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Coffee in China - a Few Observations

October 07, 2011
Category: in News and Events

Welcome to Shanghai.  The weather is cooling down and coffee is back in season (not much of an iced coffee culture here).

I’m here in China working on a Crop to Cup project for more reliable and better quality coffee supply, so I’ve had a lot of time to survey the market - from roasters to cafes to supermarket shelves.  Shanghai is a city full of comforts, offering most anything you could want (except parks with grass you can actually sit on, or a government who doesn’t bury crashed trains in the dirt).  [note to self: get back on topic, try to stop complaining about the government].  Coffee!  Shanghai is full of it.  Starbucks. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.  Gloria Jeans.  Costa.  Pacific Coffee.  85 Degrees.  Dio.  Other random little chains. And hundreds if not thousands of independent cafes.

The latter are usually the most interesting to me, since chains you can get anywhere.  Some of these independents post red Illy squares in the window (and some of them actually use Illy beans), some of them buy from local roasters and who knows where the rest get their beans.   Beyond availability, coffee in Shanghai is an interesting blend of quality, consistency and knowledge, and here are a few observations.


A day after my arrival here in May I settled into a shop to take advantage of the wifi and answer some emails.  I ordered a cappuccino, sat down, eyed the barista and was generally pretty impressed with what I saw and heard.  Sound and duration of his milk texturing seemed fine, shot stream was nice and thin, and the espresso machine didn’t seem to run too long on my shot. He did a few tricks with the heated milk and when he put the capp on my table I was surprised to find a perfect rosetta in his latte art.  Wow… “Maybe coffee in China isn’t going to be that bad!” I said to myself.

Then I took a sip.  Dammit!  Have I been tricked!?  Needless to say, whatever was under that rosetta did not taste too good.  Was it bad beans, old beans, cookie-cutter barista skills unmatched to the coffee and equipment at hand, or something else?  Or all of the above?

I started thinking that perhaps the main issues here are the quality of beans and a focus on image over quality.  I saw that as baristas concentrated on rosettas instead of good tasting espresso.  And I saw that as café owners concentrated on the romantic origin of the beans instead of their quality or flavor.  Many cafes have some sign in the window telling you that the beans came from some supposedly famous company roasting coffee in Europe since some long-ago year.  It all plays into a  romantic image of the old-world European roaster. China loves it.  They love the Kopi Luwak too, and the Jamaica Blue Mountain or anything else with a famous name or an “extra big” bean.

The equipment played into this image  focus as well.  Many cafes are wasting money on well respected and expensive espresso machines and grinders, but not using them properly and just generally serving swill.

So what do others think?  Surely I’m not the first person to have assessed the coffee scene in a big metropolitan city like Shanghai.  I looked up various coffee shop reviews and food industry awards, and started to visit the city’s most popular and highest rated shops.  I went to a lot of these spots, but quickly realized that most of the reviews focused on ambiance, wi-fi, cuteness, food, and cats.  I honestly appreciated knowing which cafes had cool cats to hang with (back in NYC it’s illegal to have pets in cafes, and it’s unfortunately enforced), but none of these reviews said anything worthwhile about the coffee.  With categories like “Strongest Coffee”and “Best Wi-Fi Café” I should have known better. These were clearly no Oliver Strand pieces.

Even the ones that noted unique coffee preparation proved to be dead ends.  I went to one shop that had received special mention for its siphon method.  I entered and ordered.  The owner went to the back and took out a bag of espresso blend roasted in Europe (reminiscent of Lavazza or Segafredo but lower down the quality level), with a roast date of 8 months prior.  It tasted like, well, what you’d expect a stale 7-bean espresso blend to taste like out of a siphon.  Like a waste of a time.  Why go through the massive fuss of siphon coffee without knowing how to actually make a siphon taste good!?

Solution?  Let’s get some good beans in here!  With a hobbyist movement in full swing and many young Chinese choosing to invest their passion in coffee, perhaps all we need to do is match some good beans to all this energy.

Not so fast.


Digging a bit deeper, I started to realize that just fixing the beans wasn’t going to solve the problem.

My work started taking me to coffee roasting companies of all sizes around China – from boutique expat-owned specialty roasters to large Chinese-owned commercial roasters and everything in between.  Critical problems still exist with the supply line of good raw beans for roasters (that’s what I’m working on here), and the bulk of imported coffee goes to massive commercial roasters for cheap hotel blends and instant coffee.  Still, many local coffee companies are making impressive use of what they have on hand.  I can say without a doubt that cafes, hotels, offices, etc do have the ability to buy good beans.  If you care and you know where to look, wholesale offerings are fresh and local, with impressive single-origin line-ups and well structured blends.  As I said in my welcome remarks at September’s Shanghai Coffee Jam, “nothing need be imported from Italy!”

However, even with a good set of barista skills and eager young Chinese willing to learn and train for any job available, I found that very few people were taking a holistic approach to coffee.  One shop may focus on equipment and baristas, but not source good beans.  Another shop may buy good fresh beans but forget that the beans don’t just make themselves into good espresso. It’s the latter situation that really started to irk me.

This issue came even more into focus when I worked with That’s Shanghai magazine on a citywide coffee review.  I would be happy to contribute, I said, but only if we concentrated on quality of coffee and nothing but.  No talk of bookshelves and homey nooks.  No mention of wifi or comfortable chairs.  I’d hold up my end of the deal by keeping the cute cat remarks off paper, help build our coffee tasting methodology and lead the team.

We toured the city and went to all the best coffee shops we could find.   For scope, we limited it to coffee shops and cafes.  We didn’t review restaurants/dining establishments….it would have been impossible to visit them all.

On the tour, we tasted a lot of coffee.  Lots of good, lots of bad.  What is truly unfortunate is that a lot of those bad coffees were made from quality beans from reliable local suppliers.  What a waste.  In an instant, the barista (or the café owner – their decisions and processes play a huge part as well) ruined all the manual labor, planning and decisions by hard working people along the supply chain: farmers, agronomists, truckers, processing mills, exporters, coffee tasters, importers and roasters.

Respect was paid, however, at a few quite impressive cafes.  These included Alt Coffee, Café Dan, GZ Café, MQ Coffee and Rumors Coffee.   We tasted the full potential of fresh beans, a La Marzocco espresso machine and a well trained barista.  We tasted many beautiful single origin cups out of Hario V60s and wire-only drippers (awesome!).  That was nice, since it can be hard to find non-espresso coffee in China.  Finally, we had found some amazing coffee.  But we had to look hard for it.

The most interesting finding of this tour was not who had our favorite espresso or drip cup.  The most fascinating to me was that our 5 favorite spots were all places that happened to roast their own coffee.  They all had little roasters in-store or they operated their own roasters off site.  I think this shows a lot about the state of the current coffee industry in Shanghai and China in general.

Their coffee was not good because they roasted their own coffee.  Good coffee doesn’t just appear out of a roaster then squeeze its way through an espresso machine.

The coffee from these 5 shops tasted perfect because they took care of their coffee from A to Z….from their choice of beans to the freshness of their beans, to the brew method they used for each bean, to the grind level, water temperature and milk temperature, volume of grinds and water, and so on.

Roasting was just one small part of the equation and it just so happens that all these coffee shop owners were serious about coffee in the first place.  They were serious about coffee from the beginning, and roasting was just another piece in their pursuit of perfection.

Speaking to restaurant/café owners at the Shanghai Coffee Jam (since many of them had read the That’s Shanghai article - find it on our FB page here), I tried to dispel the idea that a cafe must roast its own coffee to make good coffee.  Yes, your choice of beans and ability to control freshness is a very important part of your coffee program, but there are plenty of roasters out there – local even – who can supply Shanghai cafes with what they need.  Arabica Roasters, YOMO Coffee, V. Coffee, Jonas Emil, DTS8 and many more – they’re all nearby and have fresh beans ready for delivery or shipment around China.  The rest is up to you, I explained.  Most important is that you’re serious about your craft.


Let’s remember that the issues above (bad bean choice, poor barista skills, no holistic vision, etc) are not limited to China.  In the US we have our fair share of horrible coffee and the majority of café owners and baristas cannot taste the difference between good and bad espresso.   In that sense we face the same challenge: how to educate coffee drinkers, café owners, and coffee roasters.

We’ve been trying to make progress on that in China, and last month Crop to Cup and a few partner sponsors held the Shanghai Coffee Jam, a specialty coffee workshop that brought together coffee industry professionals, café and restaurant owners and general coffee drinkers.  The day included tastings, education and introductions to suppliers that most people in Shanghai didn’t even know existed.

When I proposed the idea of the Jam to coffee people in China, they thought I was crazy and a few thought its only result would be for them to lose customers.  Industry cooperation is not popular in China.  Secrecy is king and sharing is rare.  The Jam attempted to break that mold: we shared tips and skills and industry stats, and showed coffee drinkers that there is a serious industry developing.  I think most everybody walked away from it realizing that an industry with a more unified front will have a much easier time informing the public of its existence, and will thus increase specialty coffee consumption.

That’s where I think the future lies for specialty coffee in China.  An industry based on quality first needs information and education in order to understand and assess quality.  The supply of green beans is unreliable and terribly inconsistent, so many roasters are left to pick from subpar options from traders who know little more than the cost of a bean and its potential selling price.  And when roasters do find and roast good beans, the customer base is not adequately educated to demand proper drink preparation.  It’s an incomplete supply chain, where one quality move is made null and void by the next person’s mistake.

The vast majority of coffee roasted in China will continue for many years to be roasted for low-quality commercial markets.  Chinese on the whole are not big coffee drinkers and quality is thus on par with consumers’ early understanding of expectations for the product.  But if recent growth of cooperation-based events like the Shanghai Coffee Jam and the China Barista Championship continue, and if new specialty roasters continue to pop up like they they do now – from Kunming to Shanghai to Beijing to Dalian – then coffee (good coffee!) has a very strong future here.

This year, for the first time, China will send a competitor to the World Barista Championship (Vienna 2012).  I – and I probably speak for the entire specialty coffee community – wish him luck and I look forward to seeing what he brings back and contributes to his home country.


a few pics below.....and many more on the "Coffee in China" photoset on my Picasa page

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Tagged in: China coffee industry