The Market | China: The Sleeping Dragon Awakes


by Al Liu, trader and certified coffee specialist, Atlas Coffee Importers

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.”
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Although the French dictator never actually visited China, his prescience has proven itself two hundred years later. In the talk I gave six months ago at the SCAA Symposium in Boston, I attributed the growing demand for coffee in Asia to booming economies that have led to higher personal incomes and increased consumer spending. I have traveled twice to China since the Symposium, and on both trips I visited roasters in Beijing and Shanghai who are on the forefront of that country’s rapidly growing specialty market. While the demand is still relatively small and is dwarfed by soluble and other instant products, I think that China has the potential to shake the specialty world—though its actual impact remains to be seen.

I do not profess to be an expert on this subject, however, in the 13 years that I have worked in the specialty industry, I have been to China enough times to have witnessed a significant increase in the number of cafes serving specialty coffee. Western products in general are in particularly high demand due to the social status with which they are associated, and specialty coffee is a perfect example of this trend. Starbucks planted its flag in 1999 when it opened a store in Beijing, and last year the company announced plans to have 1,500 cafes in China by 2015. UK-based Costa Coffee entered in 2006 and now has a significant presence along with Taiwanese retailers UBC Coffee, SPR Coffee, and others. These days the hottest ticket in town appears to be Maan Coffee, a chain with South Korean roots that’s known for its waffles and toast. I visited one of Maan’s shops in Beijing on a Friday night in mid-October and was surprised by the eclectic décor as well as the number of patrons.

Not all of the growth is happening at a large-scale level, however. Independent cafes and roaster-retailers are popping up as well, even if they lack the street frontage that their deeper-pocketed competitors enjoy (commercial real estate in China being rather pricey). This past May I visited a shop called Uncle Bean Coffee Roastery located on the ground level of a skyscraper on Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The owner not only roasts on-site, but also sells small packages with brightly colored labels that evoke the respective origins he carries. While I was there, some office workers in the building came down to the cafe for a pick-me-up. One of them even got a coffee to go. The scene didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary to a Westerner, yet was once completely unheard of: Chinese people taking an afternoon coffee break on a workday! Not long ago the mere concept would have been unimaginable.

In addition, I have seen the emergence of a sense of community within the Chinese specialty industry and a corresponding focus on, and pride in, the craft of roasting and preparing espresso and pour-overs. Roast Magazine just started printing a Chinese-language edition a couple of months ago. In Beijing alone, several schools offer courses in SCAA- or SCAE-certified labs to (mostly) young people looking to perfect their barista or roasting skills. For a country that is still very new to the barista world, it’s impressive that China’s barista champion, He Hong Cao, placed 20th out of 51 competitors at the 2013 World Barista Championship in Melbourne. I have also noticed a rise in the quality of coffees sourced by Chinese roasters, despite the almost Herculean efforts required to bring them into the country. Lesser-known origins as well as micro-lots have emerged, and more recently the ultra-pricey Panamanian Gesha and Indonesian kopi luwak have made their debut.

Given the sheer size of China’s population and the presumed opportunities for sales, the challenge is determining whether more Chinese will embrace specialty coffee or if it will remain a niche product. The consumption of specialty isn’t the end result of an evolution in the habits of everyday Chinese coffee drinkers—rather, it has been closely linked to a new lifestyle in which a cafe is a “third place,” i.e., a destination outside of home and work where people can gather, relax, and socialize. For that reason cafes cannot rely on coffee sales alone, and must offer food items: at least baked goods and often a full menu. Also worth noting is that even avid coffee drinkers still add copious amounts of milk and sugar to their beverages—single-shots and black coffees are few and far between. So, while the sheer number of coffee drinkers in China has increased, the location of consumption as well as the frequency and per-capita volume may be limited.

Cultivating a true specialty coffee-drinking culture in China is not a simple task for three reasons. First, the ancient tradition of tea-drinking remains robust, in spite of modernization and the influx of Western beverages like coffee, soda, and energy drinks. Also, as the Chinese have quite a bit of experience with taste (as evidenced by the sophisticated and diverse regional cuisines that evolved over centuries), many still find unadulterated coffee to be too bitter. Coffee simply may never appeal to a broader audience beyond the pre-sweetened packets of Nestlé that are so commonplace. Third, specialty coffee sold at the retail level remains prohibitively expensive for most Chinese. A medium latte can cost up to RMB 27 (almost $4.50) at a chain cafe, putting it out of the reach of practically everyone outside of the urban elite.

In addition, the taxes and import requirements set by the Chinese government make it quite difficult to import smaller quantities of green coffee. As a consumable product, coffee is subject to strict standards for food safety. Therefore, a roaster purchasing a single pallet of, say, four different coffees will need to present customs officials with the original ICO Certificate of Origin for each coffee, even if the certificate was for a full lot. Since these restrictions are already creating obstacles to the importation of specialty-grade coffees from third-party countries like the U.S., the logical solution would be to ship them directly from origin. The question remains, however, if sufficient demand exists in the Chinese market for these higher-quality (and therefore more expensive) coffees that don’t deserve to languish in a warehouse.

Last month Atlas’s founder, Craig Holt, and I organized a cupping that was hosted by one of our roaster clients in Beijing. At least 25 coffee professionals, almost all of them young people, attended the event and engaged in animated conversations in between sampling micro-lots from seven different origins. Some of them had even adopted the hipster barista look. Even though it was nearly impossible to get any of them to openly comment about the coffees, they all knew how to cup. If they are the front-line ambassadors for specialty coffee, I maintain my optimism that China represents an attractive opportunity for exporters, equipment manufacturers, allied product vendors, and even green importers. Let the sleeping dragon awake.


liu2Al Liu is a trader and certified coffee specialist at Atlas Coffee Importers. He sources certified coffees from Latin America and Indonesia, working with clients around the U.S., Canada, and Asia/Pacific. Over the past few years he has managed Atlas’ sales in Asia and has witnessed rapid growth in specialty coffee in that region. Prior to joining Atlas in 2008, Al was Director of Culture and Communications at Alterra Coffee Roasters in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He holds a BSFS in International Politics from Georgetown University and a MA in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia. Al has served on the SCAA Board of Directors and is a member of the SCAA Sustainability Council.