Hong Kong's Rising Coffee Culture Over The Past Decade
When the Tatler Dining team first came up with the challenge of writing a weekly round-up of new cafés, it was unclear how long it could be sustained. It was midway through 2020, a year defined by the pandemic, yet despite restaurant closures, bar bans and an uncertain future for hospitality, we noticed a curious trend emerging: the rise of the humble coffee shop was quickly starting to represent pockets of normality in a time that was—and continues to be—anything but ordinary. At weekends, flocks of coffee geeks and influencers vie to be among the first to capture and post about the latest café concept, offering their two cents on everything from the quality of the cakes to the complexity of their coffee menu, and swapping tips on the best times to arrive to snag that most photogenic corner or an off-menu drink to immortalise on their feed.
Coffee is big business right now, even as imports fell in 2020. Restaurant operator JIA Group launched Between, its first café concept, in late 2020, while Hysan Place, Taikoo Place and IFC Mall have all hosted coffee festivals and events this year, giving a boost to local roasters and café brands. And as life in Hong Kong slowly returns to something akin to pre-pandemic regularity, venues continue to pop up across the city, from Central and Western District to bucolic New Territories neighbourhoods.
Between January and August 2021 alone, more than 120 coffee shops opened across Hong Kong; the majority are independently owned, with only a fraction being backed by brands (eg Bowtie Coffee, opened by the millennial-targeted insurance firm Bowtie) or supported by larger organisations (for instance Curator Creative Café, one of the latest, which is in the new M+ museum), and range from tiny, standing-room-only coffee stands or takeaway windows to spacious, design-led establishments where the aesthetics do the talking. They join new venues launched by existing international players, from San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee to Japan’s Omotesando Koffee.
The top three districts for café openings over the last year are Sham Shui Po, Central and Wan Chai; but speciality coffee—that which is made with the highest-quality beans of known provenance—is also finding its way eastwards on the island, with the likes of Monochrome Coffee and Lazzy Project in Shau Kei Wan, and to far-flung communities such as Ma Wan, where Sol Committee, which overlooks Tsing Ma Bridge, does a thriving business. In Kowloon City, now more easily accessible thanks to the newly opened Sung Wong Toi MTR station, at least four café concepts launched between May and July—the latest, Yukkuri, is a sepia-toned space with washed-out vintage wood furniture and a carefully curated bread and cake menu to go with its speciality teas and coffees.
One of the first people to write extensively about the curious surge of new venues is Helen Kwok, better known by her Instagram handle @f.o.v_. A designer and architect by trade, Kwok and her eye for detail have garnered quite a following—her 87,000-plus followers have come to rely on her diligent documenting of the newest players on the scene. She finds them through a mix of tip-offs from followers, frequent online browsing and old-fashioned roaming. (In the “coffee influencer” world, she is not alone, with Instagrammers such as @lizeatery and @coffeenow.today also putting in the work to showcase Hong Kong’s buzzing cafe scene.) In 2020, Kwok collated her finds—she photographs, writes about and does the odd illustration of them—into the inaugural Hong Kong Coffee Guide (published by The New Norm Studio), a 224-page tome which featured 50 top coffee shops as well as interviews with industry names. Given the number of new venues that have come onto the scene since its publication in October, Kwok is already hinting at a second edition.
For her, the sheer pace of openings has been matched by a growing fascination with coffee knowledge. “The coffee scene in Hong Kong has bloomed over the last ten years,” she says. “I recall that other than big coffee shop chains, there were perhaps only five to ten independent coffee shops I could name a decade ago.” She points also to the general awareness of brewing methods, the provenance of coffee beans and the complexities of taste as being much greater now compared to the early 2000s. “Other than thinking that coffee must be bitter, people have started to learn that coffee can taste like tea—that it can be floral, fruity or even winey, depending on its origin. This also relates to the beginning of the pursuit of single-origin beans and hand-poured speciality coffee.”
Two decades ago, coffee connoisseurs could only rely on the likes of Coffee Assembly (Hong Kong’s original roastery), Café Corridor (which opened in 2001 and still serves a proper brew in its tiny Causeway Bay location) and Crema, one of the very few places to serve speciality coffee in Kowloon. Many chains you see today, from The Cupping Room to The Coffee Academics, were only founded recently—2011 and 2012 respectively; the former, launched in an unassuming shop in Stanley Plaza by Kapo Chiu, who would go on to win second and third place in the 2014 and 2017 World Barista Championships (WBC), which coincided with the first time the WBC-sanctioned Hong Kong Barista Championships were held. According to research firm Helgi Analytics, which analysed Hong Kong consumer data from between 1961 and 2013, coffee consumption per capita reached an all-time high of 3.2kg in 2011—three times more than in 2001.
“The Cupping Room was one of the early pioneers,” says Sophie Chan, founder of the Coffee Daily platform and a certified sensory judge for the Hong Kong Barista Championships. “They were one of the first to really achieve a balance between their coffee and food offerings. When you look back, quantity [of coffee shops] has increased a lot and quality has been upped as well.” She points out how hand-drip single-origin coffee and espresso tonics are now very much part of the café menu vernacular; but having written about Hong Kong’s coffee scene for the past eight years, she also recognises that there is a risk of over-saturation when there is still so much more potential in terms of quality and diversity.
Morii, a coffee shop and jewellery studio (Photo: Courtesy of Helen Kwok/ @f.o.v)
Zizizi, a tattoo parlour with brews (Photo: Courtesy of Helen Kwok/ @f.o.v)
So Coffee & Gin, which doubles as a sewing workshop (Photo: Courtesy of Helen Kwok/ @f.o.v)
Slash, which offers both coffee and cocktails (Photo: Courtesy of Helen Kwok/ @f.o.v)
Clean is a café-slash-launderette (Photo: Courtesy of Helen Kwok/ @f.o.v)
While the proliferation of café openings has breathed new life into the city, both Kwok and Chan hope that newcomers will be even more experimental. “I think it is quite disappointing sometimes to keep seeing the same interior design language being duplicated in every new shop,” Kwok says, though she understands the constraints that owners have when it comes to high rents and the risks that come with being a little more left field. “But I still think it is important for a coffee shop to have its unique identity and character.”
Some of the more recent cafés have sought to differentiate themselves by pairing coffee with other activities. Both Chan and Kwok highlight Slash in Sham Shui Po—a coffee shop by day, and wine and cocktail bar by night—as one of the more original projects they’ve seen, while dual-purpose enterprises such as Clean (a sustainability-focused launderette), Zizizi (tattoo parlour), Morii (art and jewellery studio), Mixo (florist) and So Coffee & Gin (gallery and sewing workshop) are creating new spaces for relaxation and fun. You even see it the other way around—some bars, such as Casky in Wan Chai, have started to introduce sophisticated coffee programmes to their menus, enticing an entirely new set of customers through their doors, while Barcode in Central combines a coffee shop out front with a hidden speakeasy in the back. “Before, you’d have those which only focus on coffee, but now you see things merging,” says Chan. “I can see how [café owners] observe and borrow the techniques that work, so that within the whole industry you’ll find a lot more mutual respect and interaction.”
With many more coffee contenders waiting in the wings, it may be some time before we reach peak café. “There is so much potential in Hong Kong’s coffee scene,” Chan says. “Plus, there are still many neighbourhoods that need a really great coffee shop.”