Cafe cof­fers are full, but cof­fee has no moxie

China Daily (Canada) - - BUSINESS - By SIVA SANKAR

Last week, yet an­other cafe opened nearmy Beijing of­fice, deep in the bow­els of a ho­tel. I mademy way in nev­er­the­less, lured by its glossy fly­ers.

Stir­ring of any sense— aroma, sight, touch, imag­i­na­tion— of caf­feine con­nois­seurs could raise hopes for a stim­u­lat­ing cof­fee and trig­ger the im­pulse to go and have one.

This as­pect of the sub­con­scious mind Chi­nese food-and-bev­er­age en­trepreneurs seem to un­der­stand, go­ing by the ubiq­ui­tous cafes and cof­fee-serv­ing es­tab­lish­ments in Beijing and Shang­hai. In do­ing so, they may have dis­cov­ered a po­ten­tial win­ner, never mind the spot­light on wines and liquor.

Cof­fee ad­dic­tion can make you do strange things— like part­ing with up to 40 yuan (around $6) for a cup, hav­ing back-to-back shots of dif­fer­ent fla­vors, and gen­er­ally fill­ing the cof­fers of cof­fee shops.

Cof­fee-ded­i­cated star­tups like cafe chains and quick ser­vice restau­rants or QSRs are a global trend. In In­dia, mys­te­ri­ous mon­ey­bags (pri­vate eq­uity in­vestors and their ilk) have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into what are es­sen­tially so­phis­ti­cated cor­ner cof­fee shops. Th­ese om­nipresent chains are prized brands now with in­cred­i­bly high val­u­a­tions.

In China, I see well-equipped lo­cal shops slug­ging it out with global ma­jors such as Star­bucks. But, I dare­say, all this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily good news for the con­sumer.

My experience is tech­nol­ogy, big money, plush am­bi­ence, stylish ser­vice and arty sea­son­ing— cin­na­mon-sprin­kled milky foam any­one? — do not nec­es­sar­ily guar­an­tee a good cof­fee.

It’s been a while since I en­joyed a re­ally soul-pleas­ing, palate-sat­is­fy­ing cof­fee of the kind that en­er­gizedmy youth in the 1980s and 1990s. I must have spent a small fortune in quest of such a cof­fee.

Flash­back: Inmy home­town Hy­der­abad, there was a small shop in the ever-bustlingMonda Mar­ket. Thou­sands used to buy freshly ground cof­fee pow­der there. Queues were nor­mal.

Pre-roasted cof­fee beans, sourced from the Nil­giri and Coorg plan­ta­tions in south­ern In­dia, would be pow­dered in an in­dus­trial-scale elec­tric grinder, and blended with chicory in 60:40, 70:30, 80:20 or even 90:10 pro­por­tion.

The process would emit a heav­enly aroma that would fill the en­tire area. You could tell from a dis­tance whether or not the shop was open. Ev­ery­body in the city bus would know there’s a sealed packet of freshly ground cof­fee pow­der in your bag. Blend­ing the de­coc­tion from the steel fil­ter with hot milk and sugar pro­duced tasty, stim­u­lat­ing cof­fee.

I crave that sat­is­fy­ing taste and those heady highs. Glob­al­iza­tion has made it pos­si­ble to sa­vor high-tech cof­fees of all kinds and ori­gins. In re­cent months, I must have con­sumed at sev­eral cafes hot, milky, sweet cof­fee made with beans from Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Costa Rica and other pro­duc­ers.

From the sub­si­dized 6-yuan of­fice cof­fee through the 18-20 yuan ma­roon pa­per-cups of pizza joints and QSRs, and 35-40 yuan shapely china at trendy cafes, to 100-120 yuan drinks at top-end restau­rants, they all of­fer nov­elty, taste, com­fort and even oc­ca­sional stim­u­la­tion of the grey cells. But some­how the happy sat­is­fac­tion that comes from a gen­uinely good hot stim­u­lat­ing tasty cof­fee is in­fre­quent, nay, rare (like LionelMessi’s goals in the 2016 Span­ish foot­ball league).

I don’t know what is to blame. I sus­pect it could be any/some/all of the fol­low­ing: milk, water, sugar, fer­til­iz­ers, pes­ti­cides, the cof­fee-brew­ing ma­chines, the cof­fee brew­ers, lack of scald­ing heat, my tongue/ brain/mind/age.

I ama sucker for the pure, 2-in-1 and 3-in-1 in­stant va­ri­eties as well— freeze-dried pow­ders, gran­ules, what have you. They come in sa­chets, from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, thanks to for­eign hy­per­mar­kets and cross-bor­der e-com­merce. Onoc­ca­sion, they do tick­lemy taste-buds and pack in a punch, like the one from Viet­nam that a col­league gifted last week. Glob­al­iza­tion isn’t evil al­ways.

At the stu­dent-run stalls of a Rio car­ni­val-like fair of a cos­mopoli­tan Beijing univer­sity last week, I no­ticed cof­fee pow­der pack­ets from African coun­tries and Ye­men. A500­gram pack from Burundi was priced 250 yuan.

I took it as a sign to go back to old­fash­ioned home-made fil­ter cof­fee. I logged into on­line mar­ket­place, found a store that sells In­dian gro­ceries, and or­dered a time­tested brand of fil­ter cof­fee pow­der.

When the par­cel ar­rived the next morn­ing, I re­al­ized I didn’t have a fil­ter. I’ll buy a steel one. Those fancy foam-spew­ing cof­fee pods and elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances­must wait.

Con­tact the writer at siva @chi­


A wo­man makes cof­fee in a cof­fee shop in Pu’er, Yun­nan prov­ince, a ma­jor cof­fee grow­ing area in China.

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