I was told something a few months ago by a roaster from the UK that had just done a tour of Asia and Australia. He said to me that he thought that Australia was 4-5 years behind the US in terms of gourmet coffee and that Asia was the same lag behind Australia. For someone that was here for only a few days in many places he seemed to capture the status of the situation very well.
When I first got in contact with Mark about doing something for Coffeegeek he was immediately enthusiastic about getting a more global perspective about the gourmet coffee market. Most people probably think that outside the US and Europe, the closest Asia has come to coffee is that we produce some fine coffee in Sumatra and India and we produce some lower grade coffee from Vietnam primarily used as fillers by the large companies. And of course we have the eccentric Japanese that buy up almost the entire stock of Jamaican Blue Mountain. Whilst this is true, something else has happened in the last decade in that so called retail gourmet coffee stores have arrived in Asia.
Having been based in Hong Kong for almost 8 years now, I can see that many places in Asia took coffee on board and in terms of volume of coffee stores, caught up pretty quickly with the worldwide trend. Of course like a thick blanket of heavy snow, Starbucks suddenly appeared in many places. You just went to bed one night and when you woke up there they were.
In Hong Kong in a little over 2 years Starbucks have opened 35 stores which, until they arrived was the total of gourmet coffee stores in this unique place. The local press in this part of the world got excited and whipped the public into frenzy about Asiaís newfound coffee culture. However many years on after the so-called coffee boom in Asia there is still something missing, what would prompt a roaster from the UK to make such an accurate judgment on the scene?
The answer to this lies in something that was drummed into me whilst I was still a snotty nosed fresh faced 12 year old by my Junior School English teacher 'quality not quantity'. HK must have now close to 80 gourmet coffee stores but frankly it is very seldom I buy any coffee anywhere, and if I do it is more often than not somebody I supply equipment, coffee and training to.
I feel that in Asia the gourmet coffee market, up until now, has not been done very well at all; we lack depth. Sure there are places like Japan and Singapore that have some real quality coffee but there are places that donít. We have a false coffee culture. I would like to address the whole culture bit in a later article but for now I am hoping that you will take my word for it.
This therefore brings me onto what I do here in HK. I have been here now for 8 years, the first 2 years was my first job out of university and it was with the first gourmet coffee company in HK. After that the entrepreneurial spirit drove me to start a coffee business at the tender age of 23. 6 years later we have now evolved from a retail company with 3 stores to one of Asiaís first specialty roasters and agents for La Marco and Astoria.
After trawling through chat forums it appears that coffee (and more precisely coffee knowledge) does something to a person, it makes you want to get out into the world and try and improve the situation, it makes you want to knock each barista on the head that makes you a bad drink and say 'there really is no excuse for that drink you just made!'.
Well for those of you that want to but just can't I would like to share with you through my column what it is like to actually be doing this. Before you get even more excited my first piece of wisdom is - the wages are terrible and you will get frustrated beyond belief day after day. However it is this frustration that eventually drives you, so that each day you can get up out of bed and try and change the world, well something like that anyway.
So I would like to offer you CoffeeGeeks a slightly different angle, I would like share with you some of the workings of a small business, what is happening around Asia and of course I need to practice what I preach so a few articles about coffee and equipment. Anything else? Oh yeah, I'm 29, originally from England, I collect vintage watches, annoy La Marzocco a lot with my so-called 'technical suggestions' and promote Fair Trade Coffee.