Why Are Americanos So Popular In South Korea?

When you hear the term "coffee culture," there's probably a good chance that the conjured mental image is somewhat regional. We challenge you to picture Seattle without a broody café. In New York City (where people drink nearly seven times as much coffee as fans in other U.S. cities, via Insider), coffee is as definitive as the Empire State Building. It's no secret that coffee culture is interwoven into the zeitgeist of several American cities. Earlier this month, Coffee Affection reported that U.S. coffee fans drink roughly 517 million cups nationwide every day. From 2019-2020, U.S. coffee drinkers put away a whopping 3.3 billion pounds of beans. Yet, America is only ranked 25th in global coffee consumption by country.

While it might not be the first city that comes to mind, coffee culture is alive and well in South Korea. You might know the country for soju and Korean barbecue. But, in November, The Korea National Council of Consumer Organizations reported that per-capita South Korean coffee consumption is the second-highest in the world, via BusinessKorea. Seventy percent of South Korean adults drink at least one cup of coffee every day. Perhaps most surprisingly is the country's favorite espresso drink: the Americano. According to Fourth Estate (a news outlet run by George Mason University), Americanos are the most frequently ordered coffee drink in the country. So, why are they so popular?

A favorite for fuel

The main reason for the Americano's chokehold on the South Korean coffee scene is its hefty utility. According to a Fourth Estate, 67.2% of the students at George Mason University Korea said they drink coffee as an energy stimulant; another 52.4% of students reported drinking coffee every day. The University of Horang says South Koreans call coffee a "labor drink," commonly referring to drinking a cup as getting a "caffeine transfusion." Colloquially, South Korean coffee fans have even shorted "iced Americano" to "Ah-Ah." (As in, "Can I get AH-iced AH-mericano?")

Novelty-themed cafes may be popular in South Korea, but so is instant coffee, which is about as utilitarian as a cuppa joe can get. Fittingly, the Americano's espresso-and-hot-water recipe makes it decidedly the most unglamorous type of coffee drink. There's no foamed milk or sweet flavoring to be found here. It's affordable, and it gets the job done. Maybe that's why South Korea's annual per-person coffee consumption rate was 2.7 times higher than the world average in 2018. In 2021, the South Korean coffee market was valued at $4.3 billion, says Business Korea, a massive increase from $0.3 billion in 2007. It looks like more and more folks are grabbing a regional favorite Americano paired with South Korea's go-to breakfast sandwich as a daily routine.