Change is Brewing

Things are perking up nicely for Beijing's growing number of coffee lovers


The blackboard over the counter lists a host of specials, from latte to cappuccino to espresso macchiato. Latin music plays quietly in the background, and on weekends there is a live band. The floor is handsomely decorated with large black and white check tiles, and behind the long counter loaded high with bagels (with cream cheese) and muffins sits an expensive coffee-making machine imported from Italy. Welcome to Johnny's Coffee Shop in ... New York? Tokyo? No, on the Third Ring Road in Beijing.

Four years ago, there was barely a fresh coffee bean to be had in the whole of China, apart from those used to brew up the bland and expensive fare served in international hotels. If you wanted a decent cup of the real stuff, you probably had to fork out for an airline ticket to Hong Kong. It was this absence of beans that got Johnny Odom, 29, into the coffee business in the first place.

A U.S. student at Peking University, he hankered for the kickstart to the day he used to get back home in Denver. His solution: he got his mom to send him beans. Soon his room had become a regular hangout for other students, drawn by the fragrant smell of fresh-brewed Java. In 1996, those beans grew into Johnny's Coffee Shop, a joint venture with the Beijing Dairy Co.

At about the same time, another American student in Beijing, Stuart Eunson, also hit on the idea of opening a coffee shop. "We found everything we needed - except beans," he says. Major suppliers weren't interested in what seemed at the time to be a small sale in a not very promising market. Eunson and his partners saw that as an opportunity. Instead of opening a cafe, they set up Arabica Roasters - a bustling little company that imports and roasts beans for coffee shops, restaurants and hotels. Their beans are dispatched to other cities around China as soon as they cool off from the roaster.

For many young Chinese, coffee houses are now the meeting place of choice, replacing the traditional tea houses where the older generation while away the morning hours, sipping, reading, gossiping and sometimes napping. The popularity of coffee and the habit of hanging out in cafes is all part of the ever-tightening embrace of Western ways since China began opening up to the world in the late 1980s. "Because of the increasing number of joint ventures, a growing proportion of the Chinese population is getting to know Western-style work environments," says Patrick Parsons, director of the Daily Grind shop. "One of the consequences is that coffee consumption is increasing. The same thing has happened in Japan."

"It has a lot to do with culture," explains Michael Liao, a 30-something Beijing musician-turned-businessman, seated at a table in Boodles Cafe on the second floor of the One World Department Store. "Younger people know about coffee from TV, movies and literature," he says. "They are interested in Western culture, and they want to try trendy new things." Liao says his parents received a Western education and often drank coffee. But the habit fell out of favor during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when anything associated with the outside world, especially the "decadent" West, became suspect.

These days, novices are often bewildered by the vast array of cappuccinos, lattes, espressos, mochas, macchiattos, Kahluas, Viennese, and Cafe Americanos on display. It's a steep learning curve. "We get a lot of Chinese couples in here," says Odom. "The guy doesn't really understand coffee, so he orders the two most expensive ones to impress his girlfriend. Then they put their cell phones on the table and drink their coffee. They love the whole experience. Initially, it's all about atmosphere - about the coffee shop rather than the coffee."

Rebecca Li works at the Daily Grind. Previously, her knowledge of coffee had been limited to the stuff served up at the hotel where she worked as a waitress. So the pleasures of fresh brew came as a genuine surprise. Now she is ready to expound at length on the virtues of different kinds of coffee while knocking back two cups of cappuccino or latte a day. "Young people today don't like to drink tea - it's too bitter," she says. She no longer touches the stuff. "My grandma still does, but none of my friends do."

In Johnny's Coffee Shop, Ray Sun takes another drag on his cigarette. "Coffee is stimulating and tea is relaxing," says the trader, who travels all the way across town for what he calls "the pure taste" of coffee. "When I need to concentrate, I drink tea," he says. "When I go out driving or when I'm busy working, I drink coffee." His girlfriend, Zheng Li, who says she is a soprano singer with the rank of general in the People's Liberation Army, shares his enthusiasm. "Things are changing quickly now," she says. "Before, we had little contact with coffee. Now you can get it in many bars and restaurants. We have a friend in Shaanxi who has even made his own grinder."

Many coffee shops are located in the Sanlitun area - dubbed "jiubajie" or "Bar Street" and sometimes likened to Hong Kong's trendy Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood. When a handful of small coffee bars opened up along this attractive, tree-lined street three years ago, the clientele was mainly expatriates from nearby embassies. Now the customers are overwhelmingly Chinese, with specialty coffee the main drawing card. Cappuccino is the most popular, followed by latte. Both are heavily laced with milk and thus seem less bitter to the Chinese palate. However, Odom says espresso is also growing in popularity. He jokingly calls the brew "gongfu" coffee because of its similarity to strong gongfu tea. The name has caught on with the locals. "No one in Sanlitun served cappuccino or espresso four years ago," says Eunson. "Now you have to be able to offer cappuccino to survive here."

The coffee entrepreneurs are doing a lot more than merely surviving. Sales are up 15% to 20% by value annually, albeit from a small base. The Daily Grind's Parsons plans to open a new cafe every six months until he has 10 in Beijing and Shanghai. Work is already under way on coffee shop No. 2 in Shanghai, on the city's fashionable Huaihai Road. Odom says, only half-jokingly, that he plans "a hundred" outlets in Beijing. He says he is looking for a major player to help him with his dream.

The big boys of the coffee world are now in town. One of the recent arrivals is Tully's, a major Seattle coffee franchiser that operates two coffee shops in Beijing and plans to open 10 more by the end of the year. Then the company will look south to Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. It has also talked about opening an outlet at Beijing's international airport, which is desperately short of facilities for travelers. Johnny Yuen, who heads up Tully's China, has secured a deal to make the company's product "the official coffee" of the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where foreign dignitaries are feted when they visit China.

Sitting in his company's coffee house drinking locally brewed Cafe Americano, Tully's chief executive, Tom O'Keefe, recalls how skeptical he was a little more than a year ago when a colleague encouraged him to check out China. "I was reluctant to get on that plane," he says. "One hour after I got off the plane, I realized how foolish I had been. I should have been here a lot sooner." An unfortunate mistake, maybe, but there is one consolation. Unlike Johnny Odom in the early days, he doesn't have to ask his mom to send him some beans.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney