When the new millennium dawned on the world, Ho Young Chae, 48, was working as a businessman in South Korea’s trade and distribution industry. As most 9-to-5ers do, Chae would grab a daily cup of coffee before heading into the office. Yet while his colleagues drank their brews and went on with their days, Chae became fascinated with the world of coffee roasting, enough so to leave his desk job to start his own wholesale coffee-roasting business, Esoteric Bean, in South Korea in the mid-2000s. After a chance trip to Boulder, Chae fell in love with the crisp air and stunning vistas and brought Gabee Coffee to the Centennial State in 2018. The name “gabee” comes from the archaic Korean word for “coffee.”
For their shop, Chae and his wife, Hyo Jung Kim, scour the globe for rare and delicious coffee beans, and only bring the best selections from countries like Costa Rica, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Peru back to Boulder. Most of the coffee is organic, and only fair-trade and rainforest-friendly beans are selected. Chae and Kim then go through pounds of beans and, using tweezers, pick out those that won’t make the cut. The result is fresh, rich coffee that makes Gabee Coffee a favorite among locals on their morning commute.
“I think our concept works really well in Boulder,” Kim says. “People here really care about high-quality, organic coffee. Our mission fits in here.”
In addition to the coffee—which is Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) approved, meaning it is one of the few specialty java makers that meets high standards of brewing time and water temperature—Gabee has a broad menu of other offerings. Lattes come in unique, South Korean-inspired flavors like sweet potato and cherry blossom, and the fruit-forward refreshers are the perfect way to energize a hot summer day. Plus, the duo have a latte art printer that uses used coffee grounds for ink and creates an array of designs—from cats to cactuses—to adorn the top of your next cup.
Boulderites haven’t been the only ones to recognize Gabee Coffee’s quality. In 2020, Chae placed third in the Orange County United States Roaster Championship —a high honor in a competition that Kim calls “the Olympics of coffee roasting.” In fact, Chae is so dedicated to his craft that his doctor told him to cut back on tasting after trying up to 15 shots of espresso in a day. Kim also holds an Arabica Q Grader Certificate, a designation held by only 500 people in the Americas that gives her the knowledge to constantly assess the company’s roasts for the highest quality.
Despite the accolades and successes, however, Chae and Kim have had a far from easy journey. When Gabee Coffee first opened, the duo says they faced prejudice and racism as South Koreans in Boulder, which is a predominantly white city.
“We have found that some new customers have negative perceptions about how our coffee tastes before even trying it due to our race or because English is not our native tongue,” Kim says. “Sometimes people will make rude remarks regarding our accents despite that having nothing to do with our coffee. It’s a continuous assignment for us to try and break those misconceptions.”
While Kim says the amount of rude comments has diminished since the couple brought their business to Colorado, she knows that racism and discrimination are still as prominent as ever in the coffee-roasting scene. At the 2022 U.S. Coffee Championships in Boston in April, Chae was given a score of “0” for the ground beans he submitted because the judges scored his ground beans in the incorrect whole bean category.
Thinking this could have been a simple mistake, Chae and Kim reached out to the organization to let them know of the issue. The competition’s administration responded by saying that the results were final, and even warned the duo to not complain about their scores. “We really just wanted to clarify what was going on,” Kim explains. “We don’t need compensation of any sort, we just want to make sure that the scoring is fair. It seems like we’ve been targeted for some reason, and that hurts.”
While the pair have yet to decide whether they’ll be competing in the 2023 championships, exciting things are ahead for Gabee Coffee regardless. The shop will welcome a selection of fruity African coffees in mid-June, which is expected to pair perfectly with Boulder’s hot summer weather. Other new beans are also on the way, including ones sourced from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Yemen. For those interested in trying them, Chae and Kim plan to hold a cupping class—a workshop that’s the coffee equivalent of wine tasting, where participants will learn how to judge a roast based on its flavor profiles and aromas. But if bitter beans aren’t your thing, new latte flavors, including cereal and black sesame, are on their way, too.
“We love doing this. We see new people every day but still have a lot of regulars,” says Kim. “It’s like a family.”