By Courtney Hamilton
Husband and wife Jae-Ho Synn and Jin Sun Ahn talk about coffee and tea as if they were the very nexus of art and science. Synn drops words like "manual agitation" and "calibration" when describing brew methods at Coffeebar Byul in Irvine, while Ahn refers to the shop's drinks as her art. But whether they're the results of science or art, the drinks at Diamond Jamboree's newest coffee shop are developed with fanatic attention to detail.
"We've done so many experiments, and we're still doing them. This is an ongoing process," Ahn explains.
It starts with the water, which flows through an industrial-grade filter that looks like a car part with shiny metal, dials and tubing. Adjusting for temperature and humidity, dedicated grinders for decaf and regular espresso and coffee are calibrated throughout the day. Each espresso shot is timed to the second when pulled on what Synn calls "the Cadillac of espresso machines," a La Marzocco. If the shot doesn't pull between 25 and 30 seconds–the ideal time for proper viscosity–then the grounds are too coarse and the grinder needs recalibrating. Pour-overs use exactly 200 F water and 27 grams of beans. Every variety of loose-leaf tea is steeped to order in fishbowl-like orbs, with specific weights, water temperatures and timing. Cold brew coffee and tea is dispensed from Kegerators over cocktail-style ice to prevent watered down drinks. Baristas pre-warm cups with water immediately before pouring hot drinks.
Yeah, the team at Byul may suffer from a collective case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Aesthetically, Byul has modern appeal down pat. Wires and lights form stars on the ceiling, Soviet-style typography covers the walls, and coffee gadgets from around the world fill the shelves.
"A specialty coffee shop needs to have a voice," Synn says. "We can't have customers walk in and feel like they're in a Starbucks or another chain shop. Those places are fine; they're nice, clean, and well organized, but they're generic. We wanted something different."
Everything is locally sourced, with Kéan providing the coffee and Cream Pan and Blackmarket Bakeries providing the pastries. And while many third-wave coffee shops come with third-wave egotism, Byul is rooted in family values.
The first Byul opened in South Korea under Ahn's relatives. It was an above-ground attachment to their basement retail store, Understar — a play on words, as Byul means star in Korean. The shop closed in 2008 when the family relocated to America, but Synn and Ahn brought with them their vision of reopening Byul. With family input on all aspects of the shop, Byul was reborn in January.
Does the manic engineering really make for a better cup of coffee? Well, the auto-drip coffee is light, fruity and lacks the acerbic bite of burnt beans. Pour-overs have flavor profiles ranging from fruity to bitter and an intense caffeine kick. Teas are sweetened by the natural flavors of pear or apricot, rather than cloying syrup.
Yes, Byul still caters to dessert-drinkers with a bevy of "specialty" drinks, but they opt for real ingredients over artificial syrups. The raspberry truffle mocha, for example, is made with melted baking chocolate and strong espresso, topped with pillows of whipped cream and jewel-toned chocolate drizzle. Served in a porcelain mug with a petite spoon, it was made for Instagram.
"Our recipes are not off-the-shelf. Everything takes a really long time to develop and train. When people try them, they say with surprise, 'Wow, that's good' because they have never had a beverage without powders or syrups," says Synn.
Byul rotates its menu on an ongoing basis, considering seasonality, customer feedback and barista innovation.
As of June 2014, Byul plans to start roasting coffee beans on-site–the litmus test of third-wave coffee mastery. Until then, the coffee is still a cut above, the interior gorgeous and the baristas friendly. With Irvine's relatively blasé coffee landscape, Byul is a welcome sight in a sea of Starbucks.