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December 10, 2009

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Coffee culture grows as taste and varieties hit premium levels

FROM instant coffee convenience, to an everyday office pick-me-up, Shanghai's coffee culture is changing as fast as its streetscape.

Despite China being a predominately tea drinking country, coffee drinking in Shanghai can be traced back to the late 19th century.

But the city's established coffee culture today was resumed when the first Western coffee shop, Hengshan Cafe, opened its doors in 1985 and was kick started by the introduction of Starbucks to Shanghai in 2000.

Since that time there are now more than 60 different coffee chains with outlets in the city, and Shanghai's desire for a coffee "hit" continues to grow.

Domestically, coffee consumption on average has grown between 10 percent and 15 percent annually in recent years.

One of the pioneers of Shanghai's coffee culture is Jackie Yun, the part-owner of Wagas. When she joined the chain in 2001 it had just one store in Citic Square and has since grown to more than 14 outlets across Shanghai, with plans to expand further into the city next year.

Yun says brand outlets such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee have had a big say in fashioning the tastes of local coffee drinkers, who generally prefer their coffee in big cups, milky, weak and sweet.

Wagas is supplied by Italian coffee brand Illy and makes coffees that are more reflective of an Italian coffee culture of smaller, stronger coffees.

"We sell very few espressos to Chinese coffee drinkers. They don't understand it, they think it is bitter and not necessarily good value," Yun says.

"We talk to Chinese people who drink espressos and they tend to have developed the taste from living in Europe or Australia, they are artists or they really get into Western food culture."

Yun says the tough economic times this year has also made coffee drinkers more price sensitive. Many of the big brands have cut the price of their large coffees from around 30 yuan (US$4.39) to 28 yuan.

Yun says coffee is still seen as a status symbol, with the size and the brand on one's coffee cup a deciding factor for many local consumers.

But in the last few years, the city has seen a number of coffee retailers attempt to move coffee drinking from a Western lifestyle luxury to an everyday convenience.

Taiwanese brands like 85C sell a coffee for as little as 8 yuan and Wagas offers half-price coffees for 12 yuan with breakfast to attract the everyday price-conscious drinker.

Yun says a small but growing segment of the market is becoming more discerning about how their coffee is made.

"For sure their understanding, knowledge and expectations of coffee have increased, however what Chinese customers look at now is value for money."

One of those at the forefront of improving the quality of the city's coffee is Steven Zheng, the head Barista trainer at Illy Caffe's Universita Del Caffe in Shanghai.

It was the first facility of its type in China and opened in 2006.

The Universita is part of Illy's global network of so-called "coffee universities" that aim to train both professionals and keen amateur coffee makers about the finer points of coffee culture.

Zheng originally started out repairing the various coffee machines around the city, before he became passionate about drinking coffee and the science behind the perfect cup.

The university trains more than 300 students a year, half of whom are working in the industry.

Zheng teaches about every aspect of the production of coffee from the bean to the cup and also how to operate a commercial coffee-making machine.

He says there are a lot of details that go into the perfect cup of coffee, which students learn from hands-on experience in Illy's coffee classroom.

Training ranges from the basics of coffee making to elite classes that teach students how to pick the origin of coffee beans from around the world by the aroma, taste and look of the ground coffee.

He works with a range of commercial clients from five-star hotels to city cafes and says he has seen the standard of coffee served in Shanghai improve over the past two to three years.

"Every time I used to order a coffee I had to think a long time," he says.

"Is it better to order a cappuccino or a regular coffee - which one will not be too bad? But now you can go to good coffee shops and order many different types of coffee that are made correctly."

Zheng has also noticed that consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about coffee, which is also driving a burgeoning demand for better quality coffee.

"It is a step-by-step improvement. Many young people like to make and drink coffee," he says.

"They can read blogs on the Internet and take an interest, so they learn how to judge a good cup of coffee."

Shanghai's coffee culture is also heavily influenced by the large numbers of foreigners who visit or call the city home.

Many foreigner-owned or operated smaller coffee shops have sprung up in the downtown area that make well-made coffee a big part of their drawcard.

One of these is Cafe Dan, in the Taikang Road retail complex, owned by Dr Taka Niuya, a former theoretical physicist who came to Shanghai to pursue his passion for coffee.

He has spent more than a decade mastering the finer points of roasting coffee, which he does in small batches on site.

Niuya hand makes each of his coffees using an exacting method of slowly drip pouring over the coarsely ground coffee. He explains that the hot water must be poured slowly from a specially designed pot onto the coffee so as not to disturb a single coffee grind. This ensures that only the purest extraction of the bean makes it into the cup.

He sells more than 25 different types of coffee from around the world, with a cup made from premium beans from Panama and Australia selling for more than 100 yuan.

A standard cup of black coffee costs 40 yuan and he says his customers, who are predominately English-speaking Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are prepared to pay more for quality.

"Taste is a personal preference but if people have a true understanding of the taste of a product they will pay more for good quality and this is same around the world."

Cafe Dan

Address: Bldg 41, 248 Taikang Rd

Tel: 6466-1042

Anyone interested in the coffee courses at Illy's Universita Del Caffe can contact UDC's Administration Manager Wendy Li at 6279-1979 ext 230 or 231.


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