Exploring Hong Kong coffee culture
While its historic relationship with tea might spring to mind first, Hong Kong has a vibrant and diverse coffee culture. Through the 20th and 21st century, the city’s coffee culture has understandably been influenced by cafés in other major consuming countries in the Asia-Pacific – including mainland China, Japan, and Taiwan.
Today, Hong Kong is highly regarded in the global specialty coffee community, with plenty of capacity for innovation and experimentation. In the recent past, its signature drinks and unique techniques (such as the invention of “The Dirty” and the practice of freezing milk) have inspired similar developments in other markets.
To learn more about these trends and the future of Hong Kong’s specialty coffee scene, we spoke with two industry professionals based in the region. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our article on the rise of Hong Kong in the specialty coffee world.
The traditional influence of tea
China is widely believed to be the first country to have commercially grown and consumed tea.
For hundreds of years, it has been a popular drink for the majority of the country’s population, with estimates that it consumes some 40% of all tea produced in the world.
In 1839, during the First Opium War, the British invaded China and occupied the island of Hong Kong. Upon colonising the city, the British began trading goods to and from the region, including tea (which saw Britain’s tea consumption increase dramatically as availability improved).
British presence in Hong Kong meant that tea houses there were naturally influenced by traditions and trends in the UK over time. For instance, the British tradition of adding milk to tea soon became commonplace in Hong Kong, and later influenced tea shops in the city to develop their own signature drinks.
By the 1950s, the practice of drinking tea daily was so strong in Hong Kong that many cha chaan teng (which directly translates to “tea restaurant” in English) could be found there.
However, around this time, coffee was starting to become popular in Hong Kong.
At the time, it was enjoyed more as an after-dinner beverage, made with dark roasted coffee blends that often included robusta. Most consumers enjoyed their beverages with milk as a result.
Consumers would typically buy coffee from a select few roasters in Hong Kong. One of the best examples is Olympia Graeco Egyptian Coffee, which first opened in 1927 and still operates to this day.
The second and third waves of coffee in Hong Kong
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, other major consuming markets around the world began to have a greater influence on Hong Kong’s coffee culture. Notable brands like Seattle’s Pacific Coffee and the Japanese company Ueshima Coffee Co. were helping to shift the city’s perception of coffee.
This saw consumers start to accept coffee as a beverage that could be consumed anytime and anywhere, rather than just a drink for after dinner. Not long after this, the coffee shop began to grow in prominence as a “third place”, with major chains such as Starbucks opening locations through the 2000s.
As coffee became more and more popular, the third wave in Hong Kong began to emerge in the early 2010s, with an increasing focus on quality and more transparency.
Gary Au is the co-founder of Hong Kong’s Urban Coffee Roaster and the 2021 Hong Kong Coffee in Good Spirits Champion. He tells me how Japan heavily influenced Hong Kong’s coffee culture throughout the 2010s, particularly with regards to brewing equipment.
“As more consumers were ordering pour over coffee, rather than milk-based drinks, Japanese coffee equipment brands such as Hario, Kalita, and Origami became more popular.”
Sophie Chan is the co-founder of online blog and platform Coffee Daily. She is also a certified Sensory Judge for the Hong Kong Barista Championships and Hong Kong Coffee in Good Spirits. She points out how Japan has also influenced the aesthetics of Hong Kong’s coffee shops.
“People describe some Hong Kong cafés as having a ‘Japanese minimalist style’. They have more cozy, soft, and wood tones.”
However, Gary believes that Taiwanese coffee culture has influenced Hong Kong coffee shops more than any other East Asian country.
“Taiwan plays a more important role in Hong Kong’s coffee scene: Taiwan and Hong Kong have relatively similar cultural backgrounds and languages.”
Consumer trends in Hong Kong
Sophie explains that specialty coffee has grown exponentially over the past few years in Hong Kong.
“Around 10 years ago, there were only a handful of specialty coffee shops in Hong Kong, but now you can find them even in remote areas,” she says. “For the past year alone, there have been at least between five and 10 shops opening every month across the region.”
As specialty coffee culture has developed throughout Hong Kong, so too have consumers’ coffee preferences.
“Consumers are now more open-minded about pour over coffee,” Gary explains. “Coffee drinkers and home brewers are more sophisticated and informed than ever before. We’re also seeing more home roasters.
“Moreover, using single origin coffee for espresso and serving numerous hand-brewed alternatives is becoming more common in most Hong Kong cafés.”
In terms of consumer behaviour in coffee shops, Sophie explains that this varies widely, depending on the specific location in Hong Kong.
“For coffee shops in the central business district, consumers are definitely more convenience-focused,” Sophie says. “But more consumers are using coffee shops as a third space where they can spend half the day and take pictures to post on social media.”
For this reason, milk-based beverages still remain popular among consumers in Hong Kong. “Photogenic” coffee posts have become increasingly popular on social media platforms, most notably Instagram and TikTok, in recent years.
“Visiting coffee shops to socialise has become the weekend routine of many people in Hong Kong,” Gary explains.
This has led business owners in the region to design and map out their coffee shops accordingly, as Sophie tells me.
“In Hong Kong, most of the menus and the decor are designed for people spending time in cafés, rather than a grab-and-go system.”
Hong Kong’s signature coffee beverages
As with any thriving specialty coffee market, Hong Kong has developed some unique drink over time. But the region’s traditional tea roots have also influenced popular drinks on the modern Hong Kong coffee shop scene.
“Taiwanese bubble tea is popular in Hong Kong,” Gary explains. “Lemon iced tea or milk tea from the cha chaan teng are also signature drinks in the region.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, and is also known as boba or tapioca milk tea. Generally, bubble tea is a milk and tea-based beverage that contains both sweeteners and boba (small balls made from tapioca starch).
“Hong Kong’s milk tea is unique because it includes evaporated or condensed milk,” Gary adds. “The strong black tea is strained through a fine sieve, which creates a smooth, sweet beverage.”
However, Gary adds that there are plenty of innovative coffee drinks, too.
“Hong Kong is well known for its dynamic mix of Western and Eastern cultures. The yuenyeung is an example of how these two cultures are blended together,” Gary tells me.
The drink is believed to have originated in a tea house in Hong Kong in 1952 and contains both milk tea and coffee.
“The espresso tonic has also definitely gained popularity over the past two years,” says Sophie. “Baristas use various tonics; some are flavoured, others are made locally.”
Tonic water is a carbonated soft drink containing quinine, which gives the drink a distinctive sharp and bitter taste. When combined with espresso, the drink is surprisingly refreshing.
“The Dirty is also a very popular drink in Hong Kong,” Sophie explains. This milk-based beverage is made by pouring espresso onto cold milk, without adding any ice.
Sophie adds: “Baristas are experimenting with milk to make it more condensed for a richer texture, including freezing milk.”
Hong Kong’s growing innovation
Thanks in no small part to the speed at which new specialty coffee shops are opening in Hong Kong, there is an abundance of creativity and innovation in the city’s coffee culture.
Sophie explains: “The menus in coffee shops in Hong Kong are becoming more diverse. There are no longer only offering quick and simple coffees, or only creating spaces where you can work or relax.
“Instead, cafés are more experimental spaces. The diversity of signature drinks offered in specialty coffee shops is continuing to increase.”
Gary says this is down to the region’s passion for coffee.
“The people of Hong Kong are well known for their energy, endurance, and perseverance,” he says. “Our roasters (such as Craft Coffee and Cupping Room) and baristas consistently perform well in international competitions.
“Many experienced baristas in Hong Kong are also industry leaders in mainland China and in southeast Asia.”
He goes on to tell me that in the domestic market, more and more roasters and cafés are developing products which have the potential to sell well in other markets.
“For example, my team and I created the world’s first canned cold brew coffee tonic,” he says. “We created a ready to drink product because we’re hoping to see more people enjoy better quality coffee beverages in a more convenient way.
“After that, the world’s first sugar-free coffee gin liqueur, called Pale Ink, was launched in November 2021. This was a collaboration between Perfume Trees Gin and my team.”
So what’s next for Hong Kong’s specialty coffee culture?
“There are more and more new concepts and ideas generated through collaborations with other local non-coffee brands,” Gary says. “Specialty coffee will continue to prosper and gain more market share. As of now, the supply is still larger than the demand, but I expect to see this change in the coming years.”
Over the past 70 years, Hong Kong’s coffee culture has changed dramatically.
With continuing innovation, the city is now home to a number of unique signature beverages, award-winning baristas, and an increasingly experimental café scene. But what will come next?
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on café-hopping in Hong Kong.
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