It was not hard to find a Starbucks or a Pacific Coffee Co. while walking around Hong Kong. Having such a large community of expats, tourists not to mention that whole era of British occupation the ability to order an extra tall soy latte en route to the office in Quarry Bay or after a night out in LKF seemed absolutely pedestrian. Visiting Shanghai, Shenzhen or Beijing, I would encounter the same ease of java procurement. It would have been easy for me to infer that China has an established coffee culture. I’d have been wrong.
In reality, most Chinese still stick to tea. It’s a culture and a tradition thousands of years old. Coffee shops cater to expats, tourists, businessmen and the bourgeoning middleclass looking to indulge in benign trappings of symbolic Western affluence. “Coffee” appeals to the young, the adventurous, and the marginally wealthy in large urban environments. I say “coffee” because, thought the category has grown rapidly in the last 10 years, that doesn’t always mean you’ll be finding roasted beans or espresso. Outside of a coffee shop, my requests for coffee would usually result in Nescafe¹ mixed with hot water or hot milk or a can of Mr. Brown. Outside of urban centers, you’ll be lucky if you can find even that.
The “coffee culture” that exists in most of China is defined by instant coffee. Wander into a great deal of Chinese grocers in the United States and you’ll still find Nescafe and cans of Mr. Brown. The same can be said, sadly, of eastern Africa. On my last trip to Uganda, where coffee has long been a cash crop (particularly Robusta), coffee was always served at meals. It was Nescafe. I was served brewed coffee from local beans once, and that was at a high-end resort catering to wealthy Kampala expats and tourists.
Congratulations to Nestle, you clearly know your market and have done well. To the rest of you looking for a comparable caffeinated status quo during your next foray abroad, my condolences. Coffee purveyors, small and large, take note: the increasing demand for coffee in non-traditional markets and cultures without a history of the sweetest (and bitterest) of beverages represents a new frontier of opportunity.