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Coffee culture in china: is coffee becoming china’s cup of tea?

by Victor Eekhof

During my 3-month travels through China in 2013, I had a hard time finding a fix for my daily coffee fix, especially outside of the major cities. Not weird, you could say, for a country with a long history of growing and drinking tea. However, I definitely saw more Western coffee culture scenarios (people sitting on laptops in coffee shops) in places I wouldn’t expect it. In this article I dive a bit deeper into where East meet West.. for a cup of coffee.

How long has coffee and tea been around in China?

Tea has a long history in China, dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Tea leaves were first used for medicinal purposes, but eventually became a popular beverage among the Chinese elite. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), tea had become a common drink among all classes of people in China. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), the tea trade began to flourish and the tea culture developed further. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) saw the rise of tea as a symbol of Chinese culture, and tea houses and tea gardens became popular. The traditional Chinese tea ceremonies also developed during this time.

Coffee, on the other hand, has a relatively short history in China. It was first introduced to China in the late 16th century by the Dutch, but it did not gain popularity until the 19th century, when it was introduced by foreign traders and missionaries.

The Chinese tea traditions date back to the Ming Dynasty

Why coffee culture in China is on the rise

China’s coffee culture has been rapidly emerging in recent years. According to the International Coffee Organisation, the consumption of coffee in China has grown by an average of 12% annually since 2010. In 2020, China was the seventh-largest coffee consuming country in the world, and it is expected to continue to grow in the future. Factors such as the rising income of the Chinese middle class and the increasing popularity of coffee culture are driving the growth in coffee consumption in China. As the Chinese economy has continued to grow, more and more people have been able to afford to purchase luxury goods and experiences. Coffee, which was once seen as a luxury item, is now becoming more accessible to the average person.

Coffee as part of the Western culture

The influence of Western culture is also playing a role in the growth of coffee culture in China. As more and more Chinese people travel abroad, they are exposed to different cultures and ways of life, including coffee culture. Many Chinese people have come to appreciate the taste and ritual of drinking coffee, and are now seeking out similar experiences back home. Young people in China are also increasingly exposed to Western culture, which often includes coffee culture. They are drawn to the social aspect of coffee shops and the opportunity to relax and socialise with friends over a cup of coffee. Additionally, coffee shops are becoming more and more popular as a place to work and study. This is because they provide a comfortable atmosphere and a steady supply of caffeine to keep people alert.

The rise of e-commerce and social media platforms in China is also helping to drive the growth of coffee culture. These platforms make it easier for people to discover new products and brands, and to learn about different brewing methods and coffee-making techniques. They also provide a way for coffee shops and cafes to connect with potential customers and promote their products.

Since 2006, China has its own “Starbucks” with the foundation of SPR Coffee. In the years following its launch, SPR Coffee expanded rapidly and opened hundreds of stores across China, making it one of the largest coffee franchises in the country.

A “Central Perk” themed cafe in Beijing

Visiting a hip Chinese cafe in Qingdao

Qingdao is a coastal city in eastern China that is known for its beer and seafood, but it also has a history of coffee culture. Coffee was first introduced to Qingdao in the early 20th century by foreigners, and it quickly gained popularity among the local population.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, coffee culture in Qingdao went into decline due to government policies that promoted tea as the national drink and discouraged the consumption of Western-style products. However, in recent years, the coffee culture in Qingdao is seeing a resurgence, with more and more coffee shops and cafes opening and attracting a younger, more affluent population.

I visited a cafe called “Coffee space” on a street where the number of cafes has grown from 3 to 20 in a few years. The interior matched that of a modern European cafe, with lots of hanging plants, colourful paraphernalia and painted walls. The selection of coffee beans they offered was very diverse, from Australian to Jamaican and from Papua New Guinean to Colombian. The machinery too was fancy, with gold-coloured coffee machines and aesthetic pouring gear.

The interior of Coffee Space in Qingdao
A fancy-looking coffee machine
A fine cup of coffee from Qingdao’s Coffee Space

The future of coffee in China

The future of coffee in China looks very promising, as the demand for coffee continues to grow rapidly in the country. In addition, Shanghai has emerged as a major player in the world of coffee in recent years, and is rapidly becoming known as the “coffee capital” of the world. According to a coffee consumption report from food delivery company Meituan, there are 7.857 coffee shops in Shanghai as of June 30, far surpassing New York, London, and Tokyo. With 24 million people living in Shanghai and 1.4 billion people in the whole of China, the opportunities for a coffee culture takeover are enormous. It will be a long journey to surpass the century-long traditions of tea drinking, but China is evidently well on its way.

Full disclosure: This article has been written with the help of ChatGPT, as an experiment. I have weaved in the AI-generated text with my own words and edited (and fact-checked) where necessary. If you think anything is out of place, let me know.

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