My intro to China’s coffee industry was a bit unconventional. After graduating from college in 2009, I spent four years working for a wind power company. The work was hard, and I soon found myself dependent on instant coffee to get through the 14-hour workdays.
In that respect, at least, I’m not unusual. Many Chinese of my generation were first introduced to coffee through cheap instant powders. In comparison to Italy or even the United States, China’s coffee culture is quite young. But we’re catching up fast: In the past two decades, the country has jumped from instant coffee to business chains — think Starbucks — to the current boutique coffeeshop craze.
In wealthy cities like Shanghai or nearby Suzhou, competition among these independent shops has reached a fever pitch, as COVID-19 drove down rents and convinced many to give up the 9-to-5 grind in favor of pursuing their passions. There were almost 8,000 coffee houses in Shanghai alone as of June 2022, according to local media. That’s almost as many as Tokyo and London combined.
The reality is, many of these new shops probably won’t survive the next bust. Cash-burning marketing strategies and the quest for internet celebrity may help some in the short-term, but they are not enough to sustain growth in the long run.
Then there’s the hidden risk facing the boutique coffee industry. If instant coffee marked the start of China’s coffee culture, and chains and boutiques were the second and third steps in its evolution, respectively, I think we’re on the verge of another transformation: boutique coffee that anyone can make.
Currently, coffee-making skills and appliances are confined to shops staffed by trained baristas behind the counter. But even five years ago, when I was running a boutique coffee shop in the northern city of Tianjin, there were signs that this was beginning to change. Some regulars started making inquiries about the beans and machines we used, and exploring whether they could perform the art on their own.
A number of them started their coffee-making journeys with a machine that cost between one and two thousand yuan; a year later, many of them returned to the shop to buy a fancier one that cost more than twice as much.
It’s hardly a bold prediction to say Chinese coffee consumers will spend big money to bring the boutique coffee experience home. Boutique shops’ core clientele enjoy rising disposable incomes 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 at-home coffee machine market is concentrated at the 1,000-yuan price point (roughly $150), wealthy coffee enthusiasts in major cities are already pushing the envelope, buying semi-automatic machines for between 5,000 and 7,000 yuan. When you factor in the cost of a bean grinder — a necessity for the true aficionado — the cost is often in the vicinity of 10,000 yuan, but high-end systems can go as high as 100,000 yuan.
Why semi-automatic? Because China’s coffee consumers are also increasingly picky and self-assured when it comes to the taste of their drinks. Even just compared to a decade ago, today’s coffee drinkers tend to be more educated — and have stronger opinions — than ever before. It is no longer surprising to me when a customer comes to my shop and asks for “a medium roast that has a mid-level acidity that brings out my favorite flavor of caramel.”
The combination of a semi-automatic machine and a bean grinder gives at-home baristas the chance to experiment and feel involved in the process of making coffee. They can watch beans being ground into powders and try different features of the machines to make each cup taste different. It’s a bit like photographers who prefer a single-lens reflex camera over an auto-focus.
Another interesting phenomenon is that many coffee connoisseurs often pride themselves in drinking black coffee, apparently in the belief that it is indicative of a refined palate.
If all this makes the fourth wave of Chinese coffee culture sound like the exclusive preserve of snobbish hipsters, well, that’s only partly true. Certainly, some see coffee as a status symbol, but for the majority, learning about coffee is simply a way to feel connected with their favorite drink. Café au lait is still the go-to order at a number of successful boutique shops, and aspiring baristas still start by learning the art of foam toppings.
As Chinese people’s coffee-drinking habits evolve, I’m also adjusting my role, from serving coffee to consumers to teaching them to serve themselves. Prior to 2018, the entry-level course I organized had a considerably higher enrollment. That situation has reversed itself over the past three years, as students enter class with a higher average level of coffee knowledge.
Another interesting side-effect of China’s coffee boom has been its inclusivity. The belief that “anyone can be a barista” has turned out to be more powerful than it might sound, as coffee shops like Shanghai’s LiLi Time have offered employment opportunities to underprivileged and often marginalized groups like the deaf and hard of hearing. I’ve trained a man in a wheelchair and seen him blossom into a qualified barista. Another old customer of mine, who is deaf and mute, won second prize in a latte-art contest at a coffee festival in Shanghai last year.
In essence, the fourth wave of Chinese coffee culture is showing that the drink can be enjoyed anywhere, by anyone. That’s a big step up from the days when all anyone knew 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)