China’s Coffee Revolution is Brewing

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 Siphon coffee is one of the most interesting ways of brewing coffee. Utilizing the physics of vacuum filtration, the syphon allows for a cleaner, less-bodied taste than French press while retaining the crisp flavors from the coffee.

BY IRIS SHAO

In today’s Beijing, coffee shops have become as ubiquitous as skyscrapers. Do a quick search on DianPing (the Chinese version of Yelp) and a handful of dots pop up signaling cafes within a reasonable distance of your current location. Though far from being the largest market for coffee consumption, China’s rapid economic growth in the past 20 years has led to a significant increase in the demand for coffee; it is now the largest growing coffee market in the world. Thanks to Starbucks’ and Nestle’s expansion since its introduction to Mainland China in 1999, the coffee industry has established itself in metropolitan areas throughout the country in the form of chain cafés and instant coffee packets. Only recently, though, have more exciting and unique coffee experiences become widely available to coffee consumers.

Maan Coffee, one of Starbuck’s biggest competitors in China, offers popular Chinese snacks such as honey toast, bingsu, and milk tea in addition to coffee. The chain stores have become a popular afterschool hangout spot for upper-middle class Chinese students and a casual workstation for businesspeople.

Maan Coffee, one of Starbuck’s biggest competitors in China, offers popular Chinese snacks such as honey toast, bingsu, and milk tea in addition to coffee. The chain stores have become a popular afterschool hangout spot for upper-middle class Chinese students and a casual workstation for businesspeople.

While the coffee-consumption culture in China is not as developed as  the US’s, several places in more “Western” areas of the country such as Beijing’s Village have started to treat coffee as an artisanal drink. Several cafes in Shanghai look strikingly similar to the independent coffee shops in the United States. Choosing to focus on single-origin coffee (coffee beans sourced from a particular farm, or microlot, in countries such as Ethiopia and Guatemala) that are roasted lightly to preserve the unique tastes of the origin, coffee shops like Café del Volcan offer coffee served by slow-brew methods such as syphon in addition to traditional espresso-based drinks. By emphasizing the handcrafted nature of coffee through the roasting and brewing methods, these cafes introduce customers to the so-called “third-wave” coffee experience. Unlike independent coffee shops, chain stores like Starbucks and Maan Coffee belong to the “second-wave” and seek to proliferate and introduce  Arabica-variety coffee beans  to the masses. On the other hand, Coffee robusta, the less refined variety of coffee, was the centerpiece of the “first-wave.” While its taste was bitter and bland, industry conglomerates such as Nestle and Folgers sold the product as an entry-level mix more meant for people looking for the rudimentary caffeine kick as opposed to a more nuanced coffee-drinking experience.

However, the demand for more refined drinks has since increased. As the waves progress, it is apparent that consumers want to learn more about coffee and the myriad ways it can be prepared and presented. ndependent coffee shops have begun to further coffee education by focusing on highlighting the nuances of the flavors of the beans in each cup. Every bag of fresh, light-roasted beans comes with a detailed description of the origin of the coffee. By listing the processing methods, country of origin, and elevation at which the beans where grown, baristas seek to promote the global economy of coffee while instructing consumers about the unique tastes of each geographic region—coffee grown in Kenya and Ethiopia are known to have crisp, floral tastes while beans from Guatemala and Costa Rica often contain hints of molasses, chocolate, and earth.

Baristas around the world use the Hario V60 method to prepare coffee. They often meticulously prepare a pour over using professional equipment such as a scale and timer so they can better control the water to coffee ratio and the extraction rate. The gooseneck kettle combined with the special cone filter helps to ensure a more even extraction.

Baristas around the world use the Hario V60 method to prepare coffee. They often meticulously prepare a pour over using professional equipment such as a scale and timer so they can better control the water to coffee ratio and the extraction rate. The gooseneck kettle combined with the special cone filter helps to ensure a more even extraction.

However, the rise in the international coffee market is not without obstacles. The industry faces several concerns that threaten its growth. Because of its cultural significance, many Chinese prefer tea to other beverages. In spite of the introduction of soda, energy drinks, and coffee, tea is still the second most-popular beverage consumed after water. In addition, the mass majority of people are not used to the taste of coffee, often complaining of its bitter and unpleasant taste. In fact, most choose to dilute the pungent taste with milk and sugar, preferring lattes to black coffee.

Furthermore, many simply cannot afford to adopt the Western habit of drinking coffee. The prices of espresso-based beverages are more expensive in China than in the US where a Grande latte at Starbucks costs around 3.75 USD, but the same drink would cost almost 4.50 USD in Beijing. To add on to this price difference, the annual income of city-dwellers is also lower than that of the US. With high prices and lower earnings, fewer people are able to afford a daily coffee habit, choosing instead to drink pre-bottled teas and juices.

  Knockbox Coffee in Hong Kong offers several espresso-based drinks as well as hand-brewed coffees. Educational diagrams of the various types of espresso-based drinks are shown on the board as well as the details of the different pastries offered.

Knockbox Coffee in Hong Kong offers several espresso-based drinks as well as hand-brewed coffees. Educational diagrams of the various types of espresso-based drinks are shown on the board as well as the details of the different pastries offered.

In addition, those who are hopeful of the growth of the coffee industry often forget the large role cultural beliefs play in the market. The mass majority of those who can afford to consume coffee on a regular basis do so because of the heightened social status given to the drink; if one is able to afford Western luxuries, one must be part of the urban elite, or at least cast a convincing image of elitism. In an attempt to mask their dislike for coffee and maintain a cultured image, many choose to drown the bitterness in lots of milk. For most, coffee confers status, not taste. As a result, Starbucks, and other leading chain cafes such as UBC Coffee, have chosen to capitalize on espresso-based drinks rather than straight shots and drip coffee.

Shops that do not serve sugary, milk-drowned drinks are uncommon because of the lack of demand for traditional and hand-pressed concoctions such as Americanos and drip coffee. Over the years, my experiences of trying to convince my parents and extended family to enjoy the nuances of lighter roasts and single-origin have always been waved off. While independent coffee shops and roasters have started to pop up, the prospect of current customers drinking less sweet espresso-based drinks and black coffee is slim. Because of the motives behind drinking coffee, customers are not as interested in drinking coffee as a beverage as they are in drinking coffee as a status-marker.

However, the problem also lies with the quality of cafes and coffee education for baristas serving the drinks. In addition, without proper training for the baristas manning the coffee bar, the drinks will never achieve their true potential, just as how an incompetent chef will never be able to fully utilize the ingredients at hand.

A Shanghai-style cappuccino features ample whipped cream on top of the traditional espresso and milk base. Because of the general aversion to coffee’s strong and bitter taste, many cafes around the country make drinks sweeter and creamier than usual.

A Shanghai-style cappuccino features ample whipped cream on top of the traditional espresso and milk base. Because of the general aversion to coffee’s strong and bitter taste, many cafes around the country make drinks sweeter and creamier than usual.

In the past, the lack of quality equipment, and experienced baristas to manage them, limited the dynamism in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. Yet despite these setbacks, coffee culture is maturing in China. Several schools in Beijing offer specialty coffee courses on making espresso, various brewing methods, and cupping for baristas and roasters interested in honing their skills and getting certified through the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) and SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe). Moreover, the Yunnan province, known for tea production, has begun to grow coffee as well. In recent years SCAA cupping scores, which evaluate the aromas and tastes of the beans, awarded a Yunnan blend a score of 86, bringing it up to the standard of the international specialty coffee scene. Reviewers agree that the cup is a clean and balanced interaction of cocoa, earth, and apple. Because of its relatively low acidity, some say that it has a striking similarity to beans from Hawaii. For a country that has been recently introduced to coffee, Chinese baristas are doing surprisingly well in international competitions. At the 2013 World Barista Championship held in Melbourne, the Chinese champion, He Hong Cao placed 20th out of 51 competitors.

Though China has already begun its “coffee revolution” and shift in paradigm to “third-wave,” in order for the coffee industry to break through in China, there must be changes to current cultural beliefs, taste preferences, and the socioeconomic distribution.




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