BEIJING’S COFFEE CULTURE 

A new caffeine craze takes off in the Chinese capital

A Spoonful of Sugar. Photography Zachary Bako

A Spoonful of Sugar. Photography Zachary Bako

The phrase “not for all the tea in China” exists for a reason. There are coffee-drinking cultures and there are tea cultures—and China is most definitely the latter. Steeped in the country’s history, tea is so inextricably linked to the rhythm of Chinese life that even with increased Western influence there has never been much thirst for its caffeine rival. As such, expats and travelers were once forced to consume either instant coffee or give up their daily ritual for a period of time. However, that has begun to change. In Beijing’s rapidly gentrifying hutongs, or traditional alleyways and courtyards, a coffee counter culture is brewing with a handful of small, quality spots that are stealthily introducing coffee into tea’s grand citadel. 

While many of Beijing’s original hutongs have been demolished over the years, others have survived, including Dashilar, one of the oldest neighborhoods, which is now experiencing an unlikely rebirth. Within its labyrinthine lanes, where tiny teahouses serving wild brews once dominated, a wave of coffee bars have emerged that are much like those in the hipper areas of many Western cities—albeit with a Chinese twist. A Spoonful of Sugar, a hidden spot built from recycled materials including chairs from old rice casks, serves a pure expression of China’s fledgling coffee culture with its organic beans, grown—somewhat surprisingly—in Yunnan, a province with a rich past in tea production.    

Ocean Grounds. Photography Aaron Berkovich

Ocean Grounds. Photography Aaron Berkovich

Another less hidden, but no less sought after, spot is Ocean Grounds. A pioneer of quality coffee in Beijing, the café was once frequented only by caffeine-deprived foreigners. However, slowly but surely, the locals have started to arrive. Here, the coffee’s provenance is considered, the service is precise, and each cup is poured with care. At Ocean Grounds it is possible to witness tea culture—with its customary diligence, reverence, and ritual—now ironically being applied to coffee.

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