October 27, 2014

Destination Beijing

After reading just a couple of sentences into my research on China, I realised I was about to be thrown into the deep end by visiting Beijing with only one short week to take it all in. Luckily, we would have a couple of Beijing locals to take care of us in navigating the challenges of moving around a city of 23 million inhabitants, with approximately 1% speaking English – not to mention the gastronomic adventure that would include some very creative cuisine.

China is one of the four oldest world cultures, dating back almost 4,000 years. It is the world’s most populous country, with more than 1.3 billion people. Beijing has been the capital for more than 860 years, with a rich historical and cultural heritage, first becoming a capital during the Jin Dynasty and continuing as one through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Under Communist rule since 1949, China has moved away from the Maoist radicalism that led to millions of deaths in the 1950s and 1960s, but the party has kept a tight grip on state and society. Economic reform has now replaced state socialism with a more capitalist system and generated rapid growth, turning China into one of the world’s largest economies.
So, what was our mission? With such rapid economic growth and a society now open to western influences, we wanted to take a peek at just what is happening in the Beijing café market and China in general.
Café Show China was in full swing during our visit, consisting of mostly Chinese agents for commercial, domestic and pod machines, grinders, plenty of syrups, ice cream/yoghurt, green bean, syphon brewing equipment, tea, and a few roasting machines. We found a couple of local roasters, but most machine agents carried Italian coffee with some first time roasters venturing in from Vietnam, Taiwan and Spain. It should be noted that instant coffee with milk powder was also popular. Korean exhibitors were plentiful. The Korean café culture is very advanced and there is a growing love affair by the Chinese youth market with Korean pop culture.
Many of the show’s visitors were consumers with an appetite for education around coffee. Any stand exhibiting latte art enjoyed crowds of amazed onlookers, as did the cupping and barista competition, with spectators jostling for position, iPhones poised, and it crossed my mind that Aromafest would do well here.
We visited local roaster Uncle Bean’s stand each morning of the show for a lovely Mexican pour over or espresso, which was great. These guys are one of a few rising stars who know what they’re doing as far as specialty coffee goes.
Finally getting away from the tradeshow and into the streets of Beijing, I was once again overwhelmed by the sheer size of this city that spreads across the flat, low land which is part of the North China Plain. The main streets dissecting the city are lined with massive modern buildings, although you only need venture back just a couple of streets to be returned to that typical Asian experience. Crossing the road is best done by sidling up to a local (not in a creepy way, but just for safety) and stepping off the curb with them.
China is currently in the franchise phase of coffee development. Expansion has doubled over the past five years, and you can easily find Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Wagas and Pacific Coffee, to name just a few of the larger ones. There are now +1000 Starbucks Coffee shops in mainland China, making this the largest number of Starbucks in one country outside of the USA. The real surprise is the brew bar concept that Starbucks are trialling in several of their city stores. The ground floor still consists of the usual Starbucks offerings, while upstairs involves all the latest brewing equipment. The staff are coined “Master Class Brewers”, an internal accreditation, and are awarded with a black apron denoting them as “Workshop” brew bar customer engagement sales persons.
Flat White Coffee, co-owned by Michael Hongfu and his New Zealand counterpart Roger Young, have nine stores in Beijing and are planning on franchising in 2015. Michael has a 26 year relationship with the New Zealand coffee scene. He has lived there and now brings baristas over to work alongside his Chinese staff, to share their knowledge and expertise.
Flat White have two cafés strategically located in diplomatic compounds that are home to thousands of expats from around the globe. Their roastery, Rickshaw Roasters, is set inside their flagship store in the thriving Beijing art district called 798, a vast area of disused factories built by the East Germans. 798 Art District is Beijing’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries.
Also during our visit to 798 we stumbled across Café Las, full of the latest equipment including a shiny Synesso, a couple of Mazzer grinders, lots of brewing equipment and a Probat roaster – a beautiful store owned by a Korean investor.
There are a handful of well known names in the specialty coffee industry in China. We had the pleasure of spending time with Mr Gee, owner of Gee Café and President of the Beijing Coffee Association. Gee Coffee includes a roastery, training school and café and is located in the Maolong Creative Culture Industry Park in the Chaoyang District. Mr Gee first started in coffee while working for the government importing grain and green bean, then through a twist of fate he started his own business in coffee training, connecting with Bruce Miletto from Portland, Oregon in 2012, that culminated in setting up his own café, importing and roasting business. Upon asking Mr Gee about the future of coffee in China, his comment was, “European and western brands are popular right now for their name, not the flavour. Once the Chinese palate tries the locally roasted coffee, they will keep coming back; consumer education is key.”
Like a lot of big cities, you have to know where to go to get good coffee and once you find it, you make it your local for the duration of your stay. I stumbled across a great little oasis, called just that, Oasis Café. It’s perfectly located just down the road from the gates of the Forbidden City to catch weary tourists at the end of their walk through this ancient site. Owner Duan Zheng held off opening his café until two years ago. His wife’s love for coffee was the catalyst. Both Duan and his wife worked secure corporate jobs and they needed to wait until the market was right, to be sure of their investment before making the jump. Duan tells me that “the economics of coffee in China are slightly skewed in comparison to Australia. Rent on premises is high, milk (all UHT) is expensive, the cost of a flat white averages around 28 RMB which is 5 AUD. Pretty expensive for the average local”. The location of Duan’s café will no doubt ensure his success. The café menu also caters for the tourist market, including salads, sandwiches, pizza, milk shakes, fresh juice, and even beer. The coffee is locally roasted by Soloist Coffee Co. and Duan uses an Australian made tamper from Mark Ruta of Pullman Tampers – go Mark!
As our journey came to an end, we were drawn to the conclusion that café culture for the masses in China is, in general, still in its infancy. The mentality is towards Italian coffee brands and franchises, just as Australia experienced 10 – 15 years ago. China’s youth, as in any culture, are the energy, the early adopters of technology and by nature they are active and creative. In China this is a generation that now has an abundance of resources and information from the west like never before, and they will be the ones that move the industry forward. Education is key and with people like Mr Gee, Flat White, Korean and other western influences, it will happen. It’s already happening, and it’s the passion of these guys that will continue this education and will ultimately bring rewards.

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