Coffee culture: a symbol of middle-class lifestyle

0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, November 3, 2009
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Before I ever made my way to the Middle Kingdom, just hearing the name China would conjure up powerful pictures in my mind. I imagined colorfully robed men sitting around lacquered tables, leisurely sipping tea to the soft sounds of an erhu. The first time I visited China, I learned this vision was far from reality. One thing was correct though, China is a nation of tea drinkers.

I was a bit surprised when I first noticed a Starbucks pop up next to the Beijing Friendship Store in 1999. I curiously entered and ordered a Frappachino to see how it tasted in China. After scanning the cafe, I noticed most of the customers were foreigners and wondered how long it would last.


Luckily for Starbucks, they actually became instrumental in establishing the niche coffee culture now so prevalent in Beijing and Shanghai. While in the west, coffee culture focuses on things like blends, tastes, and brewing techniques, this is not the case in China. To highlight this point, consider the story one of my Italian friends told me of a Chinese man who bought whole coffee beans and then tried to make a homemade cup of Joe. He popped a few beans in a cup and poured boiling water over them.

Coffee culture in China is more a symbol of lifestyle than anything else. It represents the young, hip, emerging middle class with money to burn. Most of these young coffee drinkers are more open-minded to Western influences that have made their way into China and are eager to show it through coffee consumption. To simplify, tea is for the traditional and coffee is for the connoisseur.

As a result, whenever Chinese visit coffee houses they expect to be pampered with an experience of relaxation and comfort. They don't want a coffee production line, they prefer the coffee experience and companies like Starbucks have given that to them by providing a uniquely different atmosphere with comfortable couches. In America most people want a coffee to go, but in China they like to sit down and talk with their friends.

According to International Coffee Organization, it is estimated that China's coffee consumption will grow by about 15 percent per year, far above the global average of 2 percent. However, most of this growth is based on China's unique coffee culture, representing a fashionable symbol rather than habitual usage.

Because of this, you can bet your bottom dollar that large coffee companies will push to educate Chinese coffee consumers about enjoying the finer aspects of coffee such as tastes, blends and brews to make sure coffee consumption is more about habitually enjoying a product rather than using it to be fashionable. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful, but these coffee companies should remember one thing: China will always be a land dominated by tea drinkers. Perhaps one day those men in colorful robes, sipping tea to the sounds of an erhu, will be doing it in a Starbucks.

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