Korean Barista and Emperor of Ethiopia

 Barista keeps 100-year promise with Ethiopian emperor

Chuncheon's Ethiopia Bet is more than just a coffeehouse: Cho Soo-kyung

By Kwak Yeon-soo | koreatimes.co.kr | 2023-01-19 15:33

CHUNCHEON, Gangwon Province ― Making a perfect cup of coffeeis a delicate affair, from selecting healthy green beans, roasting them anddetermining the perfect brewing ratio to choosing the ideal servingtemperature.

Barista Cho Soo-kyung, the second-generation owner of Ethiopia Bet (Ethiopia House) coffeehouse in the Gangwon provincial city of Chuncheon, learned about coffee from her mother who opened Korea's first roastery cafe in 1968 to serve high-quality Ethiopian coffee to visitors.

The coffeehouse specializes in Ethiopian coffee, from the Harar, Yirgacheffe and Sidamo regions, which are all roasted daily in small batches.

"My 91-year-old mother can still tell if beans are roasted properly or not. I took after her, and I have a sensitive sense of taste. I don't wear makeup, color my hair or nails because they can distort my sense of taste and smell," she said during an interview with The Korea Times, Tuesday.

Her family's close tie to Ethiopia dates back to 1968 when her uncle sponsored the Monument for the Participation of Ethiopia in the Korean War.

Ethiopia was the only African nation to send ground troops to help South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. A total of 6,037 Ethiopian soldiers fought on the side of the United Nations Allied Forces, and among them, 121 were killed in action while 536 were wounded.

"Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie even dispatched his imperial guards, telling them to fight courageously and not come back alive. After the war, Ethiopia helped establish the Bohwa welfare center (in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province) and took care of war orphans," Cho explained.

When the emperor visited Korea in May 1968, he came to see the monument. He mentioned it would be nice if there was a cultural center nearby.

"A few months later, my mother, who was a teacher back then, opened Ethiopia House near the monument. It offered visitors a place to relax, talk and come together," Cho said.

Ever since then, the Ethiopia House has played the role of a cultural center. The building was decorated with handcrafted Ethiopian artwork. Because Ethiopia has a reputation for producing some of the world's
highest-quality coffee, Cho's parents started serving Ethiopian coffee roasted fresh on-site.

"The coffeehouse scene was drastically different when Ethiopia House was built. Back in the 1960s, selling coffee was considered demeaning so my grandparents were against the idea. However, my mother was determined about her career change," Cho said.

Emperor Selassie later named the place the "Ethiopia Bet" ("bet" means house in English) and gave her the right to use the emblem of the Ethiopian Empire.

"My mother made a promise with the emperor that 'for the next 100 years, I won't leave a day without the smell of hot ground coffee.' Until now, the coffeehouse has never been closed … not even when my father died or when the building was flooded," she said.

The family-owned establishment celebrates its 55th anniversary this year, but business was not always smooth sailing, according to Cho.

"Now Ethiopian coffee imports are shipped in containers, but in the past, we received the beans through Japan in diplomatic bags," she said. "In 1974 when Ethiopia became a socialist state, the Korean government tried to close down the coffeehouse. But my mother was headstrong and irrepressible. She always stressed the importance of loyalty in any relationship."

Like her parents, circumstance led Cho, 62, to become the current owner and operator of the family business. She once worked as a special effects supervisor and script adapter in the film industry and was at the peak of her career when she got a call from her mother.

"My parents wanted me to take over the business. I told them, 'give me a week to think about it.' And my mother said I had no loyalty. That changed my mind," she said.

Ever since then, Cho has continued the legacy started by her mother and further fostered a sense of community. She now works with her husband, son, daughter and son-in-law to continue promoting Ethiopian coffee that started 55 years ago here.

As coffee drinkers in Korea become increasingly choosy and health-conscious, Cho takes great pride in delivering the best coffee. "Quality-wise, we always keep our standards to the highest level possible
and maintain them. When you drink good coffee, your skin glows," she said.

Cho criticized large coffee chains for their excessive or uneven roasting of the beans. "If you drink burnt coffee, you may suffer from acid reflux and abdominal pain. Considering how much Koreans love coffee, they should look for healthy coffee," she said.

According to a survey conducted by the Korea National Council of Consumer Organizations, seven out of 10 Korean adults drink at least one cup of coffee a day. Koreans' average coffee consumption is 367 cups a year, the second highest in the world (following France, 551 cups) and more than twice the global average (161 cups).

Cho, who is the honorary ambassador for Ethiopia, expressed her wish to build a statue of Emperor Selassie near Ethiopian Bet. This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Korea and Ethiopia.

"I plan to request the Chuncheon mayor to build the statue of Emperor Haile Selassie to strengthen bilateral ties. It can become a landmark and draw more visitors to the city," she said.

In 2007, the Memorial Hall for Ethiopian Veterans was established near the coffeehouse, making the area a "Little Ethiopia" neighborhood. In 2011, following persuasion from Cho and her husband, David Cha, the local government renamed the road near Ethiopia Bet as "Ethiopia Road."

Each year Cho organizes the Meskel Festival attended by hundreds of Ethiopian nationals and visitors. For Ethiopian diplomats and travelers, Ethiopia Bet is a must-visit place.

"Whenever a new Ethiopian ambassador to Korea arrives, they visit the Memorial Hall for Ethiopian Veterans and Ethiopia Bet, even before visiting the presidential office," she said. "All of the former Korean
presidents have visited our coffeehouse. Former President Park Geun-hye shed tears when she saw a picture of her father, former President Park Jung-hee, on the wall."

After the interview, Cha showed the traditional "buna" coffee ceremony. Several Ethiopian travelers were present to watch the ceremony and share a cup of coffee.

"Buna is a cultural celebration. It's an important part of our tradition," said Eshetu Belete, who visited Ethiopia Bet for the first time. "Ethiopians love coffee. I drink at least three cups of coffee a day ― every morning, afternoon and evening."

Before the ceremony, coffee cups are arranged on a table along with snacks such as popcorn. Sweet incense is burnt as a way to energetically purify the space.

The process begins with roasting the beans in an iron pan. The roasted beans are taken to the guests so that they can smell the aromas. The coffee beans are then pounded into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. The ground coffee is put in a jebena, a traditional clay pot made specifically for preparing coffee.

Once the coffee is added to the simmering water, it is left to steep in the pot. When the coffee foam discharges from the top hole of the jebena, it is left to sit for about three minutes to allow the coffee powder to settle at the bottom of the pot. Then it is poured into cups and can be enjoyed with various additional ingredients such as sugar, salt, and butter.

Barista Cho Soo-kyung poses with coffee beans at her coffeehouse, Ethiopia Bet,
in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Tuesday. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk