In 2002, NAMUSAIRO COFFEE was opened in Seoul to serve as a multiplex space for people to meet, and in 2013, the café moved to a renovated space in an old house built in the 1950s. We interviewed the founder, Ms. Junsun Bae, who is also a former pianist.
Living without defying Nature
Namusairo is an abbreviation of a Korean word meaning “a road winding through the trees.” The founder, Junsun Bae, came up with this name after a trip to Europe.
“When I was on a train in Switzerland, I suddenly realized that the tracks were winding through the mountains. If you cut through the mountains and built tunnels, you could get to your destination faster. If you are aiming for economic growth in a capitalist society, you wouldn’t build such tracks.
As I was thinking about this, I realized that the reason why the railroad tracks are winding is to avoid harming other life forms. At the time, I was reading a lot of books about how long we can continue to live with economic growth as our goal, and how long the fossil fuel era will last. I thought that it was in the nature of human beings to live without going against the environment.”
This way of life can be seen in the fact that although she deals in specialty coffee, she does not actively use the word “specialty”.
“We started buying and roasting coffees with clear information such as the place of origin in 2003, but in the beginning, there was a repulsion from people with preconceived ideas and stereotypes about coffee. There were a certain number of enthusiasts who could not accept the unique flavor of specialty coffee.
On the other hand, the general public just said clearly “It’s delicious”. The situation surrounding specialty coffee has changed drastically in the past nearly 20 years, but regardless of the level of recognition and understanding, good coffee was and still is delicious.
However, it is also true that the emergence of the concept of “specialty” has created an uncomfortable situation. Coffees with high scores in cupping and coffees with unique flavors are called ‘specialty coffee’, and this has an advantage in marketing, but the term also contains a nuance of ‘something better than the rest’.
This in no small way affects the mindset of the people involved in specialty coffee. In a country with a high level of educational fervor, people have a sense of ‘I deal in specialty coffee. I’m not a typical coffee lover’. I feel a smack of arrogance in such a frog-in-the-well way of thinking.”
For Junsun Bae, the object of his curiosity probably just happened to be “specialty coffee”.
“I believe that specialty coffee is not a “special” coffee, but a natural entity that encompasses everything that we humans relate to: nature, climate, labor, diversity, and love for humanity.”
Music and coffee bring people together
Junsun Bae used to be a pianist who also composed music and organized concerts. Her main interest is in ethnic music. As her interest in non-European music and the relationship of music to politics and society grew, she began to visit people living in remote areas or those who were not familiar with music; she increased chances to give performances to make them feel closer to music.
“I started dreaming of a space where people from the community who are interested in us could come and go naturally, and that’s when the idea of opening a café was born. However, we didn’t have a clear goal from the beginning.
What I wanted to create was a ‘complex space where people could meet’, so I first thought of a way of life where I could connect books and music through a bookstore while also creating my own works. But that didn’t seem to be enough to make a living, so I decided on a café that would allow me to realize my ideal while also earning a living. In a café, I can play good music and introduce books.”
She has heard a lot from her friends and customers since opening the cafe. “Isn’t it a waste of time to be in the coffee business when you have been practicing the piano so hard since childhood?”
“Piano, ethnic music, and coffee are all on the same path. I still regret that I was not able to visit as many places as I wanted in the world when I was studying ethnic music. That is why I am now taking a deeper interest in music and listening more to the voices of the local people.
If I had been working for a company, I would not have been able to go to places like Ethiopia, Kenya, or the Congo. Because I work in the coffee industry, I have the opportunity to visit those places”
Coffee blend with a history
NAMUSAIRO COFFEE will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. It has been operating in the same area for 16 years since 2005 in the heart of Seoul.
“The landlord of the previous building terminated our contract, so we had to move from the shop where we spent about eight years to the current place. If we moved to a new place in a different area, we could not have seen our customers who used to come and communicate with us daily. So I decided to move to the traditional style old house built in the 1950s across the street and remodeled it to create a unique café.”
Namusairo Coffee’s famous blend Love Letter was born from this episode.
“Even if we don’t see each other as we have in the past, the memories of Namusairo that exist in our customers will come back to life with excitement somewhere in the future. We could send them through Love Letter ‘we remember you. How are you?’ That’s how I named this product.”
Love Letter, taken from the title of a Japanese movie, is a coffee blend of African coffee and decaf.
“This has little to do with the story of the film, but at the time, we had some delicious decaf coffee and some very unique Kenyan coffee in our warehouse. The decaf coffee was good, but boring due to its decaffeination, while the Kenyan coffee was a little too distinctive and acidic. When I mixed the two together, they complemented each other perfectly to create a delicious coffee.
This Love Letter and other blended coffees have 19 years of our history engraved in them. Coffees born from the concerns and events of each era are gradually growing in our product lineup.”
Space where memories accumulate
Perhaps it is because she has been valuing the time she spends with her customers. That many customers have been coming to NAMUSAIRO COFFEE for a long time.
“There are customers who still visit us since we first opened in 2002, and there are mothers and fathers who have said to us, ‘I was a student at the time’ at our headquarter in Seongnam, where we have a small coffee bar and roasting facility. There are customers who have been given our coffee as a gift in a situation where they have been proposed to and decided to get married, or who were drinking Namusairo’s coffee when they were proposed to.
Ten years ago, while I was roasting coffee in a coffee bar, a man came to me and asked for the best coffee. He told me that his father-in-law, who used to visit Namusairo, had passed away and he wanted to put the coffee he liked the best in his coffin.
I believe that Namusairo stays alive in the memories of countless (number of) people in such a way that it is hard to put into words. I’m sure that every time those memories come back to them, they visit our shop. In the sense that our coffee has become a part of their daily lives, I think coffee is a beautiful tool that brings people together.”
Junsun Bae has an unforgettable memory.
“It was about ten years after I started working with coffee. I was a lecturer at a traveling event teaching knowledge and skills on coffee, and I met a young man who wore a badge on his bag.
The familiar badge was a gift to the people who came to see our performance in the backcountry ten years ago. The young man who wore the badge in a prominent place on his bag did not do so to please me. He liked the performance and the badge so much that he has been wearing it on his bag for the past 10 years. I was touched by that.”
Empathy is not something to be forced or created, but something that comes naturally. Perhaps it is this stance that makes NAMUSAIRO COFFEE “a space where memories accumulate”.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
I drink a lot of coffee every day, but since it's part of my job, I don't have many opportunities to feel happy even when I drink good coffee. Happiness is something that comes once in a while, and if that happiness continues all the time, I am not sure whether I am happy or not.
Nevertheless, I feel happiest every year when the new season comes and the producers send me their offer samples. Since we have been doing business with those producers on a long-term basis, I am very happy when I can drink their coffee with anticipation and find good coffee.
Sometimes I think "This producer must have worked very hard last year”. When I think of the roasters, coffee lovers, and customers who use this coffee every day and are happy, I feel a great sense of happiness.