You'd probably say tea if I asked you to name China's most famous hot, caffeinated beverage. And you'd be right—with a history of more than 5,000 years, Chinese tea isn't going anywhere soon. However, coffee—a relative newcomer to the caffeine scene in China—is quickly making waves.
Coffee consumption in China has skyrocketed in recent years, nearly tripling in just four years. Global giant Starbucks has led the way in the emergence of Chinese Coffee culture, with a new store opening approximately every 15 hours! And the growth of international chains like Starbucks and the UK's Costa Coffee has likewise given rise to an explosion of local cafes dotting the streets of China's city blocks; Shanghai alone is home to an estimated 6,500 coffee shops.
Chinese coffee beans: coffee industry and Chinese coffee
China has its youth to thank for its recent coffee boom with coffee grown and washed coffees. Millennials have been blamed for a lot in recent years, including singlehandedly doing in the paper napkin and diamond industries. Their reputation for spearheading change isn't limited to the West. In China, growing exposure to global influences has meant that today's young adults see adopting the Western culture, including imbibing coffee, as a status symbol and a form of self-expression. Walking into one of Shanghai's new cafes, with its grainy wood furniture, exposed brick walls, hanging plants, and intricate latte foam designs, you might even say China has developed its breed of hipsterism.
Coffee's Beginnings in China
But where did this massive Chinese coffee outbreak begin? China's first encounter with coffee occurred in the late 1800s when a French missionary introduced it to Yunnan province. However, according to the International Coffee Organization, coffee production didn't flourish into a full-fledged industry until 1988, when the government renewed efforts to build up the sector with assistance from the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.
Coffee production has expanded widely since then, with much of its growth without leaf rust in the last twenty years. China has risen from the 30th largest producer of coffee in the world in the mid-90s to one of the top 20 global coffee producers today. Almost all (more than 90%) of China's coffee is still produced in Yunnan, where Arabica is the sole variety grown as great coffees.
More coffee means more coffee drinkers. In 1999, a little over a decade following the resurgence of the coffee production with processing methods sector, the first Starbucks store in China opened in Beijing. There are now almost 2,000 Starbucks locations nationwide, and the enterprise recently announced plans to open an additional 3,000 stores in China within the next few years.
With a coffee shop (or two or three) for younger generations on every corner in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, you'd expect China to buzz with over-caffeinated coffee fiends. Not so, it turns out. The average Chinese person drinks just 3 cups of coffee a year, says Euromonitor International, although this estimate is probably higher in urban areas. The per capita average in the US, by comparison, is 363 cups per year.
Why the low consumption, you might ask? Since drinking coffee confers the status of a sort, the price of coffee in China is high, often prohibitively so. The average cup of joe in China costs 18-40 RMB (roughly 3-6 USD), which could purchase you a whole meal or a month's internet. A triple venti caramel macchiato certainly isn't something most Chinese people, except the exceptionally rich, can fit into their natural daily routine review.
Coffee consumption is estimated to have grown 16% over the past decade, compared with just 2% in the US. That said, disposable income is increasing in China, meaning more people have money to spend on coffee. Growing competition and tastes between coffee shops and rising local production may also result in lower prices in the coming years, making daily coffee drink a more affordable.
Coffee Culture is Catching On in Tea-Steeped China
Leaving Fudan University's Center for American Studies after my first day of class last summer, I was exhausted–most likely the result of my brain operating in Chinese for the past three hours and Shanghai's notoriously humid summers. But at only half past noon, my day was not nearly over. Like any good American, I knew the solution: I needed coffee.
Coffee is not new to China. Some historians traced coffee's first appearance in the region to the late 19th century when French missionaries introduced it to Yunnan province. More than two hundred years later, the first Starbucks opened in Beijing in 1999. Since then, coffee's climb to the top of the beverage food chain has been swift. Today, Starbucks plans to double its store count in the country by 2019. Costa and McDonald's McCafe is also expanding, and even KFC is throwing its hat into the cuppa ring.
But it's not just the big chains that see China as an attractive coffee market. An independent coffee scene is brewing. Local coffee shops tend to boast higher-quality coffee to attract customers. The independent coffee culture has especially gained popularity in urban areas like Shanghai's Jing'an district and Beijing's traditional alleyways (known locally as hutongs), where coffee has been around for longer. Still, big chains are king: Starbucks commands 60 percent of the market, with McCafe controlling 13 percent and Costa 11 percent.
Most Chinese people have still yet to adjust to coffee's bitter taste. Sweet and milky drinks like frappuccinos and lattes are local favorites. In addition to the lattes and espressos typical of Starbucks worldwide, you'll find unique items such as green tea frappuccinos and red bean scones on the menu. During the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival, Starbucks stores even serve mooncakes and zongzi, the traditional foods of these festivals.
For most customers, Starbucks' high price tag includes more than a caffeine fix. A grande latte in China typically costs about 30RMB ($4.83), the equivalent of two or three cheap meals – or a day's worth of food. By comparison, a grande latte costs $3.45 in American Starbucks stores. This puts a regular cup of joe out of the price range of most Chinese people. But in China, the price often signifies quality, so a high price only helps Starbucks cultivate its image as a luxury brand. For those who can afford it, the expense is often worth toting an iconic Starbucks cup in hand.
Chinese customers enter a Starbucks to savor their coffee and relax or lounginlounge stores' couches and chattinchatriends. And unlike in America, where we love to take our coffee to-go, Starbucks stores in China are hallowed as a kind of "third place"–a spot to leisure outside work or home. In other words, a Starbucks in China is a destination rather than a stop along the way.