SCAA Instructor Journals: Richard Sandlin Travels to Beijing

By Richard Sandlin, Fair Trade USA, SCAA Credentialed Instructor

Richard recently traveled to Beijing, China to instruct students in SCAA courses for the Barista Guild’s Level 1 & 2 Certificate Programs at an SCAA International Education Partner facility, Beijing Wholly Coffee Company. Here is a testimonial from his trip:

Imagine for a moment the daily challenges you face as a Coffee Professional. There was a problem with the port authority, your coffee shipment was delayed due to natural disaster, and your customers can’t believe that some coffee with the same name as the Japanese icon costs more than a decent meal. The numbers of challenges (in the land of coffee consumption) that face us daily in the specialty coffee industry are infinite (as are in the land of coffee production; an entirely different story – in my eyes, coffee farmers are nothing short of superheroes and its arrival at the Port of Oakland, New Jersey or Atlanta is nothing short of a miracle – but that is another story for another time).

Beijing Wholly Coffee Company SCAA BGA Level 1 & 2 2012

Continuing on, imagine that the port authority charges you an additional 37% tax for all imports, securing long term supply; regardless of disaster, is incredibly difficult and your average country-(wo)men only drink 3 cups of coffee per year. This is but one small glimpse of the specialty coffee industry in Beijing. The post below is brief glimpse into the specialty coffee world of Beijing.

In the winter of 2012, I had the distinct honor to represent the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the Barista Guild of America (BGA), Fair Trade USA and my entire culture to a group of 15 specialty coffee pioneers at the Beijing Wholly Coffee Company in the People’s Republic of China. There, with the help and guidance of Ellie Matuszak and Ildi Revi of SCAA, my colleagues at Fair Trade USA and a few mentors within the coffee industry, I had the pleasure of instructing BGA Level 1 & 2 educational content to the International Education Partnership Licensee (IEPL) in the PRC. For those unfamiliar with the BGA’s Educational Content, the courses build on top of one another and can help transition a group of varied group of coffee professionals and turn them into a unified group of individuals speaking the same language. In the lab, we covered as much as we could, from seed-to-cup. The comments below are not meant to be an aggregate of the specialty coffee industry in Beijing or anywhere for that matter. Rather, they are an honest reflection of my experience. I don’t claim to be a coffee expert and please approach the content below for what it is worth.

The Great Wall of China – Twitter, Google and Facebook are blocked by “The Great Firewall of China” but specialty coffee is booming

The students at the Beijing Wholly Coffee Company were hungry. They jumped on each class and took detailed notes. Each day, we covered two classes. My students (and new friends) communicated through the Director/Founder of the Specialty Coffee Association of Beijing, Importer and my new personal mentor, Ji Ming (more on him later). My students were precisely what I was hoping for, they were passionate just like you or me. They were ready to launch/build their career in the new specialty coffee industry emerging in front of them, just like you or me. They would wax poetic about fruit bombs from Kenya, floral Yirgacheffes and why their favorite centrals, just like you or me. Each espresso oriented class we shared, they thrived. The milk steaming course was a breeze. Latte Art was even easier. We even had an impromptu throwdown with winning designs taking home Fair Trade Certified Mr Espresso, Ladro Roasting, Klatch Roasting and Equator Coffee, Fair Trade Certified Alter Eco chocolate bars and Rip Van Wafels!

Students Future Café Owner Chloe (Left) and Owner of Coffee Salon Roastery and WBC China judge Wei (Right) show some of their prizes at the impromptu Latte Art Competition

But once we shifted our conversations to unfamiliar topics, their energy changed.

Behind the espresso machine, our students were ready to play and ready to share. In front of the projector during Brewing Science content and Seed to Cup/Sourcing content, they were ready to listen.

“Filter Coffee”, “By the Cup” or “Batch Brew” coffee is few and far between in Beijing. If a good poor over is hard to find in your city, imagine finding one in Beijing! With that in mind, during these sessions, we spent a lot of our time comparing “brewed” coffee cultures between the US and China.  Although we went through the SCAA standards, asked questions and held dialogues, our conversations would shift to the “Chinese” context. The students were fascinated to hear how the SCAA standards came to be and were thrilled to learn about the Wiki-knowledge of the BGA. In the States, we are experiencing an awe-inspiring resurgence of by the cup brewing i.e. Kalita Wave, Clever Coffee Dripper and Chemex and historical innovation from the “batch brew” companies, i.e. the Curtis’ G4, the BUNN trifecta and FETCO. Some cafes in China sell a mere 50 cups of coffee per day. For them, by the cup isn’t just a cultural resurgence, it’s good business sense.

Students in the cupping lab analyzing Fair Trade Certified coffees from Equator Coffee & Teas, Klatch Roasting, Ladro Roasting & Mr Espresso and locally roasted Geisha

In addition to brewing science, our students were really engaged during the Seed-to-Cup course, alongside Cupping, it’s my personal favorite to instruct. There, we talked about processing, the importance of a strong community and sharing resources and what makes a great coffee great. They were excited to learn about the efforts of sustainable certification initiatives such as “Fair Trade” “Organic” and “Direct Trade.” We talked about my experiences with farming communities, the role good prices (whether Fair Trade Certified, Rain Forest Alliance or any other certification program Organic Certified or through Direct Trade relationships) can play to help farmers, to quote Joe Morocco “thrive.” More than anything, I instructing seed-to-cup is about showing coffee professionals that coffee comes from somewhere and our as purveyors is to respect that. For our students in Beijing, they are ready. The bigger question is, is their market? I certainly won’t be the one to answer this question.

In Yunnan province, there is an abundance of coffee, even some specialty. Although I didn’t have the chance to drink much, the conversations held around it are that there is potential. With domestic supply, importing foreign product is difficult to say the least.

Head Roaster of Beijing Wholly Coffee Company roasting Panamanian Geisha on a Fuji Royal Roaster from Japan

I had the pleasure of meeting a number of innovators; some of whom were my hosts Kathy M Chi and Michael Xue of the Beijing Wholly Coffee Company. Other examples include Fish Sun of Fish Eye Café, a future roaster who currently owns and operates 5 cafes and imports roasted coffee from San Francisco based Ritual Coffee Roasters. I had the pleasure of meeting two ex-pats from New Zealand who roast and blend coffee for a locally owned chain, Flat White. Individuals like these prove that specialty coffee is contagious, regardless of the culture it exists in. For the Chinese coffee purveyor, they aren’t trying to thwart Tea consumption, they are trying to build on it and expand what the definition of a luxury beverage can be. I was so lucky to be in Beijing, where I got to learn from some incredibly experienced professionals. One of whom was my translator, Ji Ming.

Wei and Richard at Salon Coffee Roastery

 Ji Ming, or “Jimmy” (if said quickly enough, Ji Ming sounds like Jimmy) is somewhat of a commodity legend. When he speaks, it’s not clear whether or not what he is saying is true; however, one would have no reason to doubt his stories. Here is a sampling of some conversations we had:

“When I used to export containers of Black Tea to the Soviet Union…”

“I remember when China first started communicating with the FNC (The Colombian Coffee Growers Association)…”

Those conversations would be immediately followed by the state of the “progressive” coffee industry in the United States, whence we would discuss the coolest brands in the US, the most innovative micro-roasters, why Chinese Baristas are incredibly good at steaming milk, the future of Fair Trade is the Chinese market and for a tea-drinking culture with emerging capital market, why Geisha coffee is worth $150/lb at the farm gate. After 10 days with Ji Ming by my side, nearly two dozen new contacts and more Chinese food and “Rice Vodka” than I ever imagined possible to consume (think of fermented papaya and sweet ‘n low packets), I left Beijing eager to return and continue to build the specialty coffee movement locally in the Bay Area, nationally through events and look for ways to improve the supply chain globally, paying homage to the communities who provide this culinary delicacy.

Two students debating customer service at they serve Fair Trade Certified Mr Espresso

The world is changing. If you haven’t heard, then start spreading the news. But what is shocking is specialty coffee has the power to unite us. Call it cliché, but my experiences volunteering for the SCAA have introduced me to people from all around the country. Together, we share our passion for a culinary product and global sustainability. My work with Fair Trade USA enhances these experiences and reinforces and celebrates origin and the coffee growing super-human communities who produce this product. For us, as specialty coffee professionals, it is our job to share this story with each customer. That could be just as easy as providing quick and friendly service while providing a quality product. It could mean taking partners to origin to show them the experience firsthand. It could mean training 100s of Baristas throughout a lifetime. It could mean brewing a cup of coffee for loved ones. Specialty Coffee connects us and it has the power to break down walls. Twitter, Facebook and Google cannot get through to China, but coffee can. And the SCAA is leading the path. I was just lucky to come along.