Strut Coffee is a roastery cafe founded in 2016 by Minwook Ku. Originally based in an industrial district in the city of Gimhae, near Busan, in September 2022 Minwook relocated his shop to Jeonpo – formerly a district of workshops and industry, and now a trendy hub that has attracted an eclectic mix of cafes, crafts, and creatives.
Here, where old and new cultures mix and mingle, Minwook is creating a haven of harmony, the supporting strut that brings together and balances the complex flavors of coffee, while emphasizing happiness in simplicity.
There’s more to good coffee than beans
The Jeonpo Cafe District of Busan, made popular by the New York Times “52 Places to Go in 2017,” is a former industrial-residential area which has been transformed into a fashionable district for cafes, restaurants and more.
On one of the corners stands Strut Coffee, located in a residential building constructed in around 1960s during South Korea’s booming development period.
“If we wanted to, we could construct a reproduction of an old building. But then we’d lose all the history of the original. Many of the older buildings are being pulled down and replaced with new ones, so it makes this one even more special and rare. The building has character, and I like that. So I want to bring out that old charm, but use the place in a way more suited to now.
I also want the cafe to fit with the surroundings. Before I moved, customers would comment on how hard it was to find us because the sign was so small. But I don’t want the cafe to stick out in a way that’s at odds with the rest of the area or ruins the atmosphere. That’s why my focus is on quality and craftmanship, keeping it as natural as possible. It matches my aesthetic and the aesthetic of the area, and my customers like it too.”
Minwook has taken a minimalist approach to the interior. He wants the focus to be on the coffee and nothing else, with no distractions.
“Creating a cafe in a space designed for something else means that to some extent I am creating something unnatural or artificial. To balance that, I try to use the original features as much as possible.”
The bar design prioritizes functionality to allow the barista to concentrate on what they are doing. Minwook spent a year and a half trying to perfect the interior, taking advice and feedback from baristas, specialists, family, friends, and customers.
“I want the customers to start enjoying the coffee as soon as they enter, even before they’ve had a taste. Every detail in the cafe is an essential ingredient of the whole coffee experience, from the atmosphere down to the tableware. Being aware of the environmental impact is another ingredient that I take seriously and we use cups made from sugar cane and coffee packaging lined with paper.”
Minwook’s philosophy affects the flavor of the coffee too. He wants to ensure that from roasting through to serving, as little as possible of the authentic bean flavor is lost.
“Of course, everything depends on the quality of the greens, and if we want to enhance that inherent flavor, we need to use the best quality green beans. A skilled roaster can bring out a different profile to the natural sweetness of the beans, but at Strut Coffee, we want to stay as close to the bean flavor as possible. Minimizing the flavor of the roast and instead placing emphasis on creating a profile that balances the flavor.
And we’re just as selective when it comes to choosing the milk. We do a blind test to make sure we get the best possible choice for our coffee. There isn’t a lot on the menu at Strut Coffee so we want to make sure that the items we do have are exactly what we want.
An American dream in coffee
Coffee was not Minwook’s first obsession. Since he was a boy, he has been fascinated with computers and when he went to university, he chose to major in computer engineering. After graduation, Minwook took a job in information management and big data, just outside of San Francisco. He was a regular at the coffee shops near his office, which included well-known coffee names like Ritual Coffee Roaster and Blue Bottle Coffee.
But the change happened for Minwook when he had his first Kenyan filter coffee at Ritual Coffee. It was a flavor and aroma he had never experienced before.
This was the start of his journey into discovering the depths of coffee. He decided he wanted to learn how to be a barista, and searched around for a training course. But unable to find anywhere, he instead signed up for Boot Coffee Campus to learn roasting techniques.
The more he learned about roasting, the more he saw how much it had in common with IT. Minwook discovered that, while there is an element of experience and intuition involved, much of the roasting process, like choosing the ideal temperature for example, is based on data. This logical aspect of the roasting process appealed to Minwook.
“Before joining the course, I’d always thought that roasting was mostly a matter of using smell or other senses to gauge when the beans were ready. But I soon realized this assumption was very wrong. When I found out that it was actually down to observation and collecting data, I knew that it was something I would enjoy.”
Minwook wanted to enroll in another course, but when he found out it was already at capacity, he asked to take part as a volunteer and learned as much as he could from the sidelines.
The instructor of the course was Willem Boot. Owner of Boot Coffee and founder of Gesha Village Coffee Estate in Ethiopia, Willem also successfully introduced Gesha Coffee to his plantation in Panama. Taking part in the course exposed Minwook to a wide variety of high-grade coffee, and his interest in coffee just kept growing. Wanting to open his own cafe was the inevitable next step.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own business. Building a business means creating something from nothing, whether that’s to solve a problem or bring about innovation. And bringing something into the world that didn’t exist before has always appealed to me.
It’s not about how much money I can make. It’s about how happy I can make other people. That’s why making good quality coffee at an affordable price is the perfect business for me.”
Balancing perfection with flexibility
Focusing on one goal can help you achieve perfection, but taken to extremes and you stand the risk of tunnel vision. The specialty coffee industry is one constantly changing and reinventing, always on the search for something different, something new. Minwook realized early on that he had to find a balance between perfecting his craft, and keeping his mind open to new possibilities.
“Coffee is a craft for the kitchen, but if you don’t leave the kitchen from time to time, you’ll never know what’s going on outside. If you focus too much on what you want to achieve, you’ll miss learning new things and ideas. What is the best now, might not be the best in the future, and being able to adapt to these changes is as important as trying to create perfection.”
It has been six years since Minwook started Strut Coffee. Moving the shop to the gentrified Jeonpo, where cafes fight for attention along the street, most would say Minwook was plunging himself into an already saturated market. But that’s not how he sees it.
“It’s true that there’s more competition here. But that’s part of the appeal. Like they say, the flames of many candles are brighter than one, and having all these cafes here means that more people come. Coffee enthusiasts who come to Jeonpo have the chance to try lots of different types of coffee in a small geographical area.
And I think Busan also has its own unique charm as a harbor town. We don’t have the same competitive spirit as Seoul. In Busan, we’re more about helping each other grow, cheering on our competition and succeeding together. In fact, some of the larger coffee shops provide opportunities for professionals to improve their skills, and to network with other people in the industry.”
Crafting quality to craft happiness
A good coffee shop is not just about serving good coffee. The coffee does have to be good, but Minwook sees the shop itself as being integral to the experience.
“My role as owner is to make sure that every customer has a great experience. It’s not the only thing I do, but it’s one of the most important.
Before owning a cafe, I was a customer. I try to create a space where someone like me could come and relax, and enjoy their coffee without any distractions.”
Even when he worked in IT, Minwook wanted to focus on providing a quality experience. Rather than designing a huge system or software, he wanted to create something that could make a difference to people’s daily lives.
“Coffee that you drink in a cafe has a special kind of magic to it. It has its own beauty, it has something that makes the customer dream about maybe owning their own shop. On the surface, coffee appears to be something creative. But in fact, like IT, it’s more about the ability to repeat the same simple yet delicate processes over and over again.
At Strut Coffee, I want people to see the beauty and joy in everyday things, even something as commonplace as a cup of coffee, or a pencil. Like drinking a plain glass of water from a well-crafted glass – you can discover moments of happiness in the smallest of things.
Happiness doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can come from anything. That’s why improving the quality of everyday items is so important to me. I want to make sure these things are visible and not hidden.
That’s the basic principle of minimalism, removing clutter to allow the mind to focus on what matters. It’s hard to express it in words, but for me, prioritizing authenticity and quality is everything.
I enjoy learning about all the different profiles of coffee, but what I love most is the happy moments coffee gives me. Especially my morning coffee. First thing in the morning, free from interruptions, I can just focus on enjoying the coffee, enjoying the moment. That’s when the flavor really comes through. Taking that time for myself starts my day off on a positive note and makes it a little bit special. And that’s what makes coffee so great for me.”
Text: Mariko Sato
My favorite coffee is on the mornings when I’ve no work and I’m just hanging out with my wife and family.