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[Coffee Klatch] Time travel to 1920s cafe scene at Coffee Hanyakbang

By Kim Da-sol

Published : Sept. 16, 2023 - 16:00

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Filtered coffee is freshly brewed at Coffee Hanyakbang. (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald) Filtered coffee is freshly brewed at Coffee Hanyakbang. (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald)

There are many places in Seoul where history stays alive. With a focus on retaining the original structure and exterior, the former gas stations, public baths or shuttered banks and schools grab attention for their unique mood and satisfy a thirst for new temporal and spatial experiences.

Walk down an old narrow alley between the skyscrapers of Euljiro in central Seoul and one may encounter a hospital from the Joseon era, known as Hyeminseo. Heo Jun, a Korean physician who was also the chief physician of the royal hospital in the court of King Seonjo and King Gwanghae, is known to have lived here his whole life.

Some 560 years since its establishment, Hyeminseo has transformed into a coffeehouse and bakery. But the mood remains that of yesteryear, thanks to Kang Yoon-seok, the owner of Coffee Hanyakbang. "Hanyakbang" brings together its past and the present, meaning "herbal medicine shop."

According to Kang, who renovated the old structure and opened the coffee shop 10 years ago, the mood here is fixed to the 1920s, an era of influx of Western culture.

“I’ve always wanted to keep the congenial atmosphere of the old alleys in Seoul, like the areas near Pimatgol. I felt very sorry to see so many places lose their originality in the name of redevelopment,” said Kang, adding that he saw the potential of many places with history that could be born again with a unique mood.

Serving counter at Coffee Hanyakbang (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald) Serving counter at Coffee Hanyakbang (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald)

Stepping inside Coffee Hanyakbang, first thing that captures one’s attention is the splendid mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer counter. On the left is a wooden table from China's Song Dynasty. Above is a lamp used during World War II. All the artifacts were either collected by Kang or donated.

The coffee aroma feels even more special at Hanyakbang with the retro vibe from a mix of antique furniture and items from all over.

Pursuing the slow but original method of drip coffee, the steady seller here is filtered upon order. Two to three baristas stand at the counter doing pour-overs around the clock.

Due to its name, some visitors mistake the place for a literal herbal medicine shop. Although the name reflects the location's history as a Joseon-era hospital, Kang said they began to sell ssanghwatang -- an herbal tonic tea -- when people came in thinking it was an herbal medicine shop. The color of the dark, filtered coffee is also similar to that of Korean herbal medicine.

Coffee Hanyakbang opens every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except on weekends, when it opens at 11 a.m. The price of filtered coffee varies, while latte and other varieties are priced at around 5,000 won.

Desserts are available at Hyemindang, a bakery and sister cafe located just across from Coffee Hanyakbang.

Filtered coffee (Coffee Hanyakbang) Filtered coffee (Coffee Hanyakbang)
Latte (Coffee Hanyakbang) Latte (Coffee Hanyakbang)

Seoul has over 25,000 cafes with many opening and closing each year. The Korea Herald visits unique cafes in Seoul that satisfy people’s taste for both coffee and atmosphere, with the aim of experiencing coffee drinking as a culture. – Ed.