In the 16th century, the Catholic Church labeled coffee the devil’s drink.
In today’s South Korea, parishes have turned to cappuccinos and lattes to help bring in the masses.
Soon after Lee Kyung-hun was appointed at Heukseok Church just south of the city’s main Han River, he opened a café in the church compound in 2009 to tap into a strong coffee shop culture in the South Korean capital.
“Parishioners, especially young people, gave an explosive response,” he says. “Coffee became a medium linking the faithful with each other and our café became a hot spot.”
Recently, some 60 percent of those who were baptized in his parish were in their 30s and 40s, a contrast to other parishes, says Father Lee, where the elderly make up the majority.
“Also, attendances at daily Mass increased,” he says.
Whereas as members of his congregation would previously disappear after Mass, the lure of freshly made coffee means that many now linger.
“I was surprised to be served a coffee by the parish priest himself,” says Rosa Yoo Seung-a, a 37-year-old parishioner. “Most of all, the price is cheap.”
Whereas big brands like Starbuck’s charge between 4,000 and 5,000 won (US$4-5) for an americano – prices that place South Korea in the top bracket compared to the rest of the world – Fr Lee’s church café charges just 2,000 won a cup.
The laws of coffee economics in South Korea are not a simple case of supply and demand, however. Market research shows that when high-end establishments in the South Korean capital have lowered their prices the result has often been a reduction in customers.
Seoul coffee shops are typically places for the young and restless to see and be seen, a point noted by the rapper Psy when he talks about what constitutes the Gangnam Style described in his recent chart-topping track of the same name.
Whether this logic translates to the Church though remains unclear.
“We don’t need to pay rent, loyalty or salaries for workers unlike other cafés so we can offer a high quality of coffee at a low price,” says Fr Lee.
Even so, profit is being made and redistributed to help fund poor students, overseas missionaries and repair the houses of poor people living in the area.
Meanwhile, the parish coffee shop model has started to spread. Some 200 baristas have been trained under Fr Lee's tutelage who have gone on to set up a Catholic Barista Association which is starting to branch out to other parishes.
Of the 226 parishes in Seoul, 10 now have their own coffee shops and the trend is expanding beyond the capital. In Suwon, a city about 32 kilometers south of Seoul, parishes building new churches have been told to incorporate cafés as standard, which makes sense in a country which is home to 20,000 mostly thriving coffee shops and ranks as the 11th largest importer of coffee beans in the world.
“The aroma of coffee can reach through the walls blocking people’s minds,” says Fr Lee. “I hope that more parishes can attract people with the aroma of coffee.”