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Let's talk coffee.
singapore sunset
I have a whole list of journal topics i would like to get around to at some point - mostly observations on my life here in China - but with work and everything i find i never get around to posting them.

Here's a great quote from a recent email from my now re-retired mother that shows me the apple did not fall far from the tree:

I now realise how caught up I had become (again…) in the workplace. There are multiple things I pushed to the side and didn’t pursue – even where it would have been in my own interests to do so. For instance, I have now spent time researching energy plans and medical insurance plans – and negotiated better deals with my providers. I could (should…) have done that ages ago but told myself I didn’t have the time/patience to look into it.

She goes on to list a bunch of other things she has neglected. I am exactly the same.

One thing i do not neglect is my daily coffee. kishenehn just posted a short bit about making coffee up on a fire lookout in Big Sky Country and it got me thinking i should write that coffee entry.

So, the coffee thing. China. They don't fucking drink coffee here.

That needs some explanation, since i am sure all of you read the news last week that Starbucks is teaming up with Alibaba to expand their operations here.

China is Starbucks' second biggest market. But it's Starbucks' second biggest market because China has got lots and lots of people, not because Chinese particularly like to drink coffee. Fortunately the strategy of Starbucks is to rebrand "coffee" as "a hot milkshake that comes in many different flavors, sometimes including coffee".

Even still, it's a tough hill to climb. I saw a crazy statistic the other day saying the average person in China drinks something like 6 cups of coffee... per year. Hell, i get through that many by Tuesday lunchtime.

I fucking love coffee. Let's not get it twisted. I am only semi-serious about being an alcoholic, but i am definitely a caffeine addict. If i don't get my first cup on time i am incredibly cranky. I drink three or four cups a day. I get headaches without.

The reason Starbucks is running scared at the moment is because this year's latest buzzy Chinese unicorn is Luckin Coffee. Starbucks had a stranglehold on the coffee market here through uncompetitive practices like writing into their rental contracts that the entire property was not allowed any other coffee vendors apart from Starbucks. Luckin works around that by setting up in unusual locations. They have tailored their strategy 100% toward yuppies. You can't pay cash for a coffee. You can't even order it at the counter. You need to book in advance through their app and then it will either be delivered to your office or you can pick it up from a hole in the wall.

For this reason, i am not a fan of Luckin Coffee. I do like to sit down for that first cup.

On the other hand, i am also not a fan of Starbucks. A black coffee from Starbucks is about 25 kuai. At the current exchange rate, that's around US$4 or 3€. Now, ignoring the fact that in China 3€ pays for two dishes from a back alley greasy spoon, that price is insane even by western standards. Who the fuck pays 3€ for a coffee? Oh, wait. People who go to Starbucks, that's who.

I remember when Starbucks first entered the Australian market in the mid-2000s. They faced another uphill battle because Australia has one of the best coffee cultures in the world. The Italians and Greeks made sure that literally every dive bar and fast food joint in the country sells top-notch espresso for a couple of bucks.

But marketing prevailed and now Starbucks is big in Australia. People learned to pay more.

When i left Australia i moved to Canada. And Canada, despite being right next door to America, has a very different coffee culture to America. Canada's most famous fast food joint is Tim Hortons, which is a thunderingly mediocre donut and coffee shop. They don't have espresso machines. Don't make me laugh. But they do have very, very cheap drip coffee. Tim Hortons is more than just a coffee shop - it's a meeting point for the proletariat. The Greyhounds stop there, the newcomers work there, the drug dealers operate out of there... They are open 24 hours and open to all. And if there isn't a Timmies nearby, there will be a Coffee Time or similar dive. These types of coffee shops are central to Canadian communities.

Meanwhile, there is also Starbucks, which doesn't even bother marketing itself to the flannel-wearing, Hip-listening, hockey-watching crowd. And they do fine, because there are plenty of Crazy Rich Canadians.

And there are plenty of Crazy Rich Chinese.

Aside from Luckin Coffee being a brand that differentiates itself on being more tech-savvy than Starbucks - not to mention proudly local - it also differentiates itself on price. I mean, that would have made me interested. Coffee should be a working class drink, goddamnit. I downloaded the app to check it out.

21 kuai for a black coffee.

My brand here continues to be the Taiwanese 85°C. Also known in mainland China as "that bread shop". Here they are more famous for selling cakes and pastries than for selling coffee. Meanwhile i am like. Dudes. You realize a black coffee at 85°C is, like, 13 kuai? And if you buy a coupon book, it's only 11 kuai? That's less than half the price of the other coffee chains!

But, you see, 85°C doesn't sell the image of being a luxury coffee shop. No self-respecting member of the bourgeoisie is going to proudly walk around town with that red cup in their hand. It doesn't have the cultural cachet of Starbucks, or - now - of Luckin. 85°C is for the plebs.

Except, of course, it's not at all. A coffee from 85°C is still a lot more pricy than picking up a 豆浆 (soy milk) from the roadside 油条 (donut) vendor, or plunking a bunch of leaves and herbs into your own plastic flask to make the tea that gets most working class Chinese through the day.

This is one of the biggest challenges i have found with fitting in here. The middle class is very middle class. Not much different to the middle class in other countries. But the working class is much poorer. There is not really a gap for people like me who work highly skilled white collar jobs but don't feel comfortable amongst our professional peers.

One of my colleagues recognized i was far too good for this company and asked me why i don't do a startup here instead. He shared his idea of making an app to link Filipino housekeepers with the nouveau riche who covet them. Technically Filipino housekeepers are illegal here because China has a relatively strict immigration policy, but the rich find ways to get around it, and my colleague was convinced he could make bank off the app before the government caught up with it. Or perhaps they'd turn a blind eye, because the government don't seem to care very much about rich people bending the rules to get more rich. They sure do like to clamp down on anything that excites the kids and the working class, though - hip-hop, short video apps, tasteless joke sharing sites, anime...

Anyway, during that conversation i said if i was really free to start any business i wanted in China, i would try to kick off the idea of working class pubs. Or Canadian-style coffee shops. Basically, places where regular people can go to drink for cheap and socialize without being pretentious about it.

He thought that was hilarious. How would i get rich targeting the poor? They don't have any money!

That exchange made me think.

When i was in Guangyuan (population: 2.5 million - an insignificant backwater by Chinese standards) there was one Starbucks and that was it. I got a coffee from a kid in a kawaii drinks shop who was utterly thrilled to have a foreigner in her store. It was a Nescafé with a splash of condensed milk. You could barely call it coffee, but somehow it tasted better for being the same stuff the kids in that town were drinking to get a taste of cosmopolitanism into their lives. Those are the kids i'd like to make coffee for, not the ones who can afford a brand name beverage. And their parents are the ones i want to open a pub for.

But, yeah. Why would a laowai bother? Why would anyone?


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UGH. I can't even with Nescafe. It tastes like drinking industrial coffee that's been sitting on the heater all night. But that is ALL they drink here. I literally brought my coffee maker to work for a VIP meeting this week (which means I also lugged a 20lb transformer, because it's US voltage) along with a bag of my hoarded 2015 Starbucks Christmas Blend (which, say what you like about Starbucks, was some fucking fantastic coffee... mocha-y with a spice undertone without being too heavy like Peet's Major Dick's...) and my staff literally turned up their noses and asked if they could use the machine to make hot water for Nescafe.


I mean, you wanna talk about coffee culture... this should be the motherland, with the intersection of the Ottomans, the Ethiopians and the Arabs, so I don't know where this damn Nescafe BS comes from. But I did not bid on jobs in Central and South America because I can't even with this fake coffee shit, so I don't even know how I'm going to survive.

But Aroma Coffee is everywhere in Israel. It's the moral equivalent of Starbucks, but has reliable wifi.

It might be an office thing. People who think making coffee is incredibly difficult for some reason.

I actually don't mind Starbucks for what it is. Certainly here they have been my savior for buying beans - I can't get anything besides Nescafé from the regular grocery stores!

The best thing about my office here is that they have an excellent coffee machine. One that grinds the beans for you in real-time! I am not sure who decided it should have been installed, probably the (French) CEO. I'm not sure what I'd do in an office without a coffee machine. Bring my own plunger?

I guess here I'd just get Luckin Coffee delivery. I can see the niche.

I must say, I am surprised Israel doesn't have much of a coffee culture. Do they drink something else instead?

As a serious coffee snob myself, your post is inspiring me to write a full-blown coffee rant of my own.

I've never travelled in China, but when I visited other parts of Asia I was always surprised at how uniformly bad the coffee seemed to be. When you have a culture that thinks highbrow coffee is Nescafé, you know that you're living in a culture with problems.

Interestingly, some of the best coffee I've found traveling was in South America, which I didn't expect. Maybe it's that the ethnic Europeans there are trying to replicate their supposed ancestral society.

And I can't stand Starbucks, either. It's way too omnipresent, way too expensive, and most of the coffee sucks, besides.

I've never been to South America, but it's good to know it won't be tough to find a coffee if I do!

I remember in Stargate Universe (a TV show with the plot point of "what if a bunch of scientists got stranded on the other end of a wormhole?") the search for coffee was a recurring theme. It sounds like a small thing, but now I have spent hours wandering up and down streets looking for somewhere to get a cuppa I really get it. There are a lot of other things I enjoy in life - some even on a near-daily basis, like showers - but it's only coffee that I really feel like my day is empty without. What a strange little bean we have become enslaved to.

Vietnam has excellent coffee.

Coffee ... it's a food group of it's own!

I admit - I'm a coffee snob, but I also don't like Starbucks all that much. It is expensive, and I'm not all that crazy about the coffee itself. Sometimes, though I'll order one - chock full of whipped cream for a treat.

My daily coffee? Dunkin' Donuts (a franchise donut and coffee shop) Cinnamon flavor - but I get the beans in any grocery store. Then I put in a cinnamon (or peppermint, or mocha) flavored coffee creamer.

I've seen iced coffee in Asian restaurants - particularly Vietnamese. They REALLY know how to do it, too! Yum!

I was going to ask about Vietnam and it’s French heritage. I hear they do great French bread there too.

I also enjoy a Starbucks from time to time. When I wasn't trying to eat vegan, I enjoyed spoiling myself with their mochas. My ex used to work there so she knew all of the tricks to ordering "secret" drinks. One she introduced me to was called "apple cider" and it's ostensibly seasonal but I think they can make it for you any time by heating apple juice and adding syrup and whip. Fun stuff, but not the place I'd go for a daily black unless it's a last resort.

Dunkin Donuts is popular in Canada too! I just checked wiki and it seems Dunkin Donuts has been wiped out in Canada. I guess it's because Tim Hortons is a very similar kind of place.

In America I find my favorite places to get coffee are roadside diners - you know, the places where a waitress keeps coming by to refill your cup for free. Those sorts of joints are always good spots for people-watching, especially if they are close to a freeway exit.

Edited at 2018-08-09 12:04 am (UTC)

roadside diners! I'm afraid many of them are closing up, probably because of too many franchises. We used to have a diner right at the end of our street - and, yeah - the coffee was good. I remember after my father in law retired, he and all his other retired buddies had coffee there every morning.

I don't see as many diners on interstate exits as there used to be. That's where we always stopped on our way to someplace. Dang McDonalds and Cracker Barrels... That's the cause of them leaving.... 😒

I didn't even know iced coffee was a thing until i first came to Korea a couple of years ago. How little i knew! And i thought cold coffee in a can from a vending machine sounded weird till i tried it and was very pleasantly surprised. Now i drink the cold stuff more than the hot.

In the summer, no coffee goes to waste. After I'm done with my hot cup in the morning, I put the rest in the fridge for iced coffee.

I'm not a fan of coffee in bottle / can that much, but once in a while it's quite good. Part of the reason is much of it is Starbucks brand, and it's not my favorite coffee.

Call me a Hipster, but I prefer Mom and Pop Coffee Houses to Starbucks anytime!
"But...But....But Starbucks did away with Plastic Straws!"
Yeah, but they also take advantage of Income Tax Loopholes and monopolize coffee plantations in Latin American and Asia..........

i'm not a coffee drinker at all - i'll drink it if it doesn't actually taste like coffee - but there's a lot i like about coffee culture, and everyone's coffee comments are really interesting to me. i'm not surprised the chinese make crap coffee, tho. i mean, it's the land of tea! why would they want bitter bean water?

(coffee is very bitter to me. but it smells amazing.)

now i want a doughnut. it's only because you mentioned tim horton's.

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