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Chinese Coffee Culture Is Ready to Graduate from Adorable to Artisan

China's a nation of tea-drinkers, but it's finally starting to hone in on what makes a damn fine cup of coffee, from carefully roasted beans to unique presentations.
April 15, 2015, 6:00pm

A few months into working with coffee-bean farmers in China's Southern Yunnan province, it occurred to Bryan Rak—founder of Lanna Coffee Roasters—to ask if they'd tried their coffee.

They hadn't. In fact, they hadn't tried any coffee, ever. So Bryan held a tasting for them, and the same group of people that had been cultivating coffee beans for years literally tasted the fruits of their labors for the first time.

"They didn't like it as much as tea," said Bryan, smiling in his Shanghai café, Lanna Coffee.

China is a tea country. As such, Chinese coffee culture's got a long way to go. But man, is it going places.

Photo by the author

Until recently, coffee culture in China was deceptively adorable. The first wave of Chinese coffee shops sprung up after the arrival of Starbucks in the Chinese mainland in 1999. Baristas throughout the country generally serve up frilly lattes and cappuccinos overflowing with sugary syrup and dripping in whipped cream. Nationwide cutesiness levels went through the roof: a café in my neighborhood even hands customers teddy bears to hold while they wait for their cup. But it rarely tastes as good as it looks, and the actual coffee under all the sprinkles and cream is generally watery or cheap.

Now, a second wave is emerging in Shanghai. This time around, cafés aren't just cashing in on a trend. They're crafting a lasting, high-quality coffee culture with Chinese tastes in mind.

Shanghai's Mellower Café is the perfect example. Mellower is famous for its Sweet Little Rain – a coffee with a cloud of cotton candy suspended over it. When steam from the coffee hits the cloud, it condenses and rains the eponymous sweetness back down.

#mellower#coffee#xintiandi#新天地#sweet#little#rain#cafe#relax#好朋友

A photo posted by EUNMI KIM (@eunmi_amy_kim) on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:33am PDT

As I waited for my own cup, I watched a stream of other cotton candy clouds float off the counter and onto customers' plates. And when mine finally arrived, the candy floss rained down on my mug rim and hardened—like the coffee equivalent of salt around the rim of a margarita glass. But here's the kicker: it was damn good coffee. "In Asia, it's very hard to get regular customers, so we need to make something special," says general manager Chen King, who sees the Sweet Little Rain—as well as Mellower's other specialty coffees—as a good point-of-entry for Chinese consumers, who are less accustomed to coffee than their Western counterparts. "They need some time to get used to coffee," he said. King's strategy appears to have worked. On the Saturday afternoon of my visit, the café was crowded with friends snapping selfies with their cotton clouds. And according to King, the shop sells 150 Sweet Little Rains per day.

  会下雨的咖啡   A photo posted by 1995 (@lilalilaxx) on Apr 1, 2015 at 9:01am PDT

But it's not just a matter of getting used to it. Mellower, as well as a handful of other coffee shops like Café Ming Qian, are offering classes—both for baristas and coffee amateurs. Would-be students sign up for courses on everything from roasting to latte art.

Meanwhile, at Lanna, Bryan is trying to change the local attitude that whipped cream and sugary syrup are adequate cover-up for bad coffee. "Sometimes café owners tell me it doesn't matter how the coffee tastes because they're gonna put it in a latte anyway," he says with a laugh.

Photo by the author

Lanna Coffee is a hip caffeine oasis a far cry from the Yunnan countryside that supplies its beans. But Yunnan is where it all started. After growing up in Indonesia and Turkey—two countries with strong coffee cultures—Bryan began to wonder why China doesn't use its own beans. Yunnan's warm climate (it borders Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) and topography make it ideal ground for coffee cultivation.

"We want to make a Chinese brand based on Chinese coffee," Bryan said.

So far, Lanna's been a success. In fact, so have its neighbors; Lanna is just one of a group of cafés in Shanghai's Jingan district, the epicenter of China's café culture. Café Ming Qian is just down the road, and apart from offering courses, its baristas also serve up Dutch coffee in scientific beakers while offering explanations on how to drink them. Adjacent sits Australian-owned espresso bar Uncle No Name.