Koreatown has been a hotbed of coffeehouses and cafés for a good number of years, fueled mainly by the old Korean pastime of loitering in nicely designed spaces and drinking overpriced, water-downed coffee mixed with copious amounts of milk, sugar and other flavoring ingredients. I’m not sure how long the boba phenomenon would have lasted without the myriad shops sprouting along Western, Wilshire, and 6th Street in the early 2000’s. Koreans love to drink coffee mostly because it’s the best thing to drink when they’re not drinking soju or beer (and to a lesser degree, tea). It comes as no coincidence that coffee and tea are preferred to a culture (and now I’m referring to Korean-American) with a high church attendance. Still, on both sides of the Pacific, caffeine is fuel for daily life (as it might be with a hundred other ones).
As modern coffee roasting and service proceed in their development, it finds itself intersecting with the distinct coffee cultures of various heritages. Consider coffee culture in Latin America, Italy, Scandinavia, Japan or France. Korea is one of these many countries who are developing their own coffee culture. Before the beginning of this decade, that culture did not differ too much from the Seattle-Starbucks style; that is, drinks blended with milk and sugar in various proportions, except that the coffee was considerably weaker. Hazelnut is also a preferred flavoring ingredient (a bit ridiculous, but still delicious). There is some development with a movement toward fresher roasts and single origin (many cafes in Korea roast in-house in small 1-kilo roasters), but there’s still a big gap and some odd misfires. For example, Michael Phillips (World Barista Champion and Handsome Coffee co-founder) = was telling me yesterday that a coffee roaster had multiple batches of Cup of Excellence coffee (which is very expensive), though sometimes those batches were years old (not so good for quality’s sake).
And then locally here in Koreatown, in the wake of a seafood restaurant’s demolition, comes something completely ambitious: a serious coffeehouse and roasting facility, bakery and snack food place right in the heart of Koreatown. The massive space comes via Brian Chong, the same owner of Moo Dae Po 2 and Haus dessert shop (with a third Moo Dae on the way and Haus shortly adding beer and wine). Koreans love their coffee houses big, with all the space to enjoy at their leisure and Iota seems to fit the bill.
There will probably be plenty of coverage in the next month or so before Iota opens, but I’m going to focus on the aspect of coffee. First, the person behind all the coffee program. Eton Tsuno, who has a long background in coffee from Groundwork to LAMILL, comes with a vision of converting all of those Korean coffee conventions and updating them to the best that the humble bean has to offer. The massive space, with frontage along Western Avenue and just steps from the Wiltern Theater and Red Line Metro station, features a 15-kilo Renegade Roaster in the back. First off, the roaster is one of the most advanced on the market, with all computerized settings and three adjustable speed settings, affording the roaster full control, even via the Internet in the office. The coffee will be roasted throughout the day, ensuring coffee that might not come fresher to many consumers.
Tsuno has experience buying green coffee at origin, though the resources he has aren’t as considerable as a larger company like Stumptown. Still, the in-house roasting in such large batches and with that level of control does give Iota a leg up. With Handsome Coffee opening some time within the next year, expect to see this in-house roasting/café model again.
Tsuno makes the concession that many consumers won’t necessarily see the immediate value in the source of a coffee. Instead he’ll make it easier for people buying beans or getting pourover coffee via a numbering system that will correspond with certain flavor characteristics of the coffee. And by this, he doesn’t mean “dark,” “light” or “medium,”, but rather fruit-forward, or heavier bodied. These wine-like descriptions should be more helpful for consumers who often just claim they want something “strong,” which is a vague descriptor for coffee (because that depends a bit more on the strength of the brew).
Another interesting difference that Tsuno will make is the pourover program, which will feature Kalita pourover brewers. For those of you that are familiar with the current rage over Hario V60 pourovers, the Kalita offers a fundamental difference in the extraction of the coffee. From what I’ve read online (since I haven’t tested it yet), the Kalita is similar to a Melitta filter in that it has many small holes on the bottle, though the bottom is flush with the three holes spread out, instead of in a line with the Melitta. The Hario, by contrast, features a large hole in the middle and requires a certain technique when pouring. Tsuno was emphatic about his preference for the Kalita, though we weren’t able to get into detail as to why. Either way, the pourover bar will be a good way to showcase freshly brewed coffee by the cup.
Tsuno also hopes to have a significant educational program, meaning professional training for baristas and those interested in the coffee business, as well as tasting programs for consumers. A loft with see-through windows will house two components – one for espresso/coffee and another for tea. The tea section seems to be of more interest, as a local Korean tea importer will have the ability to feature traditional Korean tea ceremony and green teas, which varies greatly from Japanese and Chinese tea ceremony. I’m not sure how successful this aspect of Iota is going to be since it involves a good amount of effort, but I do think it’s going to be an essential part of its success. Koreans love to learn about the latest and greatest, and if this presentation of coffee offers that, then I think they will latch on. In addition, Koreatown’s central location should make it conducive for anyone to access the educational programs Iota plans to offer, as they’ll be offered in English and Korean.
What I see at face value from a place like Iota is great potential, and it’s going to take a committed person like Eton Tsuno to follow through with the main driver of an operation like this. I saw in Oliver Strand’s recent piece in the New York Times about pourover methods that apparently the American coffee industry has some things to learn from Korean coffee culture. I’m not quite convinced there’s more that Korean coffee culture can teach us, but Iota and Eton Tsuno’s program there might show us that education and customer service can the beginning of building up a strong clientele and market for specialty coffee despite prevailing cultural customs.