Coffee Culture in China

In China tea has been a part of the culture for thousands of years. By comparison, it has only been around 150 years since coffee first entered the region and only around 30 years since it became readily available. It is little wonder then that coffee still lags far behind tea in terms of the nation’s preferences in China. Despite teas lengthy head start, coffee is rapid catching up in the middle class, urban hearts and minds of China’s youth.

In China tea has been a part of the culture for thousands of years. By comparison, it has only been around 150 years since coffee first entered the region and only around 30 years since it became readily available. It is little wonder then that coffee still lags far behind tea in terms of the nation’s preferences in China. Despite teas lengthy head start, coffee is rapid catching up in the middle class, urban hearts and minds of China’s youth.

The History of Coffee in China

The exact timing of the first coffee to enter China is not easy to be determined. However, according to historical records in the 10th year of the Guangxu Emperor’s reign (AD 1884), a British businessman introduced 100 Arabica coffee plants into Taiwan.

In Mainland China, the first coffee trees were introduced into Yunnan at around the same time. A French missionary brought the coffee seeds with him to Binchuan County where he planted then for his own use. Most of the trees he planted are still producing coffee today.

As the coffee plants matured and commercial production began around in the southern parts of Yunnan, coffee consumption in Guangdong and Shanghai began to take off. In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ and enjoyed a coffee culture modelled on those of the European capitals. The cafes were one of the many symbols of the city’s international atmosphere.

Coffee’s Reawakening in China

Following China’s liberation, much of Shanghai’s intentional population left and the cafes closed behind them. A leaf rust outbreak in the coffee growing areas of Yunnan also decimated the production of coffee in the mid-20th century. It would be many years before coffee would become a widespread part of life in China again.

Around the time of China’s re-opening up to the world, the coffee plantations of Yunnan began expanding again. With a ready supply of coffee beans in the early 1990s, large multinational instant coffee producers started producing milky sweet 3-in-1 instant coffees for the Chinese taste. Most people didn’t like the bitter taste of the roasted beans, but by adding lots of sugar and milk powder, the flavour became more palatable to the nation.

Despite the growing appeal of instant coffee, only a very small percentage of the population was drinking any at all. The hot beverage market was still massively dominated by tea. The high price of the coffee compared with traditional Chinese beverages caused many to consider the drink a symbol of the ‘bourgeoisie’. Taken together, the drink had trouble finding a place in the lives of Chinese people.

In China eating and drinking together is a big part of the larger culture. Chinese people typically share from common dishes and all tend to drink the same beverages around the table. This is in sharp contrast with the more Western style of ordering individual dishes based on one’s own preferences and selecting one’s own beverages at restaurants. This may have also slowed the adoption of coffee as it was not easy for an individual to make the switch from tea, normally a whole group would need to switch together for the habits to change.

As more and more foreigners moved to China to be a part of its economic expansion, coffee shops started springing up around the larger cities to service their needs. Most of these didn’t fit the model of a Western coffee shop yet, as they would typically only serve 3-in-1 instant coffee to their customers. this was often in spite of owning proper coffee making equipment that typically served as ornaments rather around the stores. In places like Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing and Shenzhen, a handful of coffee shops started to make coffees that would be familiar to the foriegners living in their cities.

What really started bringing Chinese people into the coffee shops was the opening of several multinational second-wave coffee chains. Introducing creamy sugar-filled drinks to the Chinese population was an easy stepping stone to move Chinese people from 3-in-1 instant coffee to sit down coffees in a coffee shop. The price was still very high though, and massively limited the number of people who could enjoy these new treats.

As China continued to expand, the number of high-quality coffee shops also grew. Chinese people also became wealthier and found it easier to enjoy coffee as a semi-regular treat. A couple might visit a coffee shop on a date or business people may use them as a place for an informal meeting while away from the office. While most people didn’t have a taste for coffee, there were pockets of society who were finding ways to integrate coffee into a Chinese lifestyle. Convincing one or two friends to join for a coffee at a coffee shop is a lot easier than trying to incorporate the drink into the typically larger group dining traditional in China.

With a consumption growth rate of 16% per annum over the ten years from 2004 to 2014, many Chinese entrepreneurs began opening cafes and starting other coffee related businesses. They were seen as lifestyle businesses and a more modern alternative to the tea houses that Chinese people traditionally spent time in. For the young people of China, it was a way to experience the opening up of the country and enjoy something international.

Drinking Coffee in China Today

Nowadays, cafes have become an indispensable element of the Chinese business district. Many high school students, college students, and white-collar workers use cafes as a place to work and study, with even the most expensive speciality coffees finding markets in China’s larger cities.

3-in-1 instant coffee is still the most drunk coffee in China, but the perception of it is changing as Chinese people demand increasingly high-quality coffees. In order to satisfy their customers, coffee shops are having to provide better and better service with coffees that easily compete on the world stage. An indication that people are coming around to the flavour is that there are an increasing number of coffee shops that only sell take-away coffees these days. Consumers are no longer demanding that a coffee be packaged with a place to sit down.

As the Chinese middle class gradually expands, the culture of coffee is transforming from a taste of ‘foreign culture’ to an ‘everyday culture’ in people’s lives. in a quest to stay relevant in the market, Chinese innovators are developing ideas and strategies in the market that are now leading the world. Others are blending traditional Chinese tea culture back into coffee to create fusion experiences that a uniquely Chinese.

Drinking Coffee at Home in China

A new part of the coffee drinking culture in China is drinking speciality coffees at home. For the true lovers of coffee in the country, carefully selecting the best beans and lovingly preparing them at home is an act of devotion.

China’s coffee connoisseurs are passionate about coffee in a way that is rare to find in the West. Many take sensory courses to understand the flavours and preparation of coffee. It is not uncommon to find people with a preference for a particular varietal, from a particular region that has been processed in a particular way. It is also not uncommon for them to be able to explain exactly why they feel that way.

People like the above are certainly not the majority, but they represent a growing group with a thirst for learning everything there is to know about coffee. Chinese people loving the best of coffee for the sheer joy of it.

The Chinese coffee culture has come a long way from where it all began and, with average consumption per capita only about 1% that of the US, it has a long way yet to go.

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