Stuart Beaton’s latest guest blog hits home. I never became a coffee drinker precisely because of the huge Nescafe presence in China. When I needed to warm up, my choices in China were hot water, tea, or Nescafe. I quickly learned to become a tea drinker, although I was known to drink hot water in Hong Kong. Stuart has a great author interview site at http://rastous.podomatic.com/. Here’s his fabulous guest post about coffee in China. Enjoy!
My day here in Tianjin starts with a coffee – without exception. There could be rioting in the streets, the World might be coming to an end, but I will face it with a cup of coffee in me first.
Ellen has long since stopped wondering about the mechanics of this daily ritual – measuring the coffee into the cafetière, pouring in the no longer boiling water, stirring it and standing the pot, before plunging the grounds to the bottom. To her it’s just another one of those strange habits I have…
But she likes the coffee it produces.
Before she met me, Ellen had never drunk coffee. Tea is still the most popular drink (aside from hot water), and the streets are awash with it.
Coffee was viewed with distrust, as if the strange, foreign beverage would poison those who consumed it.
Mind you, I thought the same thing when I was first confronted with what passed for coffee in China.
Nestle were attempting to influence Chinese tastebuds by presenting coffee in an instant, easy to carry and consume form. They introduced sachets designed to be dumped into a cup or tea bottle, and have hot water added – coffee, whitener and sugar all pulverised into a fine powder.
The result tasted like coffee, if your only experience with coffee was to have it described to you by someone who’d once had a rather bad cup of lukewarm coffee tipped over their head. Utterly without charm or character, it is still haunting supermarket shelves as I type – luring unsuspecting potential coffee drinkers in, only to leave them never fancying anything to do with “coffee” ever again.
The only alternative to this “2+1” blend was to try and find a jar of “instant” coffee, which would crop up in Spring Festival gift sets. For Y300 (10% of my take home salary), I could get a 50 gram jar of Nescafe, flanked by two cups and saucers, in a presentation box.
At that price, I never weakened and bought one. I spent most of that year decaffeinated and dejected, wondering what was wrong with a country that had no cheese, coffee or even black tea to take the edge off.
When I moved to Tianjin, things began to improve. A bigger city meant more diversity, and so more places to shop around and try and find the things I had been missing. I also had a far bigger disposable income, so I didn’t mind paying a bit more for things to make me comfortable.
And yet coffee was still hard to get. Oh, I could buy small bags of beans at truly astronomical prices (at one point I was convinced that they had the price of coffee pegged to the price of gold), but without a grinder, let alone a press, they weren’t of much use to me. Instant coffee was the only choice, but at least it was now better blends.
Then Starbucks rolled onto the Chinese scene, and I was grateful.
Not because I was going and paying almost Y30 for a cup of coffee – I wasn’t even going through their doors – but because they made coffee an aspirational item. Other cafes opened, cheaper and less organised, who needed to buy beans and equipment at wholesale rates.
Having discovered “Kitchen Street”, I was able to access this market. When I run out of Mahalia #1 Blend (shipped from Robe, in South Australia), I can get cans of Illy coffee for Y80 – half the going price in the upmarket supermarkets.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that coffee is really that much more popular here. It’s not uncommon to see almost full cups of coffee abandoned outside Starbucks or Costa Coffee shops, when first time buyers discover that they don’t like coffee at all.
But these huge chains don’t care – they’re not really selling coffee.
They’re selling a dream.