FIELD NOTES - Coffee culture in Shanghai

I moved to Shanghai in 2015 with some trepidations as to whether I would be able to find good coffee in China. I knew Starbucks would be ubiquitous, but had grown accustomed to spectaular coffee in Amsterdam, living minutes away from great spot Scandinavian Embassy. I was surprised to find a lot of great coffee in Shanghai and by 2016, even my suburban corporate office venue featured proper specialist coffee in suitably hipster-ish decor.

Resources in English about the local Shanghainese coffee scene are hard to come by. I was very intrigued to hear about a local expat documenting Shanghai's many coffee venues when I spotted her ''Top 10" list in expat-oriented Smart Shanghai. I was even more intrigued that, thinking I was very familiar with great coffee venues (at least in and around the Former French Concession and Jing'An), I barely knew any of the names that Anna was listing in her top 10. Who better to turn to to discuss the explosion of the Shanghai coffee scene and its underlying drivers. We met in Brut Cake Cafe in Jing'An, just days before I left Shanghai to relocate to Melbourne.

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Coffee in Anna’s home was an instant and sugared affair. Counter-intuitively, her move to tea-drinking China ignited a passion for specialist coffee. Anna has become the authority of all things coffee in Shanghai and beyond, as she relentlessly rides her bike throughout the city and documents hundreds of the coffee venues mushrooming all over the megalopolis. You can follow her documentation on her Instagram account. Her sharp-eyed analysis of each venue’s hits and near-misses is quirkily augmented with coffee analysis by a fellow Russian. He does not join her escapades but rather comments remotely and expertly on bitterness and frothiness, based on picture only. You can find more of Anna's favourites here.

The rise of coffee culture in China and Anna’s personal journey interlace so intimately, that I was delighted when she agreed to meet up, just days before my scheduled departure from Shanghai to relocate to the self-proclaimed coffee-capital-of-the-world, Melbourne.

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Anna arrived in relatively small-town Ningbo in 2010. In these pre-high speed train days, the long-distance 200 km bus journey to Shanghai was enough of a hurdle to keep you away from the cosmopolitan centre. The life of a Mandarin students entailed living surrounded by fellow expat in cramped quarters. Soon, the urge for Western creature comforts came knocking. Respite came in the form of local main street’s Starbucks. The company notoriously entered China as early as the late 1990s, which means that by 2010, Ningbo had its very own shining and gleaming outlet. Or rather it had the large armchairs and dimmed lighting that allowed for a comfortable and leisurely escape from living on top of each other. It is fair to say that China discovered Friends late, but soon enough, Chinese young people who had flocked to urban centres to study also sought out the Third Space and exoticism afforded by Starbucks all over the land. Everyone was bound to eventually ‘taste the coffee’, which came in non-threatening (albeit weirdly titled) iterations of milk and syrup. Starbucks has been widely successful, having opened thousands outlets in China to date, close to overtaking its US home market in terms of store metrics.

Somewhere around 2012, specialist coffee venues started to appear in Shanghai and Beijing, with Café del Volcan often credited as the founder of the Shanghai coffee scene (read this interview). Starbucks may have opened the floodgates of coffee drinking, but most likely a growing body of Chinese international students came to experience great coffee abroad (an estimate 1 in 5 of them study in Australia and New Zealand). This happened concomitantly with the rise of Chinese social media, which enabled a new platform of personal branding, away from heavily logo'ed possessions, into heavily curated leisure time. A specialist coffee experience afforded individuality and social currency – after all what is more photogenic than a combination of latte art and nail art (for some)?

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Today there are an estimated 6,500 coffee outlets in Shanghai alone, and you should no longer be surprised to bump into a light wood Scandinavian heaven and serious Williamsburg-like barista attire in the remotest corners of the city (Pudong, here is looking at you!). Surprisingly (to me at first), the coffee is often actually very good, For Anna, the local barista scene is supportive and pulls on millennia of Chinese craft and deep attention to details. Chinese latte art would make a Berliner or a Melburnian blush! The famed “Post 1990s (born)” generation are no different in China than the rest of the world, dreaming of travelling and opening a coffee shop. A lot of venues are small operations, that ebb and flow depending on footfalls and landlord vagaries. However, Chinese mercantile prowess was not long to apply itself to craft coffee, with Fortune 500 drop-outs setting up the SeeSaw coffee mini-chain, now sporting five locations around Shanghai. They do coffee very well, including a local Yunnan origin which I love. SeeSaw has also set up a barista training school to keep standards high as they expand. I patronised my local branch daily for two years, and only had a bad cup once! If you crave something more intimate but also militant, Coffee or Tea by Love Concept employs two very skilled deaf baristas, a too rare empowerment of handicap in China.

Everyone has a story about their favourite local coffee shop, and in Shanghai, they come and go faster than you can enumerate them. My personal go-to on a rare working-from-home day is Uncle No Name Espresso. It followed us from our early days in Jing’An district to our move to the tree-shaded avenues of the Former French Concession. The brightly orange painted shop front of Uncle No Name on Yongkang Lu hides a two-level tiny space, with large windows opening onto the plane trees and bustle of the Former French concession. Last time I went I watched a local lady washing her hair on the sidewalk and the memory makes me long for the weird contradiction of Shanghai life, where third wave coffee knocks into street life that has been unchanged for decades. So long, Shanghai!

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