Korean canned coffee – a reasonably complete guide
Koreans drink a lot of coffee. They drink lattes from Starbucks or any of the many similarly-styled local coffee chains. They drink it from tiny paper cups from free coffee dispensers in restaurants (I love these, and rarely pass them up), and from similar but dirtier street-side vending machines that generally cost about ₩300, or thirty cents. There’s the ubiquitous Maxim instant coffee mix which is a fixture of every workplace. In cute independent coffee shops, all seemingly inspired by one of the many coffee shop-themed k-dramas, you can get “hand drip” coffee, which is an almost-uniquely Korean concept where filter coffee is turned into something rarified and elaborate.
Korea and coffee are a good fit; Koreans work such long hours, and in Korea you are always on the move. I drank a lot of coffee before I came to Korea, but being here hasn’t helped to reduce my consumption any.
I am already getting tangential; the subject of this post is another of Korea’s favoured methods of coffee consumption: canned coffee.
I’m a big fan of canned coffee. I discovered it within a few days of coming to Korea. Simultaneously I discovered the Korean convenience store’s habit of offering three-for-two deals, and soon I was starting each morning by purchasing three cans of coffee, two of which I downed immediately, saving one for later. Orientation was hectic.
I quickly settled on Cantata’s Premium Latte as my favourite, and haven’t varied much from it since. It is a popular choice, always available in every convenience store in two sizes; I really do drink quite a lot of these. But for the purposes of this article I decided to look further afield. Presented here, then, is my review of at least one variety of each of the main brands. I was originally going to try to drink them all in one day for your further entertainment, but this proved impossible.
Korean coffees-in-a-can are available cold or, particularly in winter, hot, from a heated oven located somewhere near the register in every mart. While I sometimes drink the heated coffees in winter, as much for their hand-warming value as for the taste (the aluminium cans can get really hot!), the heated coffees do seem to have more of a metallic, unpleasant taste. All of the coffees reviewed here were drunk cold.
I began my survey of canned coffees outside Gangnam’s Express Bus Terminal, when I passed up my usual Cantata in favour of this Let’s Be Cafe Time Latte. It was my first time for this particular brand, which advertises itself on the can as being Korea’s favourite canned coffee for the year 2011. It tasted equally of vanilla (a common theme, as it turned out) and caramel, which proved more unusual. Not caramel as in “a hint of caramelization to this dark-roasted coffee bean”; more caramel as in the syrup flavouring that would go in a caramel milkshake. It also tasted of tap water and had a sharp metallic aftertaste. Its coffee taste was like that of coffee ice-cream: there, but not really present to any substantial degree. It had no noticeable effect on my levels of alertness.
Coming home from the bus sop, I stopped at my local convenience store and picked up this can of Baba Vanilla Delight, which turned out to be quite good. Its can reassures you in fluent Konglish of its potential to delight: “Classy people of Urban lifestyle enjoys Drip coffee with rich aroma & taste of Arabica coffee beans. Classy coffee or urban style, it’s baba.”
As you can see, it also featured a suave urban Korean man – celebrity? – on its can.
The promised vanilla was present, but actually no more so than in other canned coffees. It wasn’t too sweet, and had a solid coffee taste, although not strong enough for my liking, and like the Cafe Time Latte it proved to have little kick. If only it had been stronger, I might have considered switching from Cantata to Baba’s Vanilla Delight, as I am nothing if not a classy person of urban lifestyle.
The next day I picked up three new coffees to try. First up was Marawaka’s Blue Mountain 100
Wonder Bean Coffee ( for some reason, almost all Korean canned coffees label themselves “Wonder Coffees” somewhere on the can.*) *My mistake. I read “원두” as “wonder” – I thought it was Konglish. It actually means “bean”, so they are saying it is “bean coffee”, or as we would say, “real coffee”. Doubtful in all cases.) Marawaka seem to be going after the relatively small market of socially conscious Korean hippies, with its foresty packaging and fair trade certification. It claims to be an Espresso coffee, and was relatively true to this claim; if, that is, you diluted a single espresso shot with enough water to fill a 240mL can. It would have been better if the can was smaller and the coffee was stronger; however it did have a strong coffee taste. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the lack of masking from the vanilla and sugar flavours of other coffees, it turned out to have a more noticeable metallic aftertaste than most others I tried.
Next up was Starbucks’ Doubleshot Espresso & Cream. I’ve had Starbucks canned and bottled coffees here before; as you might expect from an American product, they are invariably far too sweet, and this proved no exception. While it did have quite a strong coffee kick to it, this was overwhelmed by the sugar and the cream, which was strongly present both in taste and mouthfeel. A cloying, revolting canned coffee, although I imagine some people would like it in Pepsi challenge-style blind taste tests.
Having consumed the Starbucks and the Marawaka Blue Mountian coffees I actually had a decent coffee buzz, so I held off a few hours before tackling my next canned coffee: 7/11 brand
Wonder Bean Coffee Original. It advertises “Premium Coffee Directly Extracted From The Carefully Selected Guatamalan, Brazilian, Columbian Coffee Beans. Taste The Freshness And Aroma.” Which is certainly a lot of capitalization for some generic and dubious claims. At 175mL, it was smaller than most of the coffees I tried. A sort of Americano-style coffee, it tasted watery and of aluminium; not even an aftertaste, this was present from the first sip. After a moment this faded down to an odd sort of tingling on the tip of my tongue, like biting aluminium foil. A horrible coffee that is best avoided.
Sometime later in the week, I picked up a few more to try from my local supermarket. First up was another of Lotte’s “Let’s Be” branded coffees: Let’s Be Mild Coffee. I’d actually had this coffee before, as sometimes it is the only available brand at vending machines here. Its English tagline is the unpleasant-sounding “Whenever you need a satisfying sip or miss that savoury scent… Let’s be”. Savoury…?
The taste was perhaps the worst of any of the canned coffees I’ve tried. This was almost black coffee, but with a dash of creamer, as if the coffee was trying to please everybody, or had some kind of personality crisis. It was syrupy and disgustingly sweet, and I couldn’t finish it. I can confidently say I will never again be needing a satisfying sip or missing its savoury scent.
Maeil’s Chocolate Cafe Latte was next. It was actually quite pleasant, resembling a mocha flavoured milk – perhaps unsurprising, as they are a milk company. The presence of coffee was mild and it had no measurable effect on my alertness.
Georgia House’s Max was a surprise – from the name and can I expected a strong black coffee, but it actually tasted very similar to my favourite Cantata, with perhaps less vanilla: somewhat milky, not overly sweet, with a pleasant mouthfeel. It was “strong” in comparison to other canned coffees, although none of them are really strong like a real cappuccino, or even a shot of coffee made in the Korean style from Maxim’s coffee powder. I also like its bright yellow and black can, a pleasant change from the generic tan and brown of most of the canned coffees.
Finally, my default coffee – Cantata’s Premium Latte, available in every convenience store in regular canned form and the larger, more bottle-shaped can. A well balanced coffee with a lot of milk and flavours of vanilla and something strange, like nutmeg – although I don’t think it is that – along with the traditional hint of metal, particularly when warm. Always drinkable and something I will continue to pick up regularly when I’m out and my energy dips in the afternoon, or I’m early for school and want to have a cigarette outside my local 7/11.
It is still the canned coffee I would recommend to a newcomer, although I might again buy Georgia Max or Baba Vanilla Delight for variety. If you prefer black coffees, I found the Marawaka Blue Mountain to be the best of those I tried.
There are other canned coffees to try, and I’ll get to them and review them in time, but that’s probably enough for now, if only because I’m having trouble thinking of new adjectives to describe things that mostly taste quite similar to one another, and because I think I’ve done enough to justify the “reasonably complete” part of the title of this article.