Korean Chocolate Culture: From Bean to Bar & Beyond

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Since I’ve been living in South Korea for the past three years and have seen the growth of the local market, the subject of Korean chocolate is one that is very near and dear to my heart. On the other hand, South Korea is seldom, if ever, thought of in conjunction with excellent chocolate. It’s not that Korean chocolate has a poor reputation; rather, there isn’t really a reputation for it to begin with (unlike K-pop, Korean skincare, and cosmetic surgery).

But all of that is going to change, just as South Korea’s image for relaxing beach vacations and excellent coffee is poised to shift.

Korean Chocolate’s Short History

During an interview I had with a local chocolate producer the previous year, he mentioned to me that the first big introduction of chocolate into the Korean market occurred shortly after the end of World War II. The moods of the local children were meant to be lifted by the distribution of little chocolates that the American troops brought along with them. Some of the photographs from this event have achieved a certain level of notoriety and are mentioned in the media on rare occasions. This page does a good job of providing a concise summary of this history.

Since the end of the war, the United States military has maintained a sizable presence in South Korea as well as the adjacent country of Japan, where they have played a constructive part in the reconstruction of each nation. After that, in the aftermath of the Korean War, the presence of the American military became much more obvious. Even in the aftermath of a catastrophic war that irreversibly split their once-unified nation, the Korean people moved quite fast to begin developing their own chocolate brands.

Among them are the notorious Ghana Chocolate ( ), which is still sold in the packaging it was first distributed in during the 1970s, and the Na Hana brand of chocolate from HaiTai, which is no longer produced (even if the firm still manufactures chocolate). The mass-market chocolates that have been popular for decades have retained their appeal, in part because to the desire of Koreans to keep the local economy going even if it means sacrificing other areas of their lives (taste buds included).

If you ask every Korean between the ages of six and sixty about their favorite chocolates, I can almost promise that they will list the same three brands: Ghana, ABC Chocolates, and Pepero. These are the brands that they grew up consuming. South Korea did not import a significant amount of packaged products until the 1980s, when the country’s dictatorship finally came to an end. When you combine this factor with the deeply engrained cultural norm of prioritizing financial support for Korean companies, you can see why imported chocolates are still relatively rare. They are in high demand whenever they are made available, despite the fact that acquiring them might be challenging.

Because of the presence of American military bases in the area, whole districts in Seoul are now teeming with people from other countries as well as restaurants serving cuisine from other countries. Those international centers are still the finest locations in Korea to purchase excellent chocolate, even after taking into account the mass market brands that are offered in supermarkets and convenience shops all around the country.

It’s true that soldiers don’t hand it out for free anymore, but the majority of luxury brands are still made in other countries. At the very least, it seems as if they are. If you know Korean, you may have noticed that the word “chocolate” is spelt differently in the advertisement shown below from the way it is typically written. This demonstrates that the term is still considered foreign even after it has been in use in Korea for many decades.

An commercial from the 1970s for one of the first chocolate brands produced in Korea. This image’s source contains more photographs as well as a video clip from the advertisement that aired on television (article in Korean).

European Influence In Korea

As was discussed before, the years immediately after the Korean War were characterized by a high level of social isolation in Korea. Because of this isolationist attitude, the economy expanded very rapidly, and an extremely high emphasis was put on labour and education; this load was compounded by the rigid social order that existed at the time. Therefore, at the same time as domestic chocolate companies were beginning to flourish, they carried with them a feeling of pervasiveness in the market. Because chocolate has never quite shed its foreignness, consumers flocked to imported chocolates like a fish to water when they first appeared on the market.

Because the United States has maintained a significant military presence in the region, American companies such as Hershey’s and Mars have dominated the market. When European sweets and pastries first started to emerge on the Korean market, European chocolates followed suit shortly thereafter. However, practically any imported chocolate was considered to be exotic and thrilling. The reputation that Switzerland and Belgium have for producing high-quality chocolates has rubbed off on the Korean market, where luxury chocolate companies like as Laderach and Teuscher, Leonidas, and Godiva are now in the lead. It has a striking resemblance to the events that took place in Japan.

Over the course of many decades, chocolate has maintained its status as a product that must be imported in order to be of sufficient quality.

Even while Korean pastry chefs and chocolatiers are trying hard to reverse that image, progress is being made very slowly. To begin, once a chocolatier or pastry chef reaches a certain degree of recognition, which is comparable to what occurs in Hong Kong, they are often sponsored by a particular speciality chocolate company. This applies to both pastry chefs and chocolatiers. Therefore, even the most upscale chocolates produced in Korea are still manufactured using couverture chocolate imported from Europe.

Bonbons purchased at a café in Gangneung, which is located on the east coast of South Korea.

The Modern Korean Chocolate Market

At its most fundamental, the commercial preference throughout the nation is for sugary renditions of European pastries and chocolates. This preference is widespread. You can see them taking the lead in Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jour, which are two of the most well-known bakery brands in Korea. From what I’ve seen over my three years of traveling around Korea in search of chocolate shops and convenience stores, I can say with certainty that milk chocolate makes up the vast majority of the options.

Even while people’s preferences about sweetness aren’t a problem, the quality of the cacao that’s being used and the fact that people don’t really know what they’re putting in their bodies are. In Korea, chocolate goods have traditionally consisted of more chocolate-flavored sugar than genuine chocolate, just as they do in the United States and the majority of other western nations. This is particularly noteworthy in a nation in which the “Kakao” app serves as the primary means through which people communicate with one another in person.

On the other hand, the quality of the chocolate that falls into the premium category is gradually becoming better over time. Food is a popular go-to present for celebrations like Christmas and birthdays, and young people in particular are on the hunt for edible presents that are both lovely and of good quality.

A mouthwatering assortment of candies from the Sweet B Chocolatier in Gimhae, which is located in South Korea.

The vast majority of Korean chocolatiers are still dependent on imported couverture chocolate since it is too costly for local artisan chocolate manufacturers to create on a small scale. European pastries such as egg tarts, croissants, and macarons continue to hold the top spot in terms of popularity.

On the other hand, a growing number of chocolatiers are opting to highlight regional ingredients and tastes, such as red bean paste and yuzu. Even the idea of eating sweets after a meal is an imported notion, so they are building off of a dessert foundation that is greatly impacted by European culture. Few local sweets are available, and those that are are often made with rice or seasonal fruits. When deciding what to eat, one must still put one’s health first; the number of calories contained in any particular food is required by law to be printed on the container (see above photos).

As a result of this prioritizing, desserts are still seen as a form of indulgence in the eyes of Koreans, which makes them more of a food for special occasions, similar to wine, rather than a part of a daily ritual, similar to coffee. However, the Korean domestic dessert market is not an insignificant factor for the future of Korean chocolate; there is a real possibility of the country’s quality chocolate market growing significantly. That is, provided that the educational component is closely monitored in the same way that it has been in Japan.

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Chocolate Holidays In South Korea

In general, chocolate is a well-known and popular dish in Korea; nevertheless, it is not typically consumed on a daily basis by the majority of the population as it is in other Western nations. Chocolate is, for the most part, seen as a risk-free present to give to close friends, romantic partners, colleagues, and others in similar situations. Much more so than the actual quality of the chocolate, how fancy the chocolate looks to someone signals how much you respect them, and this is much more important than the quality of the chocolate itself.

Because of this, bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturers in Korea produce products with very attractive packaging that is often more sophisticated than the chocolates themselves. This is particularly true during Korea’s most important chocolate holidays, which are the times when the vast bulk of the country’s chocolate is purchased. On those significant holidays, which are traditionally known as “couple’s holidays,” it is customary for one spouse to purchase chocolate treats for the other.

Even today, the vast majority of chocolate advertising is directed at female consumers as well as those who are purchasing presents for female recipients (see the 40-year-old ad above).

The biggest jumps in chocolate sales in Korea occur on Christmas (December 25), Valentine’s Day (February 14), and White Day (March 14), which are all in the opposite month of Valentine’s Day.

The month of January saw the debut of a handmade chocolate collaboration, just in time for Seollal and Valentine’s Day.

Similarly, the major Korean holidays of Chuseok (late September/early October) and Seollal (late January/early February) are known for inspiring extravagant food gift sets, a tradition that Korean Chocolate makers are taking full advantage of. Chuseok is celebrated in late September/early October, and Seollal is celebrated in late January/early February. In the past, a chocolate bar was something that could be kept on the shelf for a long time but was also quite inexpensive. This made it entirely improper for a demonstration of respect and consideration. Bonbons, on the other hand, may have been acceptable, but they needed to be eaten fast since there was a worry for people’s health.

Therefore, with the advent of craft chocolate, Korean chocolate manufacturers were able to provide Korean families attractive, tasty, and long-lasting delicacies that could be presented at big gatherings. As an additional benefit, these chocolates were also healthful. In the same way that it has happened in Japan, the general Korean taste is gradually growing used to less sugary desserts. They like sweets that include a variety of taste profiles rather to ones that are mostly sweet in nature.

Consumer education in Korea is getting off to a sluggish start, but the most exciting sector of the country’s expanding market is still the little bakeries and chocolateries that offer high-quality chocolates and chocolate cakes and pastries prepared with high-quality foreign chocolate. Alteration is on the horizon.

As a result of the high volume of visitors on Valentine’s Day and Christmas, many restaurants and eateries demand that patrons make reservations in order to eat at their establishments. In many cases, the sole menu option available is a predetermined one, and customers are required to place orders for a certain quantity of food or drink.

Korean Chocolate Trends

Just as there was a honey butter craze a few years ago, and more recently there has been a green tea craze, the popularity of different flavors in Korean cuisine comes and goes in waves. On spite of the fact that remnants of honey butter and green tea may still be found in the marketplace (luckily, not combined), taste fads tend to strike the market like tsunamis and then swiftly fade out here. At the time of publishing, tiger sugar milk tea from Taiwan was at the height of its popularity, as shown by lines that wrapped around the block at cafés on weekends.

But the food movements that have struck and persisted in the Korean market are the more significant market trends to look at, and what we can learn from them is what we should focus on doing here.

Macarons, French-style bakeries, and independent coffee roasters are at the forefront of popular cuisine trends in Korea right now. I am aware that macarons are a kind of cookie that originated in France; however, I do not believe that Koreans are aware of this fact; as a result, they have taken the concept to a whole new level in terms of the flavors, sizes, and applications available. Macarons are enjoying a significant period of popularity in South Korea.

Having said that, some of the most popular flavors of 2019 have included yuzu, brown sugar caramel, and anything that contains cacao nibs.

In Korea, chocolate is almost associated with overindulgence and weight gain, and as a result, virtually all chocolate stores exude an air of refined sophistication. It is almost unfathomable to most people that chocolate could have any positive effects on one’s health or that it could have any form of nutritious component (and not the trendy kind).

It’s quite easy to divide Korean chocolate into two categories: those that are sugary and low-cost, and those that are luxurious and high-priced.

However, I’ve had subpar versions of both of them, so be on your guard.

Made in Seoul, South Korea, from bean to bar using just two ingredients, bean-to-bar chocolate. This is an example of something that might be considered pricey and luxurious as well as tasty.

Bean To Bar Chocolate In Korea

Even though the bean-to-bar chocolate that is produced in Korea is of a very high quality, I have found that it is really difficult to track down. In addition, it is pricey, in contrast to a glass of Korean wine or a cup of high-quality coffee. The price, on the other hand, is not really as much of a problem as the fact that it is physically inaccessible. Both of the nation’s online artisan chocolate importers opened their doors for business in 2018, one of them with a brick-and-mortar storefront and the other with a café on the way.

Both of these companies in the Seoul region are useful additions to the very few but rapidly expanding bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturers in Korea. But in addition to that, they are harbingers of the larger fine chocolate tsunami that is getting ready to strike the nation. At the present, the relatively tiny quantity of artisanal chocolate that is produced in and offered for sale in Korea is going through a period of explosive expansion. It is gaining pace and generating a market out of thin air.

As of the publication date of this article, the number of craft chocolate makers in Korea ranges between 14 and 18, each of which is a different size. Some of the more well-known manufacturers are as follows:

  • CACAODADA (Seoul)
  • Roasting Masters (Seoul)
  • P. Chokko (Seoul)
  • Chocodongi (Suwon)
  • Public Chocolatory (Chuncheon)
  • Hocada Coco (Hongcheon)

Craft chocolate produced in Korea typically begins with a single origin dark chocolate as its foundation. From there, makers may add milk or white chocolate, inclusion bars, or other types of chocolate to their creations. The majority of shops also sell coffee in addition to a selection of other treats, such as macarons or chocolate bark. There isn’t a single Korean chocolate maker that comes to mind who makes a full-time living off of selling single origin chocolate bars.

To tell the truth, I can’t really think of any craft chocolate makers anywhere in the world who would do something like that. However, as the global craft chocolate movement continues to advance, the face of Korean chocolate and how it is perceived will continue to advance right along with it.

The updated version of Emily Paek’s hidden chocolate stash from 2017, which she uses to run the Public Chocolatory in Chuncheon, South Korea. Paek is the store’s owner and founder.

Is Korean Chocolate Good?

Strangely, a lot of people seem to look this up on Google. So what is the quick response? It is possible.

To the same extent that I don’t believe that fine wine and caviar are for everyone, I also don’t believe that everyone should try craft chocolate. It’s totally acceptable for people to enjoy drinking wine from a box with their fish and chips as long as they are aware of the other options available to them. However, the majority of Koreans do not believe that Korean chocolate can be tasty because they are unaware that this is even a possibility. They are only familiar with Ghana Milk and Jenne Bars.

If a tiny bite of chocolate made by one of the Korean chocolate makers named above were given to every Korean in the country, I guarantee that half of them would spit it out. The vast majority of them would be astounded by how dissimilar it tastes to the chocolate they have in their memories. However, the fact that they have a choice is the factor that is of the utmost significance.

The majority of customers, much like the majority of craft chocolate makers, will have a “come-to-melangeur” moment when it comes to exceptional chocolate. In the end, the chocolate bars that are easily accessible, such as those that can be found on the shelves of grocery and convenience stores all over the country, do not live up to expectations. Until you start searching the chocolate-filled nooks and crannies of Seoul and discover the good stuff, you will find that Korean chocolates are excessively sweet and have a strange, mechanical flavor.

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The Future of Korean Chocolate

Those who are interested in selling in the Korean market will be at a great advantage if they capitalize on the current trend for excellent meals and tastes in the Korean culture. Although at the moment many craft chocolate makers are trying to replicate the success of the American chocolate movement, chocolatiers are trying to replicate the success of European techniques, and the majority of consumers are still content with chocolate-flavored milk, the future belongs to locally produced chocolate.

Despite the fact that Korea will never be able to produce its own cacao, the country does have a number of other essential ingredients and taste traditions to share with the rest of the globe. In addition, the robust market for good coffee indicates that customers are prepared to purchase items with fine-flavored ingredients. After the bean-to-bar revolution has reached scale in Korea, inclusion bars, which I have been proclaiming to be the future of handmade chocolate, will finally become available in the United States.

By 2025, I have no doubt that Korea will be home to at least fifty chocolate manufacturers, and much like some regions in the United States, they will be vying with one another to find ways to distinguish their products. In contrast to Americans and Japanese, Koreans are quite skilled at purchasing anything imaginable online, and once they find a brand that they enjoy, they tend to remain loyal to it. The most important challenge will be convincing them to give it a go in the first place. The fact that many individuals have a line in their budgets for luxurious, high-priced food items, either as presents or for their own personal delight, explains why there are so many bakeries and confectioneries in Seoul.

In 2016, a significant number of individuals became aware of bean-to-bar chocolate. The year 2017 was the year when cacao was imported, which helped stabilize the market. In 2018, a number of new manufacturers joined the Korean chocolate business, aiming to educate customers while also selling extremely modest amounts of their products. People began making chocolate at home in large numbers, while others who had been working in the industry for years started their own companies. But 2019 is the year that sees an increase in the client base overall.

People who deal with excellent chocolate are expanding their client bases and informing consumers about the manufacturing process of chocolate as well as the relevance of their job in other parts of the nation in addition to Seoul, where this is happening. People are educated about cacao, including what it is, how it is grown, where it is grown, and why it merits the economic power that is behind chocolate. When compared to the United States and Canada around ten years ago, Korea is roughly equivalent to where Japan was approximately five years ago. However, in typical Korean manner, they are picking up new skills quickly, and so are their communities.

Now that the Korean chocolate manufacturers and chocolatiers have done their part to educate the public, it is the customers’ duty to do so.

The Public Chocolatory in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, South Korea.

Note that this article was first published in 2017, updated in 2018, and has been heavily expanded in honor of the accompanying podcast episode on Korean chocolate culture.

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What kinds of chocolate treats would you like to see coming into Korea?