A SPECIALITY COFFEE SCENE IS BREWING, WRITES Charmaine Mok, WITH A WAVE OF NEW CAFES THAT HAVE EVOLVED FROM ESPRESSO CULTURE TO MORE DELICATE CONCOCTIONS AND A MORE LANGUID WAY OF ENJOYING THEM
A speciality coffee scene is brewing with a wave of innovative new cafes
We’re told to take in the aroma before sipping. We inhale and note delicate hints of toasted walnuts and jasmine. Now take a slow sip. Hints of apricot, or was that a tang of citrus? The flavours dance and linger. Next we’re told to take a lengthy slurp, filling our mouths with oxygen to bring out all the nuances. This is not a wine tasting, but a coffee cupping session on a mid-week afternoon in a quiet corner of Central’s Mano restaurant. A group of coffee connoisseurs and curious drinkers is gathered to be introduced to single-origin beans from Coffee Libre, a Seoul-based roaster that supplies the restaurant exclusively.
Over two hours, we taste three African coffees (two from Ethiopia and one from Kenya) and four from Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica), each with a distinct character. The baristas move with skill and precision, surrounded by equipment more often associated with chemistry than cafes— scales, temperature gauges and glass pots reminiscent of beakers and flasks. At Mano, guests can choose between four or five different coffees on an average day, and have it brewed with traditional drip filters, via the cult-classic Aeropress, or as traditional espresso.
It’s a scene that’s becoming more common in Hong Kong’s pockets of coffee culture. Central, Sheung Wan and Wan Chai in particular have seen a boom in the
number of serious brew bars where the provenance and freshness of their beans are as important as the barista’s latte art. It’s been a rapid and welcome evolution since the early adopters of the speciality coffee philosophy sprang up late last decade, such as Barista Jam, Coffee Assembly and Coco Espresso. A much wider range of young, independent venues is now eager to educate the public about all things coffee, right back to the growers. Among those raising the bar are Knockbox Coffee Company in Mong Kok, The Cupping Room in Sheung Wan, and Rabbithole Coffee Roasters in Wan Chai.
“I’m a wine person, but coffee I find more delicate and more exciting because it’s so much more approachable,” says Chae Cheon, one of the partners at Mano. “You could be a banker or a clerk, and you’d still get to experience that same complication and sophistication. You may not be able to buy a whole bottle of 1983 Bordeaux, but you can have this beautiful Kenyan coffee that was roasted only three days ago.”
Single-origin coffees dominate Mano’s selection for brewing, though there are two Coffee Libre blends (Bad Blood and No Surprises) for espresso. “Single origins say a lot about where the coffee is coming from,” says Cheon. “It’s all about the culture, how it’s grown in those regions, and the traceability. If you drank a Kenyan coffee two years ago, it would be different today, but it would still retain its defining character.”
At newcomers such as Filters Lane, on Caine Road, or Sheung Wan’s Lof10, in a quiet strip of the Poho neighbourhood around Po Hing Fong, the sweet, milky drinks that once dominated the city’s coffee culture are a thing of the past. “We’re called Filters Lane because we want to promote black coffee,” says Liam Lai, who set up the Mid-levels cafe with business partner Aya Kato, who is the in-house coffee roaster. Head barista Yanbi Leung is certified as a Q Grader by the international accreditation organisation, the Coffee Quality Institute.
Filters Lane represents a new era of serious coffee drinking—with a side of fun. The space is clean and modern, but not clinical, and Lai isn’t trying to force-feed Hongkongers the London coffee culture he fell in love with while studying in the UK. “People often ask if Hong Kong is on the ‘third wave’ yet,” he says, using a term becoming common internationally to designate the new era of speciality and artisanal coffee. “But I think we’re somewhere about two-and-a-half. Right now, people are beginning to know things like flat whites and piccolos, but places like Starbucks still have a huge presence.”
Still, he’s confident that coffee drinkers are becoming more discerning, even when it comes to their daily latte. “They care about how the milk is steamed, and what temperature the coffee is served. They’ll ask how many shots we do. They care more about the terroir of the beans. They’re learning.” Lai likens the movement towards
AT LOF10, A CHEEKY DISCLAIMER ENGRAVED AT THE BASE OF THE MENU, WHICH IS MADE OF STEEL, READS: “WE PROUDLY DO NOT SERVE STARBUXXX COFFEE”
speciality coffee to the initial stages of red wine appreciation in the city: “People were excited about it but didn’t really care about what they were drinking. Then people started to learn about grapes and origin. And now it’s completely different.”
At Lof10, a cheeky disclaimer engraved at the base of the menu, which is made of steel, reads: “We proudly do not serve Starbuxxx coffee.” When it first opened, the cafe was the exclusive representative for Los Angeles’ acclaimed Handsome Coffee Roasters; the west coast roaster has since been acquired by San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Company, and Lof10 has made the transition, introducing other cult roasters along the way (such as LA’S
Bar Nine). It’s an approach that resonates with those in the know, though the general public is still tentatively dipping their spoons into the world of speciality coffee. “I think [coffee chains] have distorted the public’s palates,” says owner Marcus Liu. “People come to Lof10 and ask if we do mochas or caramel macchiatos. But we don’t. We’re a simple coffee bar.”
Liu gestures at the tables in the paredback space, an attractive mix of the industrial and the homely with its concrete floors, steel shutters and woven table runners. “You can see that we don’t provide sugar. We want customers to understand that when you have our coffee, there is a natural sweetness to it.” He does, however, admit that they do have sugar “in the back” for patrons who can’t do without it.
A lighter roast is preferred here, for a more delicate brew that can be savoured. On a visit during Lof10’s early days, we tried a hand-dripped Colombian (Regalo de Popayán) from Handsome’s “C” range— beans categorised for their “comforting” factor—and were taken by its rounded flavour and light, spicy notes. Served plain in a simple white mug, it’s extraordinary to see how the more a coffee is stripped back, the more its complexity is revealed. No wonder so many people make comparisons between wine and coffee, though Liu, who also runs independent wine retailer Zeitgeist Loft, is a little more ambivalent about the link.
“Is my coffee going to give you the same complexity of flavour as a bottle of Pétrus?” he jokes. “It’s too easy to exploit the idea of coffee being cool, high end and all about the artisan,” he continues, citing high prices at some coffee shops. Nevertheless, “If people really want to understand more about brewed coffee, they can stand in front of our barista and they’ll talk to them, describing all the flavours. But I feel people just want to grab a good coffee and chill with their friends. One thing I do think coffee has in common with wine is that the enjoyment of it is all about the companionship.”
pour it on
Aya Kato and Yanbi Leung at Filters Lane