For a small but consistently growing minority, coffee is an art, craft, and passion. It isn’t just speed and efficiency with a magneto font; it’s going down deep into the drink and finding out the properties and minerals that truly make a cup of coffee worth sipping on slowly. It can still be used to get us through our day, but it should not be something that we take for granted with reckless abandon. It’s this quality that we found when we went to Café May Woods in Cheonan owned by Taek-soo Kim and Seon-myeong Lee.
When first going out to Café May Woods, My partner Marwin and I were a little taken aback. We had just arrived at the Cheonan bus terminal, and we were thinking that it would be a quaint cottage setting in the heart of a city. We were pleasantly mistaken. Our taxi from the terminal took us further and further away from busy neon signs and billboards, and closer to rusty shacks and spring foliage. At one point I simply thought that we had given the taxi driver the wrong directions. Our original directions had said that it was on the way to a Buddhist temple called Gakwonsa, but we didn’t realize that it was on the closer side to that destination instead of to our place of departure. We got out of the taxi, and were a little taken aback at the shop itself.
The first image that I formed to compare this shop to anything was an eccentric family’s log cabin in the Swiss Alps, minus the snow. You walk up a small driveway and come to a large wooden patio deck with a screened off portion to the side, akin to a place you and your uncle drank sweet summer tea in the dying heat of the evening, minus the mosquitoes. Inside, it matches even more with the snowy creation I had in my mind. At the front entrance you have various knick-knacks surrounding you: a spoon collection that could fit very well in you Nan’s musky dining room; a box of tiny Japanese mask ornaments that are irresistible to the eyes; and a collage of pictures from the owners and their travels around the world. To continue along with that atmosphere the staff will serve your delicious java in China fine enough for any loved one. Definitely not Korean, but fits oddly well at this location.
As you move through you find rooms each with their own purpose. A large indoor living room area with comfy couches and the largest bookshelf I have ever seen in Korea; the perfect place to nestle up with a good book to read on a snowy day. You can also take a trip upstairs to a more private booth where you and your loved one can have a personal moment. On the other side there’s a large simple room painted in white that reminds you of a summer day in Greece, perfect for having a friendly gathering and just shootin’ the breeze. Back down near the main entrance we have the main barista area with an assorted assembly of pitchers, beakers, cups, trays, and everything else a proper coffee station needs
We meet the owners, Taek-soo Kim and Seon-Myeong Lee. They carry themselves with a humble politeness, and it is instantly attractive and refreshing. Their behavior reminds me of a constant traveler that moves from place to place in search of the next wonder: they don’t care about fancy swagger or shine; they care about making a perfect cup. When speaking with them, you would not know it, but they make some damn good coffee. It’s not until you see them in action when you realize how and why.
The metallic rattling of the beans hitting the tray in the roaster is soothing to the ears. I like to think of the sound as one of those rainsticks you find at the Discovery Store in your local mall. A cheesy product for sure, but deep down it does bring a sense of composure. The simple pleasures. They walk us through their process and how they sift through the beans by hand picking out any that don’t make the cut. Underneath you see a bucket of beans that just couldn’t meet up to the standards. In my untrained eyes I see it as a waste, but I try to think about it from an artisan business perspective: a good cup might have a customer coming back; a bad cup will definitely have a customer not coming back. Consistency is key.
Finally we get to try the finished product. I choose a latte, Marwin gets a cup of hand drip. The mixture of sweet and sour in a dark swirl run down smoothly. It was quite a delicacy. I have never been a huge coffee nerd; Marwin who is pretty adept at coffee tells me that it’s strong and pretty damn good as well. We drink two more cups of coffee, one with an Aeropress, and another hand drip together. It was a struggle not just gulping the entire cup in one go, but I’m glad I didn’t. This place is quite a treat, and if you decide to trek out here, you will not be disappointed.
What is coffee to you?
Seon-myeong Lee: Coffee…coffee is lover? (laughs) The more I learn about it, The more I realize that there is so much I don’t know about coffee, which only increases my desire for it, and so I find myself trying to learn more about it: reading books and studying even seemingly irrelevant topics like chemistry and physics just to get to know about coffee better. My husband and I also go on trips so we can retrace coffee’s history. So coffee is something that I want to know more about and get closer to, just like a lover
Taek-soo Kim: In my opinion, I think of coffee a differently from my wife. It’s one of many beverages that people consume, but it’s one that’s relaxing and comfortable to drink. Of course, the more you get to know it, the more complex and difficult it becomes, and it takes a lot of effort getting high quality ingredients from coffee producers, because everything is important, from coffee farming to picking the right ingredients. So actually, getting a cup of coffee to the customer involves several complicated and important steps, but I still like to think of it as a very “comfortable” and enjoyable drink. Important, but comfortable. That’s how I like to think of it.
What is the story behind this place?
Seon-myeong Lee: First of all, hmm, the story about how we started this? This café was possible because I and my husband met. My husband majored in industrial design originally and I was a high school teacher. Before we knew each other, we had unknowingly traveled India at the same time, and while there we boarded the same boat by chance. We spent some time together on that boat and then we went our separate ways with the crowd. We didn’t even know each other’s names and addresses. 100 days later, we met in Cheonan accidentally. I thought we met by destiny and I knew he was my ideal partner. So, we married with little hesitation and talked about the place we wanted to work in and our dreams for it. I knew our dreams were the same, and so we opened up our café. After that, we have mentioned our love story to many of our guests and we hope they can remember our café with our story. Our love story makes our café unique. It’s the charming point.
Taek-soo Kim: Our café is full of many photos, memories and souvenirs ㅡnot expensive ones, but cute. We hope to continue to fill up our café with memories of our travels so that our stories will go on.
What make a cup of good coffee?
Seon-myeong Lee: First, good green beans. Second, roasting. Third, extraction. A more skilled barista can extract an excellent cup of coffee. Fourth, The feeling between the barista and his or her guest. If a barista can help the guest with the understanding and feeling of the coffee with satisfaction, then the best cup of coffee possible will be made.
With so many different coffee shops in Korea. What inspired you to open your own coffee shop?
Seon-myeong Lee: Both of us had the same dream about a place like a café. There are many photos and books in our café. My husband likes taking photos and I love to read books. It is in our space, our café, that we can communicate with people who like taking photos and reading books
Taek-soo Kim: When people meet in our café, they can sip a cup of coffee and talk with each other. By using the skills that we have, we can share our interests and enjoy them with our guests. Because of that we decided to open our café.
When you first opened up your coffee shop, what obstacles did you have to overcome?
Seon-myeong Lee: First, there are so many coffee shops in Korea. We have to provide a much more differentiated service than others. Second, property rental fees are somewhat expensive, so we had to find a place where the rental fee was low and people can visit easily. We were able to find this place fortunately. To tell you the truth, this place was an old and desolated building at first. We needed some ideas about the interior design and we were concerned about costs. Therefore, we needed more creative ideas and effort.
Taek-soo Kim: We had to remodel our building with a limited budget. Many coffee shops are commonly composed of a square shape, but my wife was especially interested in an unique shape, for example, crooked aisles and corners. So we said to our contractor that he could make the basic structure, and then we would finish making the detailed design features.
One thing we will have to confront in our future may be competitiveness. Many cafés are opening and closing these days. We may be able to survive among the many new cafés with competitive traits such as kindness and fresh material. We have to think of competitiveness when thinking about our vision for this place.
When you drink coffee, how do you prefer your coffee?
Taek-soo Kim: To make the perfect coffee, I think nothing could be better than an espresso machine. Though coffee is made from the roaster to Barista in a lengthy process, espresso coffee is extracted in 24-30 seconds; a very short time. I think espresso is the best coffee in the world. Many people have tried to make high quality coffee during so many periods and various techniques have been developed for it. I don’t know what type of other machines will be created in the future, but at this moment, I think the mechanism of extracting the coffee in the espresso machine may be perfect.
Seon myeong Lee: Hand drip coffee for me. I love slowness. (laughs)