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September 24, 2009

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Coffee klatch of cultures

YOUNG baristas use the old bean to concoct unusual coffees in competitions. The China winner added rose, lemon, milk and sugar. Pan Zheng sips.

Seven young Chinese baristas have excelled in whipping up cappuccinos, lattes and their own imaginative concoctions to demonstrate their mastery of the multifaceted coffee bean.

China's top coffee maker is a 28-year-old barista from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. He won the Seventh China Barista Championship in Shanghai last week and will represent China next June in the World Barista Championship in London.

Chatting in English as he worked, Zhou Yungui created a special brew using lemon, rose, milk and sugar. He says it was inspired by an ancient Chinese poem about spring.

In another segment of the competition, six baristas took top honors in the Eighth China Barista Championship for East China last week, which attracted about 50 aspiring coffee makers. The cream will compete in the All-China Barista Championship in Shanghai next March.

All were judged on basic skill, excellence of their brew, creativity and their ability to explain as they performed. Flair and style were essential.

Top barista Zhou competed for four years before achieving this victory, finishing second and third in the past.

Zhou has been brewing, creating and serving coffee for more than seven years. He is an instructor for the Ningbo Baishide Coffee Co.

Coffee drinking has caught on in China and there are coffee shops and cafes in every city, so there is great potential to expand, Zhou says.

"The problem is that many consumers still don't understand coffee," he says. "In many Western countries, people drink at least a cup a day, but in China the average is one cup for one year."

Tea, of course, and Chinese wine, have been the traditional beverages with their own elaborate cultures. Coffee, which is considered Western, is slow to appeal.

Bean history

Coffee has a short history in China.

It is believed to have been first cultivated in Taiwan in the 1880s and later introduced to Yunnan Province, which is now a major coffee-growing region in the country.

As China's most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai quickly took to coffee, which was favored by British, French, German and other residents in foreign concessions around the 1930s. At that time, coffee drinking was considered a sign of status and refined taste, as only well-off people could afford coffee.

After 1949, coffee drinking - that foreign habit - ebbed dramatically, and during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) most foreign elements and habits were reviled.

In Shanghai coffee could still be sold, however, though it was not especially popular. Its availability was remarkable, given general opposition to Western culture during that turbulent period, especially habits that were considered idle and decadent.

Since China's reform and opening-up started in the late 1970s, opinions have changed and coffee drinking has again become acceptable, even desirable. Today it is associated in the minds of many Chinese with a modern, trendy lifestyle.

Big coffee chain stores, like Starbucks, are springing up everywhere, magnets for young people, business people and visitors.

For many older Shanghai people, the old local coffee houses are still the best, reminding them of the good old days.

Cheng Naishan, a well-known local writer, says tasting coffee is tasting the past. "Coffee drinking is a group memory for all old Shanghainese," says Cheng.

"We Shanghainese are very particular about 'tone'," she says. "At one time, sitting in a coffee house, smelling the coffee aroma and sipping coffee gave a most elegant 'tone' to life."

Coffee sales domestically are increasing by 10-15 percent as consumption rises.

However, Chinese baristas still have not made it to the top in the World Barista Championship, considered the "Olympics of coffee making."

The first World Barista Championship was held in 2000 by professional coffee associations from Europe and the United States, attracting the world's best baristas. Today, 52 countries and regions take part in the competition annually.

In the competition, each contestant is required to make three kinds of coffee in 15 minutes - latte, cappuccino and their own concoction.

As they work, they describe the process. Their appearance, delivery and stage presence are also judged.


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