Coffee Culture is Catching On in Tea-Steeped China

Leaving Fudan University’s Center for American Studies after my first day of class last summer, I was exhausted–most likely the result of my brain operating in Chinese for the past three hours and Shanghai’s notoriously humid summers. But at only half past noon, my day was not nearly over. Like any good American, I knew the solution: I needed coffee.

Relying on my phone as navigator, I set out in search of the nearest Starbucks (known locally as Xingbake). A decade ago, this might have proven a challenge. But lucky for me, international chains like Starbucks have recently come to see the potential in China’s coffee market. The country is now home to 1,500 Starbucks stores in 90 cities. Other brands have followed Starbucks’ lead, from the UK’s Costa Coffee to South Korea’s Maan Coffee and Caffé Bene.

When the familiar mermaid logo came into view, my heart leaped with joy–but these coffee shops are not primarily targeting expats like me. Rather, the main coffee market in China is the young and upwardly-mobile middle class who live in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. And though the Chinese drink an average of four cups of coffee a year, which pales in comparison to the U.S. citizen’s average of four cups a day, the sheer size of China’s population ensures a large customer base.

Coffee is not really new to China. Some historians trace coffee’s first appearance in the region to the late 19th century, when it was introduced by French missionaries to Yunnan province. More than two hundred years later, the first Starbucks opened in Beijing in 1999. Since then, coffee’s climb to the top of the beverage food chain has been swift. Today, Starbucks plans to double its store count in the country by 2019. Costa and McDonald’s McCafe are expanding as well, and even KFC is throwing its hat into the cuppa ring.

But it’s not just the big chains that see China as an attractive coffee market. An independent coffee scene is brewing. Local coffee shops tend to boast higher quality coffee in order to attract customers. The independent coffee culture has especially gained popularity in urban areas like Shanghai’s Jing’an district and Beijing’s traditional alleyways (known locally as hutongs), where coffee has been around for longer. Still, big chains are king: Starbucks commands 60 percent of the market, with McCafe controlling 13 percent and Costa 11 percent.

In a culture that has favored tea for about 2,700 years, why this sudden thirst for java? The trend seems in part a result of China’s rapid urbanization and growing overseas travel, which has exposed more people to the drink. But Starbucks does not owe all of its success to western influence. The company has thrived in part due to its ability to tailor its business to the whims of local culture.

Most Chinese people have still yet to adjust to coffee’s bitter taste. Sweet and milky drinks like frappuccinos and lattes are local favorites. In addition to the lattes and espressos typical of Starbucks around the world, you’ll find unique items such as green tea frappuccinos and red bean scones on the menu. During the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival, Starbucks stores even serve mooncakes and zongzi, the traditional foods of these festivals, respectively.

For most customers, Starbucks’ high price tag includes more than a caffeine fix. A grande latte in China typically costs about 30RMB ($4.83), the equivalent of two or three cheap meals – or a day’s worth of food. By comparison, a grande latte costs $3.45 in American Starbucks stores. This puts a regular cup of joe out of the price range of most Chinese people. But in China, price often signifies quality, and so a high price only helps Starbucks to cultivate its image as a luxury brand. For those who can afford it, the expense is often worth toting an iconic Starbucks cup in hand.

And unlike in America, where we love to take our coffee to-go, Starbucks stores in China are hallowed as a kind of “third place”–a spot to leisure outside of work or home. Chinese customers enter a Starbucks with the intention of savoring their coffee and relaxing, or of lounging on the stores’ couches and chatting with friends. In other words, a Starbucks in China is a destination, rather than a stop along the way.

Unaware of the cultural intricacies I had walked in on, I looked up at the menu board for my beloved iced latte. Instead, a drawing of a green-colored cup caught my eye. I stepped up to the counter, where I was immediately directed to the resident English-speaking cashier. “Wo yao zhong bei hongdou mocha xing bing le,” I attempted. “In English,” the cashier said, unable to make sense of my rudimentary pronunciation. I sighed: “One grande red bean green tea frappuccino, please.” At least I’m trying the local cuisine, right?

Victoria Sgarro is an art research intern at National Geographic and a coffee fan. You can find her on Twitter @trsgarro.