Cof­fee

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

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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

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