China's coffee industry is freshly roasted and ready to reach out
By Lu Yan  ·  2022-01-10  ·   Source: NO.2 JANUARY 13, 2022
A contestant brews coffee during a barista competition in Shanghai on November 20, 2021 (XINHUA)

Café owner Liu Houjun gained a little online fame with his unique coffee brewing bravura. Formerly the director of a listed company, the coffee lover, in his 50s, decided to quit his job and open a coffee shop to develop innovative blends.

"Different regions in the world all have their own ways of making a cup of coffee with local characteristics. I figured maybe we, as Chinese, could also invent our own unique coffee extraction method," Liu said. And invent he did. After slowly adding water to the ground coffee powder, he puts the container into a pressure cooker filled with water and boils it extensively to complete the extraction.

He explained that this process leaves the coffee with a smoother and lighter taste, much to the palate of many customers, contributing to the shop's 70 percent returning customer rate. Apart from his special coffee-brewing technique, Liu has fashioned a range of innovative coffee products, like espresso made with the help of yogurt and rice wine.

"I hope more of these Chinese-style coffee varieties can reap some worldwide recognition," Liu said.

A cool sip

According to YiMagazine, a financial media outlet in China, Shanghai currently has about 7,000 coffee shops, excluding coffee services in convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, ranking first nationwide—or even worldwide. The number of coffee hangouts per 10,000 people in Shanghai is 2.85, similar to that in London, the UK, New York, the U.S., and Tokyo, Japan.

Major chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee account for 35 percent of total coffeehouses in Shanghai, the report added. Luckin Coffee, one of China's largest coffee chains established in 2017, managed to quickly expand by weaving some marketing magic combining expedient delivery service and discounts.

"Many people believe it was Luckin that showed Chinese customers who had been less familiar with coffee the ropes, lifting the entire market to its next level," said Zhang Mingzhu, General Manager of Mellower Coffee, a Chinese specialty coffee company.

To attract more customers, many café proprietors are seeking state-of-the-art suggestions to give their place that little extra pizzazz. Coffee is mixed with ingredients that are more commonly spotted sitting next to a traditional Chinese meal, like soybean milk, tangerine peel, or even Moutai, a prominent brand of distilled Chinese liquor. Among the innovations, latte with sweet-scented osmanthus, the aromatic flower that is native to China and prized for its intoxicating, apricot-like scent, proved most popular, with more than 60,000 searches on, a Chinese restaurant review site, in 2021 alone. The search term "Chinese-style coffee" was entered over 280,000 times.

According to another report released in December 2021, specialty coffee, often referred to as quality coffee, is gaining increasing popularity among customers in Shanghai. The term refers to coffee that has scored over 80 points on a 100-point scale by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

The group aged between 20 and 40 is the main consumers of this coffee type in Shanghai, with women accounting for 60 percent. Compared with 2019, the proportion of student consumers in the past year has increased by nearly 2.4 times. They usually opt for a boutique coffee shop to study, socialize, or take a break. People over the age of 50, too, have become more curious about and fond of specialty coffee. Compared with 2020, this group's orders have increased by nearly 143 percent.

"The quality of coffee beans is not the only customer focus; the ways of brewing and extraction, as well as the uniqueness and creative designs of coffee shops, all play a vital part," said Zhang Xueqiang, Chairman of the Coffee Professional Committee of the Shanghai Food Industry Association, adding that Shanghai specialty coffee is entering a golden age of development.

Shanghai-based entrepreneur Wu Yue told Beijing Review that in the past, he would invite potential business partners to a restaurant to talk shop; they might even go out for some drinks after. "But today, I usually take my prospective business partner to a coffee or tea shop, as it is healthier and more efficient. I'll take a date there as well," 28-year-old Wu said.

A farmer checks on the coffee beans in Pu’er, Yunnan Province, on January 6, 2018 (XINHUA)

Ample supply

Many coffee shops in Shanghai flourish on an ample supply of coffee beans from Yunnan Province. One such example is Mellower Coffee, established in 2011 in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, and now headquartered in Shanghai, with chain stores in other parts of China, as well as in Singapore and the Republic of Korea. Yunnan is the largest coffee growing province in China and, for years, the province's yield has accounted for more than 98 percent of the country's total. According to the Yunnan provincial department of agriculture and rural affairs, 131,000 tons of coffee beans were produced in the province in 2020.

Pu'er City is one of Mellower Coffee's main sources of coffee beans aside from other places in major coffee producing regions in the world like Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia and Guatemala. The city's coffee plantation area, output and value ranked No.1 in the nation in 2021. And it's also a famous tea-growing area.

Yunnan's coffee history dates back to the 1950s, when scientists began their research on planting there. The year 1988 was the starting point for Yunnan coffee to make its mark beyond China, when the local government launched a coffee assistance project, assisted by the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank. Swiss food and beverage giant Nestlé introduced new bean varieties and smart production technologies to Pu'er, and other places, transforming Yunnan into a global golden belt for its coffee cultivation.

Coffee grows in semi-tropical climate, with an average temperature between 20 to 27 degrees Celsius and abundant rainfall, making Pu'er the perfect candidate.

However, in the past, Yunnan coffee was considered a relatively mediocre variety as its quality highly fluctuated due to inexperienced production, unexpected bad weather occurrences and insect plagues, according to Hua Runmei, a coffee entrepreneur in Pu'er.

The incentive to improve its quality was further dampened by a price drop. "With the development of the global coffee market, mechanization and large-scale production and processing in Brazil, Viet Nam and other countries, the price of traditional commercial coffee beans has gradually fallen, making it less profitable for farmers," she said.

Hua can recall her grandfather and parents growing coffee beans for a living ever since she was little. "Though they were cultivating it, farmers of their generations never actually tried the coffee, let alone study it and see how to improve the taste, which is vital in market competition," Hua said. She added that the younger generation today can open up more possibilities for coffee plantation by transforming it, developing specialty varieties and adopting digital technology throughout the entire process, rendering product quality high and unwavering.

Hua is currently preparing to launch her own brand, creating more coffee-related products and contributing her share to making quality Pu'er coffee known across the globe.

(Print Edition Title: Another Cuppa?) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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