Coffee Culture in China

When people think of China, they inevitably think of tea, given the ancient associations with the product. Even now, there are many providers of tea throughout the country, including tea houses, tea sellers, and even markets dedicated to tea.

Having said that, the increased influence of coffee within China has been one that major corporations from western countries have taken advantage of. Despite the history of coffee entering China through Shanghai in the 1850s, such as the Shengchang Cafe, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that coffee truly entered the Chinese zeitgeist.

The role of megacorporations

Companies like Starbucks (USA), Pacific Coffee (HK), Tim Hortons (Can), Gloria Jean’s Coffee (Aus), % Arabica (Japan) and Costa Coffee (UK) have entered China with a verve unseen in any other country. Over the last 15 years, Starbucks has opened thousands of stores around the country – seemingly one outside every metro station in the country. Tim Hortons has launched over 500 stores in the last 18 months, vastly expanding its footprint in the country in an extremely short period of time. It’s also important to note the role of McDonald’s and KFC in selling coffee to their customers.

These franchise-centric companies do not tend to concern themselves about the local tastes of the population. They simply introduced their western menus into China and assume that people will drink it. Having said that, it appears to have worked extremely well for them, due to the nascent coffee culture in China.

I call it nascent because the majority of consumers are millennials unfamiliar with the variety of options. The priority is to appear to be a modern consumer of western products, rather than familiar with the taste. Evidence suggested that they preferred sweeter products, rather than the traditional products made in coffee houses and cafes.

People would often sit in these cafes for long periods of time to drink their coffee, treating it somewhat as a restaurant. They also operate as places for long-term socialization – a development from western cultures.

The slow change by modern tastes and culture

However, what has been happening slowly in the last few years is the development of an independent cafe culture. While Luckin Coffee tapped into the mobile ordering market in 2017, other Chinese companies worked out the importance of developing a more casual coffee culture.

Companies like Morse Coffee, Manner Coffee, Seesaw Coffee and other brands are small groups that do not have an enormous presence across China but feel like local cafes. This deliberate marketing choice taps into the community feel of local cafes.

At the same time, there are numerous local cafes popping up in small places around cities. While many may struggle to develop a consistent customer base, there are communities in certain cities that actively promote good cafes. One example is the Instagram account, @sz_coffeemaps.

Run by a friend of mine, she has been documenting coffee shops and cafes wherever she goes around Shenzhen. Her photos are excellent, and she has developed a dedicated following across the city for her efforts, including trips to Guiyang and Taiwan.

As a result, people are looking more widely for their caffeine fixes. I tend to seek out cold brew coffee and iced americanos where possible. Cold brew is a little harder to get my hands on compared to an iced americano, but it’s the style of coffee I prefer.

What is the future of coffee in China?

In my opinion, Chinese consumers will become more educated in terms of their coffee consumption. The traditional menus offered in big foreign franchises will need to adjust to local tastes – which is already happening. Clearly, Starbucks has learned from their initial Australian experiment. Their willingness to introduce new products into the market has shown that they are learning from local consumers.

Equally, there is enormous potential behind local independent coffee shops. Little cafes like this can certainly develop loyal followings.

Shenzhen has a booming coffee market, with over ten thousand coffee businesses operating within the city. The growth in the market indicates that people in Shenzhen are more open to the variety of coffee products within the city and the wider Greater Bay Area, let alone the world.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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