My introduction to the Chinese coffee industry was a bit unconventional. After graduating from college in 2009, I spent four years working for a wind energy company. The work was hard and I soon found myself dependent on instant coffee to get through the 14 hour workdays.
In this regard, at least, I am not unusual. Many Chinese people of my generation first discovered coffee through cheap instant powders. Compared to Italy or even the United States, coffee culture in China is quite young. But we’re catching up fast: Over the past two decades, the country has gone from instant coffee to corporate chains — think Starbucks — to today’s coffeeshop craze.
In affluent cities like Shanghai or nearby Suzhou, competition between these independent stores has reached fever pitch as COVID-19 has driven down rents and convinced many to give up the 9 to 5 to pursue their passions. . There were nearly 8,000 cafes in Shanghai alone in June 2022, according to local media. That’s almost as much as Tokyo and London combined.
The reality is that many of these new stores are unlikely to survive the next bankruptcy. Money-intensive marketing strategies and the quest for internet stardom may help some in the short term, but they are not enough to sustain long-term growth.
Then there is the hidden risk facing the boutique coffee industry. If instant coffee marked the beginning of coffee culture in China, and chains and boutiques were respectively the second and third stages of its evolution, I think we are about to experience another transformation: the boutique cafe that anyone can do.
Currently, coffee-making skills and devices are confined to stores with trained baristas behind the counter. But even five years ago, when I ran a boutique coffee shop in the northern city of Tianjin, there were signs that this was starting to change. Some regulars started asking about the beans and machines we were using and wondering if they could do the art on their own.
A number of them started their coffee-making journey with a machine that cost between one and two thousand yuan; a year later, many of them returned to the store to buy a fancier one that cost more than double.
It’s not a bold prediction to say that Chinese coffee consumers will spend a lot of money to bring the boutique coffee experience home. The shops’ core clientele benefit from rising disposable income and are increasingly exposed to a coffee culture in which drinking fresh brews and visiting coffee festivals are the norm.
Although the bulk of the home coffee machine market is concentrated at a price of 1,000 yuan (about $150), wealthy coffee lovers in big cities are already pushing the envelope, buying semi-automatic machines between 5,000 and 7,000 yuan. When you factor in the cost of a grain mill – a necessity for the true aficionado – the cost is often around 10,000 yuan, but high-end systems can be as high as 100,000 yuan.
Why semi-automatic? Because Chinese coffee drinkers are also increasingly picky and self-confident when it comes to the taste of their drinks. Even compared to a decade ago, today’s coffee drinkers tend to be more educated – and have stronger opinions – than ever before. It’s no longer a surprise to me when a customer comes into my shop and asks me “a medium roast that has medium acidity that brings out my favorite caramel flavor”.
The combination of a semi-automatic machine and a bean grinder gives home baristas the opportunity to experiment and feel involved in the coffee-making process. They can watch the beans being ground into powder and try out different features of the machines so that each cup tastes different. It’s a bit like photographers who prefer a single-lens reflex to an autofocus.
Another interesting phenomenon is that many coffee connoisseurs often take pride in drinking black coffee, apparently in the belief that it is indicative of a refined palate.
If all of this makes the fourth wave of Chinese coffee culture seem like the exclusive preserve of hipster snobs, well, that’s only partly true. Granted, some see coffee as a status symbol, but for the majority, learning about coffee is simply a way to feel connected to their favorite drink. Latte is still the go-to order at a number of successful boutiques, and aspiring baristas always start by learning the art of foam toppings.
As Chinese people’s coffee drinking habits change, I’m also adapting my role, ranging from serving coffee to consumers to teaching them how to serve themselves. Prior to 2018, the entry-level course I ran had a significantly higher enrollment. This situation has been reversed over the past three years, with students entering the classroom with a higher average level of coffee knowledge.
Another interesting side effect of China’s coffee boom has been its inclusiveness. The belief that “anyone can be a barista” has proven more powerful than it seems, as cafes like Shanghai’s LiLi Time have provided employment opportunities to disadvantaged and often marginalized groups like the deaf and hard of hearing. I trained a man in a wheelchair and watched him become a skilled barista. Another former client of mine, who is deaf and mute, won second prize in a latte-art competition at a coffee festival in Shanghai last year.
Essentially, the fourth wave of Chinese coffee culture shows that the drink can be enjoyed anywhere, by anyone. It’s a big step up from when everyone knew it was Starbucks.
As told to Ying Tianyi.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A barista makes latte art in Chengdu, Sichuan province, April 2022. Wang Lei/CNS/VCG)