Spe­cialty coffee houses are sprout­ing all over Shang­hai as the third wave of coffee gath­ers pace in the tra­di­tion­ally tea-drink­ing na­tion of China

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUN­QIAN in Shang­hai


Hav­ing grown up drink­ing salty milk tea, a pop­u­lar bev­er­age in Mon­go­lian cul­ture, A Ji­nai only had his first sip of coffee dur­ing his col­lege days. Like many oth­ers, his first cup was made us­ing an in­stant pre-mix and he only con­sumed it be­cause he was told the drink would be use­ful in help­ing him stay awake dur­ing late nights of study­ing ahead of the ex­ams.

It was not un­til a trip to Europe two years ago that he dis­cov­ered spe­cialty coffee, and that chance en­counter even­tu­ally led to him quit his job as an elec­tronic en­gi­neer with Mi­crosoft in Seat­tle to start up his own coffee busi­ness.

A Ji­nai, his wife and sev­eral friends in the US pooled to­gether about $ 35,000 to start Pin­dous Coffee in Seat­tle in 2015. What’s unique about the busi­ness is that it pri­mar­ily tar­gets con­sumers in Chi­nese me­trop­o­lises like Shang­hai and Bei­jing. Ac­cord­ing to A Ji­nai, the man­darin pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Pin­dous refers to the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of coffee beans.

Spe­cialty coffee is de­fined by the Spe­cialty Coffee As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica (SCAA) as those scor­ing 80 points or above on a 100-point scale. The rat­ing is used to de­ter­mine the fla­vor of the beans which are pro­duced un­der op­ti­mal mi­cro­cli­mates.

Pin­dous Coffee’s en­try into the mar­ket comes in the midst of the third wave of coffee, which is be­lieved to have started in 2002. It is dubbed as a move­ment by afi­ciona­dos and ex­perts to pro­duce high-qual­ity brews us­ing a great level of care and sci­en­tific meth­ods, and the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of coffee as an ar­ti­sanal prod­uct in­stead of be­ing the world’s se­cond most traded com­mod­ity. Amer­i­can coffee chain Star­bucks is con­sid­ered to be the pi­o­neer in the se­cond wave, just as Fol­gers was in the first wave which took place in the 19th cen­tury.

The third wave move­ment is con­sid­ered the strong­est in the US but it has al­ready started to gain mo­men­tum in China as dozens of spe­cialty coffee joints have sprouted in re­cent years. How­ever, A Ji­nai is not look­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the cur­rent coffee craze to make a quick buck.

If any­thing, the 30-year-old is de­ter­mined to show his fel­low Chi­nese what a good cup of coffee should taste like.

“We are cre­at­ing a leap, one that gus­ta­to­rily, the Chi­nese have been ready for cen­turies, if not longer,” said A Ji­nai dur­ing his re­cent trip to Shang­hai to pro­mote his spe­cialty coffee beans, which he claimed have been se­lected and roasted by some of Seat­tle’s most pro­fes­sional graders.

A Ji­nai noted that there is much sim­i­lar­ity be­tween China’s tea-ap­pre­ci­a­tion cul­ture and the ex­pe­ri­ence of en­joy­ing spe­cialty coffee, adding that he be­lieves many Chi­nese peo­ple would be able to de­ci­pher and ap­pre­ci­ate the sub­tle nu­ances in fla­vor of the sin­gle-ori­gin brews he has to of­fer.

Pin­dous Coffee had re­ceived or­ders from 20 cus­tomers for its 399-yuan ($60) pack­age in its first month. Each pack­age con­sisted of three bags of coffee beans, each weigh­ing 150 grams and fea­tur­ing a dif­fer­ent fla­vor. A Ji­nai con­sid­ers this to be a pos­i­tive start for Pin­dous Coffee, though he con­ceded that it would still be some time be­fore his prod­uct be­comes a house­hold sta­ple in China.

The sit­u­a­tion is very dif­fer­ent for Zong Xinkuang, the co­founder of See­saw Coffee, which is con­sid­ered one of the lead­ing spe­cialty coffee joints in Shang­hai. Ev­i­dently, busi­ness has been brisk for Zong — See­saw al­ready has six out­lets in the city fol­low­ing its in­cep­tion about four years ago.

Wang Xiaofeng,

Es­tab­lished in 2012 in a quiet neigh­bor­hood in down­town Shang­hai, the coffee house caused quite a stir when it sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced the price of its spe­cialty coffee to 30 yuan a cup, close to that of Star­bucks’ pric­ing in China.

But it was not un­til last year, fol­low­ing the open­ings of two new stores at prime lo­ca­tions that its prices went up. Not that the surge has done any­thing to dampen the de­mand — Zong said that they sold dou­ble the amount of coffee in 2015 as com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year.

“It’s still a very lo­ca­tion-ori­ented busi­ness. There is yet a steady and suf­fi­cient flow of cus­tomers who would make a de­tour for a cup of coffee, even a good cup,” said Zong.

Un­like A Ji­nai, who spoke pas­sion­ately about the fla­vors of beans pro­duced in Ethiopian farms or those high up in the moun­tains in Tai­wan, Zong ap­peared to be a ret­i­cent busi­ness­man whose ex­per­tise was in crunch­ing num­bers. The for­mer IT en­gi­neer was once quoted say­ing that he wanted to turn See­saw Coffee into “the Star­bucks of spe­cialty coffee in China”.

He at­trib­uted the suc­cess of See­saw Coffee to fac­tors in­clud­ing an early head start in the mar­ket, good lo­ca­tions, a solid team that com­prises mostly of peo­ple from cre­ative in­dus­tries in­stead of cater­ing, and above all, ap­peal­ing sto­ries about the in­tri­cate pro­cesses be­hind pro­duc­ing each of their coffee beans.

Wang Zhen­dong, di­rec­tor of Shang­hai Coffee As­so­ci­a­tion, agreed that the sto­ries be­hind the coffee beans are what that young, well-ed­u­cated and widely-trav­eled con­sumers in China seek as an al­ter­na­tive to “the eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble green and white Star­bucks pa­per cups”.

Fur­ther­more, Wang be­lieves that China’s short his­tory of sip­ping coffee might ac­tu­ally turn into an ad­van­tage for spe­cialty coffee when com­pared with coun­tries like Italy, where there ex­ists a strong, if not stub­born, no­tion of how to make a cup of coffee.

How­ever, Wang es­ti­mated that less than 1 per­cent of the cafes claim­ing to serve spe­cialty coffee in Shang­hai or in China would meet SCAA stan­dards, al­though he noted that only a hand­ful of coffee geeks would care about this.

Wang Xiaofeng, a Shang­hai na­tive, is among the hand­ful. About two years af­ter a trip to Spain, where a cafe and its good coffee saved her oth­er­wise night­mar­ish ex­pe­ri­ence, she got her­self cer­ti­fied as a SCAA’s Q-grader and a SCAE (Spe­cialty Coffee As­so­ci­a­tion of Europe) level-one roaster be­fore open­ing her own cafe named Moon.

“It’s never about mak­ing money,” said Wang, whose small cafe is lo­cated within a res­i­den­tial build­ing and can ac­com­mo­date no more than 10 peo­ple.

“I guess some­times it’s the un­fa­mil­iar for­eign cul­ture that ap­peals to us.”


In­ner Mon­go­lian na­tive A Ji­nai and Shang­hai na­tive Wang Xiaofeng have started their own spe­cialty coffee busi­ness in Seat­tle and Shang­hai re­spec­tively.


Coffee lovers say that hand-mak­ing a cup of spe­cialty coffee needs time, pa­tience, and most im­por­tantly, knowl­edge and pas­sion about coffee.

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