At first I told him he was a scientist, as he led my wife and I around his laboratory, informing us with suitably broad gestures that this machine here was produced in Germany centuries ago and that there were only two of them now in the world—one here in Gyeongju, and another one somewhere back in Deutschland—while another device was a composite of several different parts, some of his own construction, and others were manufactured by specialists in Japan. Sacks of green unroasted coffee beans lined the shelves, while at the back of this cold laboratory with its very tall (two-story) modern ceiling there were relics from the old days, when he owned a record store: an old record player, as well as some kind of bulbous sonic device that seemed to have escaped from the set of the original Frankenstein. Yes, at first he was a mere gwahakja, or scientist, but when he finally showed me the row of tall glass alembics, which functioned as water clocks, dripping single drips of liquid at the rate of one drop per second, depending on how you twisted certain knobs, I took a moment to search for the right Sino-Korean word, and then blurted it out loud, straight in his face: Hwahakja! You’re a change-studier! An alchemist!
I think the good people of Gyeongju mostly keep their distance from the giant pink sign that glows over the river all through the night, reading Schumman & Clara in squiggly Roman letters: here one can easily burn through fifteen or twenty dollars after just getting coffee and pastries for two. But goddamn, is the coffee good; the bread is excellent too, and as you enter the cafe on the first floor you might even get to see the baker (a tall, tough-looking Korean in a white smock) pounding at the white dough with his muscled arms, smiling when the alchemist informs you that he’s been at it for ten years. Other members of his staff have spread his gospel of luxury coffee across the peninsula, opening up associated cafes in nearby Pohang and Busan, while a third is going on some sort of extended cafe tour and started working here at this cafe when he was in middle school; the alchemist claims to have business partners in Germany, Japan, and Brooklyn, and is currently possessed with the idea of expanding overseas and turning his cafe into a chain to rival Starbucks, a company which has opened two stores up in Gyeongju; the first is the most successful in Korea, its parking lot packed with cars around the clock.
He keeps his water heated to approximately ninety degrees celsius, knows the weight in grams of the amount of coffee beans required to make one cup (about thirty), and claims to be able to discern the personality of the people involved in the making of his coffee, down to the farmers in Kenya who, according to him, get a fair share of the proceedings from his cafe. After ordering me to grind some beans and pour some hot water through a filter he tastes my cup by sipping it into his mouth with a deafening shriek! like a sound effect from a black-and-white slapstick short played when someone slips on a banana: he says he’s sucking the coffee up into his nose!, and then adds that the “voice color” belonging to the man who made this coffee is “good”, and, then, synesthetically, “not flashy”. Who’s to say that the mad genius behind Schumann & Clara won’t succeed in turning his coffee beans to gold, and nudging Starbucks aside?