Founded in Korea in 2008, Caffebene has grown astronomically in the time since. Seven years on, the chain has locations -- both corporate-owned and franchises -- worldwide, with a strong presence in Asia and the United States. The company prides itself on its medium roast coffee, but also has an extensive and credible food menu.
The chain's menu is an East-meets-West affair that finds Asian flavors rubbing elbows with European and American tastes. For the drink selection, you'll find the usual selection of coffees, lattes and smoothies alongside misugaru (a grain-based beverage that's hearty and indescribably delicious) and bubble teas. The foods on offer are equally eclectic, including a Korean-inspired spicy chicken sandwich (they're not kidding about the "spicy" part, by the way) and a hearty, satisfying portabella sandwich, as well as a dessert selection that encompasses macarons, honey bread, bingsu, gelato, waffles, and more.
On my most recent visit, I sampled two coffees. Their Cafe Saigon is an updated twist on the traditional Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is typically a french roast with sweetened condensed milk, and is served iced. Caffebene's version is a latte, served hot. The preparation has been somewhat uneven, with a sweetness that ranges from subtle (bringing out hints of chocolate and cinnamon in their coffee) to bracingly sweet. Indeed, the Cafe Saigon on my most recent visit featured foamed milk of a near-marshmallow-fluff density. Between the texture and the sweetness, I found myself wondering if someone had topped the coffee with steamed Peeps.
Caffebene has two house blends, one medium and one dark. The medium blend tastes dark, and the dark tastes like it came from an Aeropress -- it's got a decidedly concentrated taste. The medium, on the other hand, was a welcome, slightly bitter, corrective after the sweetness of the Cafe Saigon. It has a lightly syrupy mouth feel, sly notes of chicory, and a figgy acidity. The finish is long, and surprisingly complex; the bitterness is leavened with a nuanced citric refrain.
A note or two about the food: I've tried a few of the sandwiches, which have been uniformly good. The macarons, on the other hand, are a decidedly mixed bag. I tried the green tea, pistachio, and nutella. The green tea was credible, if a bit sweet. The pistachio wasn't quite pistachio, and the Nutella macaron was spot on -- perfect taste and texture. Then again, nobody complains about Nutella; it's the culinary equivalent of puppies, in that it redeems practically anything (though, unlike puppies, it paired well with the coffee).
Caffebene makes it clear in their marketing that they're gunning for Starbucks. While Starbucks' market position makes that a difficult proposition for any competitor, Caffebene's explosive, and truly global, growth lends some credence to their claims. On the other hand, the stores' menu is a decidedly mixed bag; it's eclectic and well-executed, but it leaves Bene in rather an odd position; there's just as much emphasis on food as on coffee. While we're not in the business of telling the future, we'd guess that Starbucks' place as the premier Second Wave coffee shop is secure. Caffebene, on the other hand, seems well-positioned to carve out a niche all its own. Video: Denise Yohn on Caffebene: Photos: Paul Bogan for HiLine Coffee