I first spotted a coffee pouch on my friend’s Instagram story when he was visiting Korea. I didn’t think much of it at first, but a few weeks later when I was visiting Korea with my parents, they resurfaced the video for me. “Oh we must go try that coffee pouch that Dan tried!” exclaimed my dad. And so we did, on our first jet lagged convenience store run.
Replicating my friend’s video exactly, I first located the correct counter height freezer (not the one with the ice creams), slid open the glass door, and extracted a plastic cup full of ice. From the shelf above, I chose a blue and brown “Cantata” pouch with a photo of iced coffee on the front that dripped with condensation. After paying, I popped open the ice cup, peeled open the coffee pouch, and poured the liquid in, which filled up right to the edge of the cup like a perfectly measured science experiment. After snapping the lid back on and spearing with a straw, I swirled the coffee around the crackling ice and took a big refreshing sip.
Since then, I’ve seen countless versions of this video, and accompanied numerous friends to one of the GS25 or CU locations (popular Korean convenience stores) on practically every street corner in Seoul to revisit this coffee ritual. The hashtag #koreanconveniencestore has 906 million views on TikTok, half of which feature variations on the #koreanicedrink, which itself has 8.3 million views. It still baffles me though: Why coffee in a pouch? As with many earnest questions I’ve asked myself about Korean food culture, I went down the coffee pouch rabbit hole.
What is a coffee pouch?
The Korean convenience store coffee pouch is a plastic Capri Sun-style pouch that’s filled with pre-made coffee, meant to be poured over ice. It’s shelf-stable, so it can be stored at room temperature, often located on a shelf outside of the store itself to lure in an easy grab. The coffee comes in many flavors, ranging from unsweetened, straightforward options like “Iced Black Coffee” or “Iced Americano” to sweet, flavored ones like “Caramel Macchiato” and “Hazelnut.”
The ice is sold separately, available in plastic drink cups filled with different types of ice. Hollow, cylindrical ice cubes or crushed ice are most common, but on one occasion I did find the rare, cocktail-style singular ice sphere. While gorgeous, it didn’t have the same effect of cooling the pouch coffee quickly as the crushed and cylindrical ice cubes.
Each pouch is about 1,000 to 1,200 won, or 80 to 95 cents, while the ice cups range from 600 to 1,000 won (47 to 80 cents) depending on the type of ice. Together, the coffee adds up to 2,000 won on average, just under $1.60, making it about half or a third the cost of the coffee at nearby cafes.
The allure also lies in the simplicity of the build—tear open a pouch, pop a lid—so simple a child could do it. I also can’t deny how extremely satisfying it is when the coffee pour hits right at the edge of the cup’s lip. The coffee itself is generally weak, particularly if your taste buds have become used to bracingly bitter gourmet coffee. But in my experience, that’s how Koreans like their coffee.
From Our Shop
A History of Cheap Coffee
Cheap, quick, and pre-packaged coffee has deep roots in Korea. While coffee has been present in Korea since the Joseon dynasty, it wasn’t generally accessible to the public until after the Korean War when U.S. military bases and American G.I.s popularized instant coffee, the freeze-drying technology that rose in popularity during World War II.
In 1976, Dong Suh Foods introduced the first 3-in-1 instant coffee mix to the South Korean market by licensing the American instant coffee Maxwell House to create “Maxim Coffee Mix.” Available in pouch or stick form, these little packs featured freeze-dried instant coffee crystals, dehydrated creamer, and sugar. This instant coffee mix grew the overall popularity of coffee in Korea, infiltrating homes, banks, hospital waiting rooms, and employee break rooms. It was an incredibly cheap way to imbibe coffee, so its presence in Korean society became further cemented through various recessions.
At the same time, Korean convenience stores had long been stocked with grab-and-go portable coffee options. Canned coffee varieties, either in the form of Japanese imports like UCC Coffee or Korean-made copycats, have been stocked since the late 20th century, followed by juice box-style cup coffees, complete with retractable straws. The coffee pouch delivery system had actually been around for decades as well, in a sense—Seoul Milk’s coffee flavored milk was famously sold in a triangle shaped pouch (still my favorite coffee pouch to date).
So it was just a matter of time before the ritual of instant coffee mix would meet the convenience of pre-packaged coffee. In 2005, Korean brand Jardin introduced Korea’s first pouch coffee called “Cafereal.” The convenience store brand CU launched its “delaffe” line of pouch drinks and ice cups in 2012, which was the same year Lotte Chilsung Beverage released their successful canned coffee “Cantata” in pouch form.
Iced Coffee, Available 24 Hours a Day
While American coffee shops open at dawn to service early commuters, Korean coffee shops don’t begin business until 10 or 11 a.m., since they operate less as takeout spots and more as meeting or date spots. In contrast, convenience stores are open 24 hours a day, meaning they’re often the only available option to fuel up.
The boom in the ice cup can be also attributed to Koreans’ increasing obsession with cold drinks. In recent years, iced coffee—specifically iced americanos—have exploded in popularity among the millennial and Gen Z populations (known as MZ in Korea), so much so that it’s given rise to a popular saying: “Even if I freeze to death, ah-ah (iced americano).”
As interest in the coffee pouch continues to grow amongst Korean locals and foreign visitors, brands continue to introduce new types of iced pouch drinks, ranging from tea to something called “Black Lemonade” (I tried a few different kinds, and let’s just say I’d rather stick to the coffee). Intrepid TikTokers are also inventing new mashups, like adding a scoop of ice cream or a splash of banana milk for a quick latte hack, or stirring in soju for an alcoholic spin. For me, all coffee is good coffee, so I might be sneaking a few pouches of Cantata Cold Brew back in my suitcase next time I visit.