Tea has been the preferred drink of China for literally millennia. Not only is it used in elaborate holiday and wedding ceremonies, but it’s also taken with everyday meals and snacks. You can find tea in supermarkets and fast food chains. You can take your tea in black, green, and “golden monkey” flavors. These little leaves have long reigned supreme in Chinese culture.
So why is coffee starting to take over?
It isn’t a native beverage to China. Though the country has been around and kicking since 2100 BCE, researchers have only traced its coffee consumption to the late 1800s. It’s believed that French emissaries brought it to Yunnan Province and intrigued the locals with its bittersweet taste.
Despite its early origins, however, it can be argued that coffee didn’t really take off until 1999. That’s when Starbucks opened its first café in Beijing. Sales were initially slow: While Americans consume an average of four cups a day, the Chinese are more likely to drink four cups of coffee a year.
Business in the ’90s was only profitable because the sheer size of China’s population ensured that there were always customers. They might’ve been sporadic, but they were continuous. The landscape is a little different in 2017.
For one, there are thousands of Starbucks locations across the country; the brand even thinks that their Chinese market might overtake their American market someday. There are also hundreds if not thousands of independent cafés and fast food restaurants offering coffee beverages on their breakfast menus. Coffee is becoming a force to be reckoned with in Chinese culture.
What caused this shift in the Chinese perception of java? Some believe that it’s the natural impact of globalization. Once the country opened its borders to international business and trade, they flooded the market with new products, brands, trends, demands, and expectations.
Caffeine-craving expats needed their daily fix. Travelers to and from China were tasting coffee and spreading the gospel. If coffee wasn’t exactly commonplace, it at least moved from “rare” to “recognizable.” Other people think that coffee’s popularity might have to do with its existence as a status symbol, especially in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
They’ve long been the country’s trendsetters in matters of food and fashion, so once they embraced coffee as a trendy beverage, the rest of the nation followed suit. This theory is supported by the higher-than-average price of coffee in many Chinese markets; while it isn’t exorbitantly expensive, a cup of Starbucks can be anywhere from $1-$3 more than in neighboring countries.
It’s also interesting to note the differences in “coffee culture” between China and the Western world. While Americans and Britons tend to throw back a quick espresso and continue with their day, the Chinese prefer to take their time. They sit and socialize. They sip their drinks over hours of conversation. A café isn’t just a pit stop on their way to work; it’s a destination in itself.
Chinese cafés have encouraged this mindset, probably as an effort to drum up more business. They design their buildings with relaxing, Eastern-inspired architecture; they fill their menus with things like green tea frappuccinos and red bean pastries.
Since the average citizen is still unused to strong, bitter coffee, most cafés offer a variety of frothy lattes and sweet cocoas. Starbucks has even been known to sell mooncakes during annual Chinese festivals to cash in on cultural familiarity. As for homemade brews, they’re also on the rise.
The most popular type of coffee is instant coffee, particularly “three-in-ones” that offer coffee grounds, creamer, and sweetener all together. Coffee machines are also gaining popularity in homes and offices. Coffee is increasingly seen as an everyday drink rather than the occasional indulgence, so the day might not be far where those four cups a year become four cups a month.
While it might be a stretch to say that coffee has overtaken tea as a cultural commodity, it’s definitely not as rare as it used to be. From glamorous cafés selling high-priced macchaitos to street vendors hawking on-the-go java juices, you can see more and more of China’s emerging coffee culture with each passing day.
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