China is increasingly becoming a nation of coffee drinkers, a trend that is quietly percolating out beyond the confines of cosmopolitan Shanghai and Beijing. As more and more tea terraces are converted to profitable coffee plantations in the country’s mountainous southwest regions, and with the number of Costa Coffee and Starbucks locations still on the upswing, it’s never been easier to find a decent cup of joe.
Domestic yields and processing capabilities for coffee beans are exploding, especially in the Pu’er region of Yunnan, home to the famous black tea, as coffee bushes take over ever more of the arable land. Companies like Starbucks and Nestle are active in the region, looking for a stable domestic supply for the market. Costa Coffee is planning to more than double its presence in China by 2017, adding 400 more cafés over the next few years. Nestle expects China’s per capita annual consumption of coffee to grow from three to four cups currently to seven cups. With Hong Kong clocking in at 150 cups per citizen per year, there is clearly huge potential on the mainland that multinationals are eyeing with great interest.
Of course, Culinary Backstreets won’t settle for chains. We’ve sought out the roasters and brewers at the top of their game. Here are our picks for coffee brewed by people who are as passionate about sourcing and roasting as we are about savoring a sip.
1. Sumerian (top photo)
The knowledgeable folks behind this friendly café and roasting lab are insiders of China’s coffee scene. They’ve made the trip all the way to Yunnan province to scout the perfect beans, and their dedication has paid off: they’ve secured contracts to provide beans to numerous hotels and restaurants around town. This ensures that just about anytime you pop into the shop, the front roaster is roaring and the café smells like heaven. With its relaxed atmosphere, lunch and smoothie options and more space than all the others on this list, Sumerian offers a welcome place to linger or maybe even to bring a laptop to do some work. Occasional coffee classes are offered; check the website for details.
2. Café Del Volcan
Smack dab in the heart of Yongkang Lu, Shanghai’s rowdiest bar street, Café Del Volcan provides the caffeine antidote partygoers and nearby office workers need. The tiny space has just a few low seats, so it’s not ideal for hanging out or doing work – just go to a bar for that. The café roasts its own beans, sourced from Ethiopia, Guatemala and Indonesia, in addition to Yunnan. The French press comes complete with a timer, so you’ll know just when your brew is ready. It’s all the little touches that prove good things do come in small packages. Bonuses: there’s a loyalty program, Foursquare specials and Strictly Cookies on offer. Clearly they know what it takes to get repeat customers.
3. Rumors Cafe
Opened in early 2011, Rumors got in early on the hand-poured-drip-coffee scene (at least for Shanghai). It’s a café for purists: the idea is to enjoy the simplicity in the flavor and variety of beans on offer from just about every coffee-growing corner of the world. The connoisseurship and passion come from Nakayama Keiichi, who fell in love with the art of choosing and roasting the beans and the craft of brewing at optimal water temperatures for the perfect cup. To that end, you’ll find just one café au lait on offer and nary an espresso drink here – just a cozy space with a few desserts and a long, albeit pricey, coffee list. The menu has tasting notes to help you choose a suitable cup. Even the air is pure here: Rumors has maintained a Wi-Fi-free atmosphere since opening, with the goal of being a real community gathering place. Serious espresso drinkers may find these brews too weak. If so, we’d suggest heading around the corner to Farine (see below).
This French café’s tagline is “When baker meets barista,” and it fits. There’s no better place to go when you’re hungry and need a caffeine fix too. While you won’t choose your beans here, as single-origin Colombian beans are used for the espresso-based drinks, you will get a strong, full-bodied drink, just the way the French like it. Located in the Ferguson Lane complex, a worthwhile destination in its own right, Farine provides a long communal outdoor table that’s an ideal – and popular – people-watching perch on the weekends.
Owner Franck Pecol, also the eponymous founder of Shanghai’s most traditional French restaurant, prides himself on the quality and authenticity of everything he does. He also insists on importing organic flour from France. From cute retro brown mugs to a huge array of sandwiches and bakery items worthy of any Parisian boulangerie, Farine transports you straight to France, which is just what Pecol is going for.
5. Coffee Pls
Coffee Pls is one of the tiniest cafés in town; its space is about as abbreviated as its polite moniker. The friendly young Taiwanese owner gave up a job as an engineer to indulge and share his love of espresso. The shop sells beans from around the globe, freshly roasted on the spot, and the baristas are happy to grind them to order, depending on your preferred brew method. Grab a cup to go and you’ll get a RMB 3 discount (which is substantial, since Americanos run RMB 15 and espressos RMB 12), or while away the afternoon in the sunlight at their sidewalk table.
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