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