(Relaxnews) – Coffee is experiencing phenomenal growth in South Korea, where the streets are overrun with coffee-clutching commuters, a cafe is found on every corner, and palates for specialty coffees are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

For years, coffee in South Korea used to be restricted to the instant kind and the most embellishment given to a cup of joe was milk and sugar. But according to a Nielsen trend-tracking report released earlier this month, in the last three years the popularity of coffee in Korea has “skyrocketed.”

In 2008, for instance, the four leading coffee shop outlets had approximately 6,000 locations across the country. By 2011, that number surged to 51 percent, totaling 9,400 locations.

Some of the major coffee chains in South Korea include Caffé Bene, Angel-in-Us and Ediya. Multi-national coffee brand Starbucks has about 400 locations in the Asian country.

Another telltale sign of coffee’s trendsetting status is its appearance in the country’s powerful entertainment industry.

A wildly popular 2007 TV series called The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, for example, has been widely credited for kickstarting the coffee craze in the country, as much of the drama unfolded in a coffee shop. The series was also dubbed over in Spanish and aired in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

Coffee is also at the center of soap operas like Coffee House which aired in 2010, and is likewise the inspiration behind a hit pop song “One Cup of Coffee.”

Not only are Koreans developing daily drinking habits, they’re also expressing a rising interest in the art of coffee making, with avid coffee connoissuers enrolling in barista courses and birthing a new generation of serious coffee masters.

Over the last three years, Nielsen analysts say coffee bean imports grew 27 percent, while the popularity of coffee also extends to ready-to-drink (RTD) and instant mix products.

Analysts also found that Korean consumers seek out convenience stores the most when looking for ready-to-drink coffee like canned products. Between March 2010 and February, 2011, sales in this category grew by more than 30 percent, while sales in independent cafes also grew 26 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile, a November report by English-language news channel Arirang found that the average Korean drank 400 cups of coffee a day last year.

The market has been expanding by about 20 percent over the last few years, and by the end of 2011 is expected to reach the $3 billion US dollar mark.

Baristas in Korea are also putting native touches to their coffees like date and ginger flavorings.