Home » business, mike melanson's travel blog, on the street

China’s percolating love affair with coffee

By 26 June 2009 2 Comments

It’s 9 a.m., my eyelids are heavy with sleep, and the Sofa Café doesn’t open for another hour. The café down the street also has an hour and a half to go before opening time.

“What type of coffee shops don’t open until 10 in the morning?” I ask Hao Ziduan, my interpreter, as we threaded our way through Shanghai’s tree-lined streets, with their café’s, coffee shops and restaurants, on my quest to explore China’s coffee culture.

“Coffee for [Americans] is different than coffee for Chinese people,” she tells me. “For you, it [helps you] wake up. For Chinese people, it is [an opportunity] to sit around and talk.”

While Hao’s assessment is accurate to some degree, coffee in its various roles has taken China by storm. Every morning, a stream of Chinese walk into their local Starbucks, emerging with a cup of Joe to go. Inside, the scene appears equally familiar to the Western eye — students study at tables stacked with textbooks and coffee mugs while businesspeople talk shop with clients.

Either way, whether Chinese see coffee as a social vehicle or as a utilitarian get-up-and-go juice, coffee consumption is on the rise over the over the past decade, with “consumption growing at double digits,” according to a China Daily article from May 2007. And for the business-minded, that can mean emerging opportunities.

“Ten years ago, there was half as much coffee being consumed,” said Jeff Liu, chairman of the China Coffee Association Beijing, which works to connect Beijing members of the coffee industry, from independent café owners to distributors.

Coffee has become increasingly popular in China, but many people don’t know much about the traditionally Western beverage, said Liu, who has worked to boost coffee interest in China for the past decade. “The Chinese consumer doesn’t [yet] understand good coffee and bad coffee,” he said. 

Liu will open the China Barista Coffee School in Beijing this August, following the 2008 opening of a barista school by the Guangzhou Coffee Association in Guangzhou province, another coffee stronghold in China. The school will offer lessons to prospective entrepreneurs, baristas and hopeful coffee connoisseurs, from coffee appreciation to preparation and the ins-and-outs of running a coffee shop.

Starbucks’s spread throughout China may also help illustrate coffee’s increasing popularity in China. The first Starbucks opened in Beijing in 1999 and has since opened more than 700 stores in greater China.

So, what’s behind China’s coffee boom? According to Liu, it’s mainly because it is gaining a foothold among China’s youth.

For Hao and her friends, getting coffee is a status symbol as well as a means of socialization. “Starbucks in China is not only about selling coffee,” she said. “It’s about quality of life, and it’s about Americana.”

The rise of a Chinese middle-class may well play a part in coffee’s emergence and it’s role as a status symbol. One thing is for sure – coffee is not cheap for the average Chinese consumer. Drinks prices in an average Starbucks, or even in an independent café, are comparable to those in the U.S., but salaries are not. At approximately $3,800 a year, the average Shanghai income is a fraction of its U.S. counterpart, making coffee more luxury item than a simple necessity.

Starbucks is not the only game in town of course. In areas like Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a Beijing street lined with Western-themed restaurants, youth hostels and countless cafés, or the French Concession in Shanghai, independent coffee shop numbers rival that of American coffee-loving cities like Portland or Seattle.

For Liu, however, quality is just as important as quantity. He hopes his school will raise the bar for coffee quality, continuing his past decade’s work in introducing tea’s Western sibling to the Chinese public.

As Hao and I continued our search that morning for answers to the question of coffee in China, as well as for an open coffee  shop, we ran across one of China’s 700 Starbucks. Unlike the others, it was open and I quickly ordered an iced Americano to get the day going. Hao Ziduan, on the other hand, refrained.

Perhaps coffee still has a ways to go before becoming the lifeblood of yet another nation.


  • Magnus said:

    Love China. Love coffee. but not necessarily in that order. Found you on Twitter. Nice article. Keep up the good work… and FUZHOU road in downtown shanghai, next to Raffles city is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf… they are opened earlier!

  • Tami Nowicki said:


    There’s also a place called Cafe 85. It’s from Taiwan, and it’s known as the Starbucks of Tiawan. This coffee shop and bakery is located on Fuzhou Road near the Coffee Bean, but actually a little closer to the Foreign Language Bookstore.

    They even serve coffee with salt. It’s called sea salt coffee. I tried it once but not something I would drink again.

    Thanks for your website. I live and work in China, teaching English. The articles are fun to read!!!


    UT grad (class of 2001)

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.