Enjoying Grains in Different Ways
We tried many different types of indigenous grains at ‘A Collective Grain’ in Gongju, and discovered joys of food and ways of life that we never knew before.
Bonghwang-dong in the old downtown of Gongju, about a 30-minute drive from LOTTE RESORT BUYEO and a 50-minute drive from LOTTE CITY HOTEL DAEJEON, is home to an interesting new brand called ‘A Collective Grain.’ It was founded in August 2020 by Kim Hyun-jung, who once worked at a design studio, and Cheon Jae-bak, who had been working on projects connecting art and culture with agriculture. The two-story hanok located in a quiet village inside the old city center features a café serving grain-based food, a showroom that displays products, and a small bookstore named ‘Decigram Books.’

Names of little-known native grains found at A Collective Grain.

In crude terms, A Collective Grain may be called a grocery café, but it does so much more. It explores possibilities of many types of indigenous grains to create products and content. It works with farmers, chefs, novelists and academics, among other experts, to create culinary experiences built on grains. A Collective Grain is founded upon the idea of experiencing and enjoying grains. Trying indigenous grains for the first time will broaden your culinary horizons, while also allowing us to reflect on our preferences and ways of life. We sat down with Kim Hyun-jung, the co-founder of A Collective Grain, in Gongju.

The showroom that doubles as bookstore inside A Collective Grain

Once inside A Collective Grain, you can enjoy tea and beverages at café.

Q. Of different types of produce, how did you end up focusing on indigenous grains?
A. As a lifestyle brand, we wanted to show people new lifestyles. We like to talk about diversity and we value differences. Native grains are all different from one another and each has its own names. They are all original in their own ways. At A Collective Grain, by offering different ways to enjoy grains, we deliver our message and suggest new lifestyles.

Q. Give us more specifics on lifestyles that you’d like to show people.
A. We continue to talk about diversity because we believe we can get closer to a simpler way of life through diversity. If you can experience diversity and discover your liking within small differences, then that’s the starting point of leading a life where you can focus on yourself while being independent. And when such independence can be sustained, then it creates more diversity, which in turn makes our world a healthier place.

Q. What do you mean by native grains?
A. They are the types of grains that have grown accustomed to particular regions. When you look into histories of our indigenous grains, most of them don’t have definitive origins. Unlike local staples, native grains are more difficult to define. It requires far more time to establish them as indigenous. These are grains that have survived climates and soil unique to given regions. That really is the basic framework.
For instance, soft wheat is known overseas for being a healthy type for having lower amounts of gluten. This type of wheat took its roots in our soil a long time ago and has been produced here ever since. It may come from outside the country but some farmers believe this is our native grain. That’s exactly what we want to tell people: that there are all types of indigenous grains.

CEO Kim Hyun-jung tidying up the showroom

Q. What types of grains do people get to see at A Grain Collective?
A. We have a showroom and an open kitchen, where we can explain to people about different grains and we also have a café. We opened the café not just because we wanted to have one, but because we felt this was an easy way for people to enjoy native grains. We’ve come up with grain products based on our research, and we get to share them with people at the café. We also run workshops.
As soon as we opened, we ran ‘Grain Tasting Workshop.’ We had people try 20 types of native grains, and also hear from farmers about grains and from onggijang (master potter) about pots, so that they could discover the meaning of ‘meals.’ When we go camping, sometimes we just stare at a campfire and do nothing. By the same token, we can just stare at the rice pot until rice is cooked. Last year, we invited novelist Kim Yeon-soo and poet Na Tae-ju, and cooked food that appeared in their writings with native grains. The authors then talked about why certain types of food appeared alongside particular characters in their books.

Q. Why is there a bookstore here?
A. It happened by accident from our planning stage. Decigram Books takes a shop-in-shop concept and it only sells works of literature. And it may seem as if literature and grains couldn’t be further apart from one other, but the one common denominator is that they both enrich us: books feed our mind and grains feed our body. In that context, we felt like we could do something together. And having the bookstore allows us to run a workshop with writers, called ‘Food Communication.’

Setup for a workshop on grains

Q. How have the workshops been received so far?
A. First, people are pleasantly surprised by the taste of our grains. You can just have the rice without any side dish. The act of cooking rice and sharing personal stories regarding rice can have a positive impact on your diet. After workshops, people have told us that they began to cook rice solely for themselves once a week and that they learned how to appreciate the process of preparing rice and the importance of food. And they also said they experienced changes to their diet and lifestyle. We are about grains but we have to discuss lifestyles, because eating accounts for a major part of our life.

Q. How has your own experience with grains changed your life?
A. I myself was shocked with how great these grains tasted. I used to despise beans, and then I learned rice with beans could taste fantastic. Blending different native grains to make rice and testing it have enriched my life, in modest but meaningful ways. I’ve decided I wanted to continue to live my life that way. And the more I experienced these grains, the more faith I began to have in our brand.

Native grains are on display for visitors.

Q. From the café, your ‘signature drip coffee,’ with blending of coffee beans and native beans, was pretty impressive.
A. It was borne out of curiosity: coffee comes from beans, too, so why not blend those beans with indigenous beans? It was essentially an experiment. We tried every type of native beans that we had here, searching for the right balance with coffee beans. We settled on one particular type of native beans, called ‘deungteuigi.’ We had some help from a local café for coffee beans. Our signature coffee has a rich and smooth aftertaste and body. It’s not entirely outside the realm of coffee, but it still is quite different from your typical coffee. It had such great reception that it became our signature coffee.

With our ‘Grain Latte,’ you get to enjoy the original flavor of one particular grain. And you can choose from five types of grains. We grind them and mix them with milk or soy milk. They may taste similar to misugaru (multi-grain powder beverage) but only with a deeper and richer taste. Sorghum has a chocolate-like flavor that catches people by surprise.

Q. We thought A Collective Grain was just a grocery market and a café.
A. Our business really boils down to providing ‘culinary experience.’ Our ultimate dream is to build a school for that type of experience, where people can eat different types of native grains and take a deep dive into other indigenous plants. It won’t be like a regular school where people will graduate, but it will be a place for making products, learning about business systems, and having firsthand experience in this field at multiple levels. This is all part of building foundation for that.


Products on sale at A Collective Grain.

‘A Meal in Gongju,’ a bowl of rice with Gongju-grown chestnut, produced in collaboration with Gongju Agricultural Technology Center.

Q. You’re from Gongju, but is there a particular reason why you opened A Collective Grain here?
A. A lot of things worked out in a way that put us here, though we didn’t have high expectations at first. Ever since I was a child, Gongju has always been a quiet town. Things have just begun to pick up in and around the old downtown. I think people who are new to Gongju will find the city more interesting than people who are already familiar with the place, like myself. And we have others that run businesses here, so we root for each other. From a business perspective, we’re close to farmers who grow native grains, and we’re in the central part of the country.

Q. What were areas of your main focus when you built this place?
A. We discovered this location while looking for an office space before relocating to Gongju. We rented a new hanok-style building. Because it wasn’t our own, we really couldn’t do anything to it. Personally, I like hidden gems, something tucked in a corner of a village that may not look like a shop at first glance. So we didn’t build any sign that could be easily seen from outside. Once inside, you’ll get a much different impression than the one you had from afar.

Siganture drip coffee at A Collective Grain

Q. Once we walked inside, it was fun to look at and study each corner, rather than have the entire place come into view. Is there a good season or a good time of the day to visit A Collective Grain?
A. The old city center has a low altitude. In bigger cities, we tend to look upward because of high rises. But here, you can get an unobstructed view in all directions. You can come any time of year, but to feel these differences out in nature, spring and autumn are probably the best seasons.

Q. I am sure there are people visiting Gongju just to see A Collective Grain. How can those people make the most out of their trips?
A. Throughout the old downtown, you can check out places run by young entrepreneurs or sign up for different programs. Gongju is also famous for tours through small bookstores. We have Decigram Books here, and there are other shops worthy of your time. Don’t forget our cultural heritage. Once I returned to Gongju, I became more appreciative of the town’s great cultural assets. I love Gongsanseong Fortress in particular. Go take a walk along the fortress on a nice day. If you’re staying overnight, be sure to check out the place at night. There are plenty of cultural properties and local cultural content that will make for a fun and memorable trip.

A Collective Grain CEO Kim Hyun-jung

A Collective Grain
Address: 12-1 Hyosim 1-gil, Gongju, South Chungcheong Province
Inquiry: +82-41-881-2094
Hours: Thursdays~Sundays 11:00~20:00, Closed on Tuesdays · Wednesdays
Instagram: @a.collective.grain

January 2022 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Ahn Garam

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  • January 2022
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Ahn Garam
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