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China’s Rasta Coffee Roots

Posted by on Apr 10, 2013

Wasgwan coffee lovers.  Today I’m going to tell the tale of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee in China, or 牙买加蓝山咖啡.  We won’t talk much about the coffee itself, because it isn’t that interesting. However, what it can tell us about Chinese coffee drinkers makes this bean more of a crystal ball than anything else.

It all starts with a small group of mountains bathed in the Caribbean sun between Kingston and Port Antonio.  This represents one of the smallest, and most famous coffee growing regions in the world. While the coffee rarely receives attention from coffee experts other than a scoff, it can fetch a price in China as high as RMB300 ($48 USD) per cup. Why? The small growing region yields a supply that is eclipsed by it’s demand.  Pair that with an intense love of name brands and flaunting cash and you’ve got a small percentage of a massive population essentially drinking their money.  There is nothing wrong with coffee from Jamaica, but once it is separated from the luxury brand name and put in a cup, it is painfully average. “Gently used 2-door Honda Civic with cloth interior” average.

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Coffee, for most in China, is still a luxury item.  If you look around a local coffee shop you’ll see Chinese professionals dressed to the nines, expats, and the young generation of lucky duckies who’s BMW and or Mercedes is parked around the corner.  In the south, and in massive urban areas like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen all the empty retail spots are filled with one of the mega-chains from either North America or Japan.  In China’s 2nd and 3rd tier cities (approx. 400 million total population), where the residents are just as wealthy but have much less exposure to outside culture, Blue Mountain is one of the only coffee brands they know.  Most local Chinese café-goers that can afford a typical $5 coffee can also afford the outrageous $32 coffee, and often get sold on experiencing this “supreme luxury beverage”.

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While the high rollers pay for 100% Blue Mountain 1  in fancy cafés, high-end restaurants, and luxury hotels, many grocery and even convenience stores sell instants and blends as low as 1RMB ($.016 USD) per sachet.  A search for Blue Mountain coffee on Taobao, China’s most popular shopping site, brings up 20,000+ products including RMB26000 ($4200 USD) 70KG barrels of green beans all the way down to a single serving of instant, freeze dried crystals. Do the same search with Ethiopian coffee, specialty coffee, Indonesian coffee, and espresso, add the total products together and you’ll be half way to catching up with the Rastafarian retailers.

So what is the lesson here? Well Ms. Cleo would tell you plain and simple that the Chinese market is much more concerned with what their drink is called than what it tastes like.  I think it is more a matter of maturity.  The market for specialty coffee in China is still in its infant, borderline embryonic stage where coffee drinkers are just starting to look past the name brands and explore what good coffee means to the rest of the world. It isn’t necessarily a new concept for them – they have been creating some of the most complex and beautiful tea drinks since most of our cultures, well, weren’t even cultures yet.  We’re starting to see the emergence of Chinese made small roasters along with copies of the most well-known Japanese brewing systems, but few have been able to put them to good work.

*Photos stolen from Baidu, NatGeo and Gimme! Coffee

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