January 30, 2023

What is the most popular signature coffee drink in China?


Around the world, many coffee shops lean on unique or signature drinks, which vary from region to region. These specially-crafted beverages can help a coffee business to stand out and drive its brand identity, and often make use of local or seasonal ingredients.

As with many other markets, drinks like these are becoming more common in the Chinese coffee sector. And with China’s coffee market experiencing considerable growth in recent years, signature beverages (or “特调咖啡” in Chinese) are becoming a key category.

So, which kinds of coffee shops offer these beverages, and what are some of the most popular options? I spoke with two local coffee shop owners to find out more.

You may also like our article on why coffee delivery is so popular in China.

A type of signature coffee drink in China made with milk.

The Chinese coffee sector has come a long way since Nescafé launched in the country in the 1980s. Historically, China has been a tea-drinking country, but in recent years, coffee consumption has increased – particularly in larger first-tier cities. In fact, Shanghai is home to some 8,000 coffee shops – the highest number of any city in the world.

The substantial growth of China’s coffee market is largely thanks to the growing influence of Chinese millennials, who are much more likely to be exposed to Western culture. In turn, this has helped spur the popularity of Western-style coffee shops in the country, which often serve signature beverages.

Although it’s difficult to know when exactly signature coffee drinks started to appear on Chinese coffee shop menus, it’s fair to estimate that it was sometime in the early 2010s. This was when more and more Chinese competitors started to take part in the World Barista Championship, which includes a signature drink course.

Tan Lei is the owner of Coffee Surround, a coffee shop in Shanghai. They say that signature coffee drinks can help to introduce more consumers to specialty coffee. 

“[Because of our tea-drinking history], coffee is quite foreign to many Chinese consumers,” Tan says. “Signature coffee drinks have additional flavours which can be more palatable for consumers.

“Moreover, signature beverages allow coffee brands to differentiate from one another and stand out,” Tan adds.

One of the most popular signature drinks is the “dirty” coffee, which is simply a double shot of espresso poured on top of cold milk. This creates a marbling effect as the espresso slowly mixes with the milk, which leads many coffee shops to serve these drinks in glasses or clear plastic takeaway cups.

Although Luckin and Starbucks are by far the most popular coffee chains in China, it is often independent coffee shops driving this trend. Some prominent Chinese specialty coffee shops – such as Manner, Seesaw, and M Stand – have “classic dirty” coffees on their menus, as well as serving seasonal variations which include different flavourings and sweeteners.

Recently, in larger cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, more and more specialty coffee shops have been focusing on milk-based signature beverages. These coffee businesses often promote these drinks on popular Chinese social media and shopping platforms, including Little Red Book (“小红书” in Chinese) and TikTok (“斗音” in Chinese).

For example, Next Door’s Workshop (“隔壁工坊” in Chinese) in Guangzhou serves a signature cold brew which includes Sumatra Mandheling coffee, caramel syrup, full fat milk, iced sweet red beans, and lychee.

Chenyang “Vanilla” Li (“李晨旸” in Chinese) is the owner of Kokomo Coffee in Chengdu. 

“The third wave coffee market is growing fast in China, so more and more people are starting to drink coffee every day,” she says. “In turn, many coffee shops are trying to make a range of drinks which suit a number of taste preferences.

“If you mix coffee with juice or other flavours [to make a signature drink], coffee can be more palatable to a wider range of consumers,” she adds. “People are becoming more used to drinking flat whites or americanos every day, so when you serve signature drinks, you can add something special to their daily routines and let them try something different.”

A signature coffee drink in the hand of a Chinese consumer.

Culinary and regional influences in Chinese signature coffee drinks

Milk-based coffee beverages are by far the most popular drinks in Chinese coffee shops. Many consumers also order additional syrups and sweeteners, including fruit and floral flavourings.

However, signature drinks can often vary according to different regions and climates. In warmer areas of the country such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Nanjing, where temperatures can reach up to 40°C (104°F) in summer, colder signature drinks are often popular.

Many of these include cold brew or espresso, as well as sparkling water, sodas, and homemade fruit jams – which are particularly popular among younger consumers. In other coffee shops in first-tier cities, fruit flavours like orange, grapefruit, and peach are particularly popular.

In line with its history of tea consumption, many signature coffee drinks are influenced by milk and bubble tea beverages – which are both hugely popular in China. In fact, it’s estimated that sales of bubble tea in the country are around 140 billion yuan (US $20 billion) every year.

Similar to milk and bubble tea drinks, some signature coffee beverages also have a dense layer of milk foam on top, which can be made by steaming milk, using a cocktail shaker, or making “cheese foam”. The latter is a common addition to cheese tea, which is a popular iced drink believed to have originated in Taiwan.

The addition of foam not only helps to create different textures to the drink – it also adds a visual element which is becoming increasingly popular among younger consumers. In addition to this, some baristas will add dried fruits or flowers as a garnish, which enhances the visual appeal of the drink even more.

Certain types of plant milks have also become more popular in Chinese signature coffee beverages. For instance, specialty coffee chain M Stand recently launched an iced coconut milk latte and a coconut milk “dirty” latte, which are both served in a coconut shell.

Is there a wider market for these beverages?

It’s undeniable that China’s coffee market is growing. According to CBNData 2021’s white paper on trends in the country’s coffee market, around 60% of white-collar workers in the country drink three cups of coffee every week

Moreover, per capita coffee consumption in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen is now comparable to that in some regions of Japan and the US – indicating significant growth.

Tan believes that as overall coffee consumption grows, so will the signature beverage sector.

“Many independent coffee shop owners and baristas are planning to leave first-tier cities and move back to their hometowns,” they say. “[It’s expected that] they will bring these types of drinks to smaller cities and towns.”

In recent years, specialty coffee brands like SeeSaw and M Stand have opened locations in second-tier cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou – indicating that the specialty coffee market is certainly growing. Both coffee chains serve a range of signature drinks, including “dirty” coffees and fruit-infused iced americanos.

Furthermore, as more wealthy Chinese expats are expected to move to other countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, we could see Chinese signature coffee beverages have more of an influence on these countries’ markets.

In fact, for many Chinese coffee brands, expansion into other Southeast Asian markets is common. Many of these companies already have a sound knowledge of these different cultures and their taste preferences, which allows them to develop and market beverages accordingly.

For instance, Japanese and South Korean coffee drinkers also have similar taste preferences to Chinese consumers, which could present an opportunity for a wider market for Chinese signature drinks. 

Although most consumers in Japan prefer black coffees, more and more younger consumers are starting to order iced milk-based coffees. Similarly, iced americanos are popular among millennial South Korean coffee consumers.

A signature Moutai coffee at a coffee shop in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China.

The surge in coffee consumption across China’s major cities has pushed local brands – including both larger chains and smaller independent businesses – to innovate. A large part of this revolves around signature drinks, which can create a whole new sensory experience for consumers.

It’s clear that these drinks are popular with Chinese coffee consumers, and there is also potential for them to become more prominent in other markets. However, how much they will influence wider coffee consumption is still a question that needs to be answered.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring Hong Kong coffee culture.

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