he came across the local cafe culture, at a French restaurant where he just so happened to work by chance. Enamored with coffee, Lio spent four years down under working at a cafe while studying design. After returning to South Korea, he took a job at a Seoul-based prep school that helps students aspiring to study abroad.
“I looked forward to teaching students and thinking about their future together. But the job didn’t live up to that ideal. Everything seemed to be about money at the office. I felt suffocating discomfort every time I heard other teachers talk about students in terms of cash they brought in. That may be business as usual at any workplace. But I was young and naive, and couldn’t come to terms with it.”
Amidst all the frustration, coffee offered a moment of solace in Lio’s life.
“I was able to rest my mind when I was at a cafe. When I was talking with store staff over a delicious coffee, letting time pass me by, I started to remember my days in Australia.”
Determined to work in coffee, Lio looked for a cafe that fits his value and how he wants to live. That’s when he encountered Anthracite Coffee, which leads South Korea’s specialty coffee culture.
“I experienced many things at Anthracite Coffee, from setting up a booth at a coffee exhibition to visiting farms and brewing coffee there. By immersing myself deep in coffee, I gradually gained confidence and skills. I decided it was time to set up my own shop.”
Witness to lives
“Biroso” means “for the first time”. The name is an echo of Lio’s wish to make it easy to pronounce by people overseas, including producers, and to create a new coffee with his own hands.
Lio opened his shop in the Sinsa-dong district of Seoul. In the early days of Biroso, Sinsa-dong was permeated with a sense of gloom, with many rough sleepers and the narrow street in front of the shop keeping people away. Why, then, did Lio pick this place?
“Low rent. And I also caught wind of a rumor that a large urban park was in the works nearby. I anticipated increasing foot traffic in a few years down the line.”
With little to spend on furnishing, only the first floor of the building was open for customers at first. Business was sluggish for the first year.
That changed, however, when an urban park was completed. It brought in students from a college in the neighborhood, workers from nearby offices and local residents. To respond to the increased traffic, Lio installed seating on the second floor to expand the store’s capacity.
“I believe customers are able to settle down and relax now that we have more space. But a part of me feels a bit sad because I was closer to customers and able to casually chat with them when only the first floor was open.”
For Lio, even innocuous conversations with customers are an essential ingredient for building his ideal place.
“I have countless memories with customers. One of the regulars proposed to his girlfriend in the store in our very early days. A few years on, he is now living elsewhere but pops by every now and then. It makes me happy to witness changes in the life stages of customers, to see students grow into adulthood, enter the workforce, and get married.”
Lio values so much more than relationships with customers.
“I feel strongly about creating a workplace that’s fun for people working in it. If our staff enjoy their work, that energy comes across to customers.
But in reality, there is a long way to go before reaching my ideal. I would like to take my staff with me to farms and give them a longer vacation. But to do that requires more profit. I’m trying to overcome these realistic challenges,” Lio says, apologetically.
Still, Biroso Coffee’s staff have been with the company for an average of three years. We asked Lio what he cherishes when he interacts with his staff.
“I take it upon myself to do the grunt work myself, such as carrying heavy stuff and wiping windows, so that my staff can do their job on their own initiative. Before Covid, we went bowling after closing up the store. We have built friendships and the bond of a family. I hope to be working with them five, 10 years from now.
That said, baristas and roasters in South Korea often wish to work at different stores. So I respect the staff’s opinion. I hope for their success if they work at another shop.”
South Korea is known to have wide inequality. Competition is fierce, with people jostling for something better than others, be it history of education, overseas experience, credentials or appearance. A glimpse of the world Lio caught at a prep school was a veritable slice of this hyper-competitive society. Biroso Coffee is a refuge, a place Lio carved out for himself and countless others who reject the perpetual pursuit of betterness.
“As someone running a cafe, I do place some importance on winning a competition and expanding our business to make it a success. But there is something I cherish more. I want Biroso Coffee to be a place where people rest their hearts. I will try and grow Biroso Coffee sustainably, at just the right pace for us.”
Lio pursues happiness as he defines it, not the form of happiness imposed by society. This view was reinforced when he visited a coffee farm in Guatemala.
“I saw children trudging up and down steep, dusty hills, carrying coffee cherries. To outsiders, the scene may come across as something to be lamented, children forced to work, isolated from civilization.
But in fact, these children were all smiles, living their lives with tremendous joy. At least I thought so. That’s when It hit me that real happiness is not about earning money or power, but it’s about satisfying what your heart wants. That’s precisely why I want to live a fulfilling, heartfelt life with my dear wife and daughter, staff and customers.”
Vacillating between an ideal and reality of business, Lio has built and kept a sanctuary called Biroso Coffee. The sanctuary will live on, healing the exhausted and the worn-out in its warm embrace.
Originally written in Japanese by Shunkei Harimoto
Edited by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos by Park Jiwoo
I like the time when I have my friends over at my house on weekends and casually enjoy coffee together, grinding and brewing beans roasted at Biroso Coffee. I also feel happy when customers say my coffee is delicious.