January 22, 2016

Barista Champion J. Zhang: Reinventing Specialty Coffee in China


China’s coffee landscape has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, but it’s not finished changing yet – particularly if 2014 China Barista Champion Jeremy Zhang has anything to do with it.

Back in 2000, I had my first cup of coffee. I was a teenager waiting with my dad in the only so-called “café” in the airport of my hometown, Shenyang. Coffee was considered a fashionable and mysterious beverage back then; people were told to add sugar and lift up their pinkie while holding the cup, but no one really knew what the drink was or what it should taste like. So out of curiosity, my dad ordered my first cup of it. At about US $15 for a glass of instant, it was an absolute rip-off. In fact, I didn’t even finish it because I couldn’t stand the bitter, astringent taste.

Today, coffee might still be fashionable but it’s much less mysterious – and much better quality. The country’s metropolitan areas are covered with chain stores like Starbucks and Costa Coffee. This is no longer just a tea-drinking country; specialty coffee is a trend, an affordable luxury.

However, turning coffee-drinking into a habit is an art, a movement. And this movement is exactly what 2014 China Barista Champion Jeremy Zhang is trying to achieve with his coffee shop Uni-Uni Roasters and Bakery and his retail brand M2M.

Recently, I spent a few days taking M2M’s coffee training class at Jeremy’s head office, hearing some exclusive stories, and learning about current issues in the industry.  Read on to find out what I learned.

Uni-Uni Roasters

Uni-Uni Roasters and Bakery, 10 Changjiang Garden, Xuanwu District, Nanjing, China.

Who Is Jeremy Zhang?

Jeremy is no ordinary barista. He spent his 20s studying and working in Melbourne, Australia. Having received a Master of Business from Monash University, he became the Buying Manager of a supermarket chain in Melbourne – and that’s when he became interested in coffee.

After he came back to China, he decided to compete since he saw no better way to learn, practice, and improve. He came 3rd in the 2013 China Barista Championship, and then won the championship in 2014.  He is also part of the Ninety Plus Maker Series programme, representing Juliette (Panama Gesha) alongside other champions such as Stefanos Domatiotis and Odd Steinar.

Ninety Plus Team

Ninety Plus team in Tokyo at SCAJ 2015. Jeremy is sat next to Yoshikazu Iwase right after he won the championship for the second time.

Yet Jeremy’s qualifications aren’t the only impressive thing about him. There’s also his dedication to spreading the knowledge of coffee. In Jeremy’s words, he aims to provide a platform on which young baristas can grow and on which all coffee lovers and coffee professionals can interact. And he does this through his coffee businesses.

Back in his hometown of Nanjing, he and his team run Uni-Uni Roasters and Bakery. There’s no trophy to be seen inside Uni-Uni. Jeremy still makes sure he’s on bar as often as possible, but he believes the focus should be on the coffee and the service, not on him.

Uni-Uni roasters

Uni-Uni’s logo on a takeaway cup.

Last year, he also founded his coffee bean retail brand M2M, from which he offers training. M2M stands for “Made 2 Measure”. You can learn a lot by dissecting this name: “Made To” reflects a mass market offering, mainly espresso roast and other regular options, but “To Measure” is is more experimental – it can be competition beans, a certain microlot, or just an experimental blend.

What Does Coffee Mean in China?

To understand the power of Jeremy’s work, you have to understand the context in which he operates: that of a conservative country. The coffee shop used to be a medium to express people’s desire for a Western lifestyle. Customers used to come to cafés more for the environment and the Wi-Fi connection than for the coffee itself.

Today, “to open a cafe” still remains many youngsters’ dream, but a slightly different dream – now, it’s to offer the best cup of coffee. Thanks to technology, the Chinese specialty coffee industry has no lack of information. If anything, it sometimes seems to overflow. On my most recent café crawl, I noticed that most cafés have the terms “single origin”, “pour over”, and “single origin espresso” on their menus.

Yet Jeremy questions whether, if these café owners were to take the menu outside the shop and walk 100 meters down the street, the people they met during that walk would understand what these terms mean. It would be an interesting experiment to do because, in reality, not many people understand the ins and outs of specialty coffee. There’s been more focus on having the flashiest equipment, like an EK43, Black Eagle, or Slayer, than on the coffee itself – or on coffee education. At a time when the industry is starting to talk about “fourth wave” at world level, Jeremy believes that, in China, “third wave” has only just begun.

Jeremy Zhang

Jeremy teaching M2M coffee training class at his head office in Nanjing.

Educating Forces: Customer Service and Communication

Jeremy believes the key to spreading knowledge of specialty coffee – to creating that platform he’s so passionate about – is education through customer service and communication.

Customer service, to him, goes beyond a smile. It’s a system, a streamlined process. Take his quality control: Jeremy believes the standard should not be a point, but a range on the spectrum. In other words, is the worst cup made by this barista still in the servable range? The service system at his café is all about giving the customer an overall experience as well as satisfying individual need.

Jeremy Zhang

Jeremy Zhang working on bar at his café.

Communication also plays a big role in a barista’s daily job. Jeremy believes that good communication between the barista and customer is based on solid product knowledge and the willingness to communicate or educate. Quite often, baristas tend to induce customers instead of guiding them. Yet that is better than when the barista asks, in robotic tone, “How was your coffee?” “Was your coffee good?” Has anyone, in the world, responded with more than a routine “Yes, it was good, thanks”? Does the conversation ever move on from there?

Jeremy Zhang and Jianing Du

Jeremy and Head Barista Jianing Du working together at Uni-Uni.

By challenging his team to communicate with consumers, to educate them, and to serve them good coffee, Jeremy builds his platform for the spread of specialty coffee.

Growing Together As A Team

With Jeremy, it’s never just about himself. He’s considering competing again this year. But instead of focusing solely on the competition, this time, it will be all about team building – about moving forward together to recognise, to improve, and to innovate.

Charling (Qiling) Wang

Jeremy’s team member, Charling (Qiling) Wang, China Brewers Cup 2015 champion.

Jeremy already has a star team under his wings, including China Brewers Cup 2015 Champion Charling (Qiling) Wang, China Barista Championship 2015 3rd Place Jianing Du, and China Barista Championship 2015 5th Place Chris (Yifeng) Chen.

Chris once told me that one of their regular activities at their head office is to randomly pick a bean, give each other 10 minutes of preparation time, and then produce a barista championship competition routine (excluding signature drink). This tests and consolidates the team’s product knowledge and skills. With such rigorous training, it’s no surprise that they are excelling.

Chris (Yifeng) Chen

Chris (Yifeng) Chen working his routine at China Barista Championship 2015.

Competition is a process of learning, conceptualising, and identifying. As the leader of the team, Jeremy hopes to prove that, once again, all of them can achieve better and better.

Jianing Du

Jianing Du doing her routine at the China Barista Championship 2015, where she placed 3rd.

Sharing is Caring

At the beginning of M2M’s training class, Charling Wang (China Brewers Cup 2015 Champion) said to everyone: “There’s only one requirement from us; when you finish his class, please share everything you learn here”.

There is no doubt that, in the world of specialty coffee, Jeremy Zhang is a perfect role model. He shares his coffee knowledge – and passion – with his staff, with his customers, with everyone he can.

Jeremy Zhang giving a speech

Jeremy Zhang giving a speech at a coffee event in China.

Edited by T. Newton.

Feature Photo Credit:  Ninetyplus Coffee

All photos by D. Wang.

Perfect Daily Grind.