Something's Brewing in Shanghai

By Tom Mangione

At Seesaw Coffee, tucked away in a small creative office complex off of Yuyuan Lu, a barista boils water in a contraption more suited to a chemistry class than a coffee shop. At Sumerian, a giant apparatus of connected globes of water slowly drips down through two beakers of coffee grounds. At MQ Coffee, nestled in an apartment at the top of an old building in the hustle and bustle of Nanjing Xi Lu, coffee beans are roasted. And over at the illy Coffee University on Tongren Lu, a classroom full of Chinese baristas in training commit to blind taste tests of different coffees. Specialty coffee culture has arrived in Shanghai.

Economically, it’s no surprise that Shanghai has seen the sudden arrival of such a large number of specialty coffee shops. As the Chinese market for coffee opens up, there is an incredible potential for growth. Lin Chen, Marketing Manager at illy Coffee China says, “Shanghai is a huge market for specialty coffee, roasted and ground, consuming almost 35% of the volume for the whole country. In the past five years, the specialty coffee market in China has been growing at 12 - 13% per year. Worldwide, coffee consumption has been growing at around 2.5% annually.”

The result of this is that big chains like Starbucks are also moving more aggressively into the Chinese market. Currently there are over 570 Starbucks stores in 48 China cities, and Starbucks is looking to open an astounding 1,500 stores across the mainland by 2015. “Starbucks is having really successful business,” says David Seminsky, owner of Sumerian, a specialty coffee shop on Shaanxi Bei Lu. “I wouldn’t identify them as specialty coffee, but they’re certainly having success. Starbucks has announced that they eventually see China surpassing the US in terms of store count.”

But what exactly is specialty coffee? How does it differ from the kinds of coffee that you find at big chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee? Cai Zhongshun, owner of MQ Coffee, a speciality coffee shop in Huangpu district offering unique blends of Colombian, Guatemalan and Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) beans, says “first, the difference is freshness. After we roast the beans, we use them within seven days. But at Starbucks or Costa, most of the beans were roasted more than half a year ago.

“We also provide micro batches of different coffee, each with different tastes. At a big chain, everything tends to taste the same.”

Many specialty coffee shops such as MQ Coffee and Sumerian will import beans from all around the world, from Ethiopia to Guatemala, from Columbia to Bali. And because they are smaller operations, they can often afford to import from areas where big name coffee companies can’t, due to the sheer amount of coffee that big companies require for their operations.

Of course, there’s a trade-off to using small selections of coffee and roasting them individually. Large coffee companies like Starbucks and even specialty coffee companies like illy (who specialise in one signature blend of coffee, although they now have plans to experiment with smaller blends), use processes that allow them to produce coffee of a certain standard.

But because so much more of the process for small specialty coffee stores takes place by hand, variations in the flavour of the coffee are significant. “If I had a coffee shop across the street [as well], and you had a cup of coffee here and a cup of coffee there, I don’t know if it would taste the same,” says Seminsky. “I’d like to say our coffee is consistently fantastic, but inconsistently tasting.” 

Since the coffee at specialty coffee shops varies so widely, baristas and professional coffee makers, need to have a deep understanding of their product. “If you want to become a senior barista, you need to understand coffee beans, how they are roasted and how the temperature and the grinder affects the taste,” says Tom Zong owner of Seesaw Coffee. Chen notes, “If you ask a barista [what makes a good cup of coffee], he’ll say that everything is important: using the right beans, grinding in the right way, keeping the water at the right temperature, using the right machine, the right milk, everything.” Seminsky can’t emphasise enough the importance of a good barista, either. “A barista can make all the difference. He or she can take a bad roast and turn it into a fantastic espresso.”

Becoming a good barista is a commitment. The coffee university at illy Coffee is particularly rigorous. Providing specialty coffee solutions to hotels and restaurants, from equipment, servicing and menu planning to training professional baristas, illy has a high standard of professionalism, with only two or three students passing out of a class of eighteen. Seesaw is also committed to creating its own coffee university to train baristas for its own shops, and going through the process of becoming a barista here requires similar dedication. “It depends on the person, but it can take around six to seven months to make Seesaw standard coffee, and that’s just the basics,” says Zong.

At the moment, specialty coffee is taking hold in Shanghai, but it looks to be just the beginning. As more baristas become trained and local consumers grow a taste for specialty coffee, undoubtedly Shanghai will see more and more specialty coffee shops appearing over the city. Cai says, “Chinese consumers don’t have enough understanding of specialty coffee right now, but there’s something good about Chinese consumers. If you give them the chance to understand a better product, then they are likely to choose it.”

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