Ta-ta tea, coffee is China's new cuppa

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  • Published 14.05.06

Beijing, May 14: For centuries, the Chinese have delighted in the simple rituals of making and serving tea. Now they are having to learn a new skill: the intricacies of producing a state-of-the-art cup of coffee.

So many of China’s middle classes have begun drinking cappuccino and caffe latte that the country’s labour ministry has declared an official skills shortage. About 10,000 trained coffee makers and servers are needed in Beijing and Shanghai alone, according to a government survey.

There is no lack of barmen and waiters looking for good jobs ? but most of them have never made a cup of coffee in their lives.

“Before, I worked in Chinese restaurants,” said James Gao, 24, who used to pour tea in his hometown of Shenyang in north-eastern China before moving to Beijing to work in a fashionable cafe.

“When I came here a few years ago, coffee was starting to become popular,” he said. “But it was very basic ? just instant varieties and coffee machines, where you just pushed one button and a coffee came out.

“But then tastes changed and it became more complicated. Now the bars all have huge coffee machines that make several different types of coffee. It’s really a skill to learn. You must study it.”

Like hundreds of others who have served tea all their lives, Gao had to take a course in coffee-making before he could start work at the Bookworm cafe. He learnt the names and origins of the beans, how to froth milk, and the difference between a cappuccino and a frappuccino.

Once barmen such as Gao have mastered the skill, they are likely to have a job for life. Since Starbucks first ventured into China six years ago, it has opened 230 branches across the country, and plans to open a further 10,000 outlets over the next few years.

“It traditionally has been a tea-drinking country, but we turned them into coffee drinkers,” Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, said of China earlier this year.

Although coffee’s bitter tang is an alien taste on the tongues of the tea-drinking nation, the burgeoning middle classes see coffee ? which, at the equivalent of ?2 a cup, costs as much as the daily wages of an unskilled labourer ? as an essential status symbol.

“People start drinking coffee because they think it’s the cool thing to do,” said Serena Lee, a 23-year-old manager of an English-language school. “It’s a statement. They feel sophisticated. Everyone is afraid of looking like a farmer.”