We talk to the 2020 South Korea Barista Champion and head roaster at Pastel Coffee Works about COVID-19’s impact in Seoul and what he’s been up to since winning the title in 2019.
BY SUNGHEE TARK
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Hyun-young Bang
Hyun-young Bang is the 2019-2020 Barista Champion of South Korea. He competed in 2019 in Seoul to represent South Korea on the world’s stage in 2020. However, the pandemic meant cancelations and a long and unpredictable wait for Hyun-young.
I met Hyun-young for the first time about a year ago, in November 2019, soon after he won the national championship. We both were on a panel and were asked to address what sustainability meant for each of us in our coffee positions. And I remember as he worriedly described the future of the coffee industry, where diversity in varieties may be threatened due to climate change, among other factors.
A year later, I met him again with a set of questions. I was writing a review article on Seoul’s coffee tour for Barista Magazine’s December 2020 + January 2021 issue and wanted to get his insight on what has been happening in Seoul during this pandemic. As a barista champion and head roaster at Pastel Coffee Works in Seoul, Hyun-young spoke to me about the impact of COVID-19 in Seoul’s coffee scene and what he has been up to since winning the championship title.
Sunghee Tark: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen since COVID-19 in Korea?
Hyun-young Bang: The first thing that we’ve noticed (at Pastel Coffee Works) is that all of the events had to be canceled. We used to host regular cupping events for the public—twice a month. They were cuppings of COE-winning lots at times, and business cuppings at others. However, it’s already been months since we last hosted them.
Moreover, as a barista, I’ve observed me and my colleagues refraining from visiting other shops with the fear to negatively affect their businesses. While we would want to support them, it also comes with a huge risk—if I’m a carrier, or have been in touch with anyone that contracted COVID-19, the business (that I visit) will have to close.
So the opportunities to share thoughts, experiences, and energy have been uprooted entirely. I’ve realized how big of a part these opportunities and spaces have had in my coffee career, only in the absence of it. You start valuing the time that you have with other coffee professionals to share the space, energy, and experiences even more.
How have you experienced the change with your clients?
While I work as head roaster at Pastel Coffee Works, I know that for baristas, the conversation and interactions with customers are an important part of customer service. However, since COVID-19, that has become a challenge. People now spending less time at the café would be a reason for the perceived distance between coffee professionals and the end consumers, as well as the literal physical space that we have with them.
Previously, in our public events, the attendees were 70% coffee professionals including baristas, and a steady 30% consisting of coffee enthusiasts with the zeal to learn more. That has changed entirely. Right now, I would say even if there is an event (not at Pastel Coffee Works), they are mostly coffee professionals needing to attend those events for their job. I regret not being able to communicate and connect with the end consumers more directly because there is definitely a synergy and learning that you get from interacting with the end consumers directly.
In Korea, people have been linking what we see now as the “Untact” era —where much of what was done through personal contact is replaced by contactless forms such as online orders. One of the observations that people make in the coffee industry is that home coffee consumption is rising. How have you experienced it at Pastel Coffee Works?
I can attest to the fact that home consumption has increased, hearing from my peers in the industry. However, we do not see that directly from our business point of view, as about 95% of our current clients are roasters or other cafés. Nonetheless, even from the little bit that we sell through our shop, the sales of coffee beans have increased. Interestingly, we have also observed the sales of decaf coffee increasing recently.
What I have also observed through our partners and peers is that there has been a rapid growth in the delivery service for coffee and desserts. These service providers deliver already brewed coffee drinks and desserts. More and more companies have appeared to support cafes to adapt to this new way of consuming coffee.
Yeah, that’s so true. I’ve been recently seeing a lot more bikes on the street from the delivery service companies. I’d like to switch the gear here to talk about your experience as a barista champion. You are the current Korean National Barista Champion, and have told me that you are waiting until the next world competition can safely be held. There is still so much uncertainty around when it can be held next, it seems. How are you feeling?
Right (laughs). Something that I’ve been saying a lot recently is that it at times feels like I’m waiting to get punished in line … (laughs). You know it’s coming but not exactly when. Certainly, there was excitement—I had competed for years to win the title to compete on the world stage. But with all the cancelations and uncertainties that ensued, I have to admit that there’s been a lot of stress. The first cancelation posed lots of stress for me, frankly, and I had suffered from emotional and physical distress for about six months as I prepared for the world championship after that first cancelation. Then there was another rescheduling and canceling. By then, it was, to be honest, quite embarrassing to still hold the title. I was just sorry for my team, and everyone else in the Korean coffee scene. No more highlight was needed for me, and it would also mean more (unknown) time to invest for many that are getting ready for the national competition—I’ve been there preparing for the competitions so I feel even sorrier.
Have you been practicing for the World Stage nonetheless?
I have been taking a day on and off to run the simulations each day in preparation for the world stage. Compared to before when we had the fixed date for the world competition, the frequency has reduced, but I try to not lose touch with my routine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sunghee Tark is the co-founder of Bean Voyage, a feminist organization that collaborates with smallholder womxn coffee producers to build an equitable coffee value chain. She is also a freelance coffee writer, Specialty Coffee Association LEAD Scholar, and Re:co Fellow.