Our roving reporter Brian Williams travels a little further than usual and discovers plenty for travellers and ex-pats who are missing their home coffee comforts. Photo by Redd Angelo.
Walk into most coffee shops in Hong Kong and you could be in London, New York or Melbourne. The coffee culture here is very western in influence, with most cafés serving food that wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch – smashed avocado, eggs benedict and muesli all make regular appearances. You’ll also find your favourite coffee origins from around the world, most of them roasted locally.
What might surprise you are the prices, which can be twice what you’d expect to pay in London. Filter coffee in particular attracts a premium: it’s not uncommon to pay £10 for a single-origin pour-over. Despite the prices, the coffee scene is thriving, based around a series of small café-roaster chains and a smattering of independents. Most are located on Hong Kong Island’s north shore, but good coffee can be found all across the island as well as in Kowloon and the New Territories.
Coffee is seen as a western lifestyle choice in Hong Kong, and all things western attract a premium. With that in mind, we started our tour in the heart
of Hong Kong Island.
In a city full of mini-chains, we started at Barista Jam, a one-off that does a little bit of everything: it’s a roaster, retailer, equipment supplier and coffee shop. It’s located in the heart of Sheung Wan and is surrounded by towering skyscrapers. The compact spot is spread across two floors, and while it can feel a little cramped at times, it oozes character.
Downstairs, the café doubles as a coffee-bean emporium, while upstairs is also a showroom for imported coffee equipment, ranging from knock boxes to espresso machines. Seating is limited, with a few stools at the counter on the left as you enter and a couple of tables at the back. Upstairs a single, large communal table is surrounded by equipment stacked against the walls.
Hong Kong takes its speciality coffee seriously and, like everywhere we visited, Barista Jam does a full range of pour-overs as well the usual espresso-based drinks. There’s a house blend on espresso, three single origins on ice-drip and no fewer than 10 more available as filter, all of which are also available to buy as beans. After a lengthy discussion with the barista, we chose a honey-processed West Java from Indonesia, served in a very narrow glass flask with a small glass on the side. The coffee was bold and full of big flavours, well-rounded and balanced.
Another common theme in Hong Kong coffee shops is food. Barista Jam typifies many small establishments, with a little kitchen tucked behind the counter producing an impressive array of western food. The scrambled eggs on toast were done to perfection.
Barista Jam, Shop D, G/F,
126-128 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan; baristajam.com.hk
THE CUPPING ROOM
At the other end of the scale is The Cupping Room, a mini-chain of three shops in Central, Sheung Wan and Wan Chai. In recent years, the brand has become well-known in World Barista Championship circles, with Benny Wong finishing third in 2016’s World Brewers Cup, Chan Kwun Ho finishing fourth in the 2015 World Barista Championship and Kapo Chiu coming second in 2014.
We visited the Wan Chai branch, which in terms of aesthetics couldn’t be more different from Barista Jam. It’s all clean lines and uncluttered space, with an elegance veering towards the austere. Although it too is arranged over two floors, large glass windows flood the interior with light. Downstairs there’s a row of tables in the front window and a counter at the back. Upstairs, there’s another row of tables at the front, as well as a large, communal table. The Cupping Room offers speciality service to go with its speciality coffee. You’re greeted at the door and shown to a table, the barista returning to take your order.
Unusually for Hong Kong, The Cupping Room doesn’t roast its own coffee, choosing to import it from US roaster Sweet Bloom. A gleaming Victoria Arduino Black Eagle dispenses the house blend espresso, with a choice of five single origins on pour-over using a Melitta ceramic filter. There are also two specials that attract a premium, having been used in Dublin for the World Brewers Cup. We were recommended the Costa Rican, which arrived in a narrow-neck carafe. The coffee was easily the best we had on the trip: sweet, fruity and delicate, and more than holding its own as it cooled.
The Cupping Room, 32 Swatow Street, Wan Chai; facebook.com/cuppingroomwanchai
THE COFFEE ACADEMICS
This chain was started by Jennifer Liu in 2012 and has its flagship roastery/café in Causeway Bay. There are five branches in Hong Kong, including one in Repulse Bay and another in Kowloon in the massive Harbour City shopping complex in Tsim Sha Tsui. Further afield, there are branches in Singapore and Shanghai.
In look and feel, the branch in Wan Chai is probably the most western of all the coffee shops we visited – it wouldn’t be out of place in Soho or Shoreditch. If you’re looking for a late-night coffee fix, The Coffee Academics is for you, as it opens until 10pm during the week and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
As with The Cupping Room, The Coffee Academics places a premium on service, in this case with a glossy, 16-page brochure-cum-menu. This details the coffees on offer, plus the extensive food options including breakfast, lunch and desserts. We ordered four crisp, deep-fried churros, coated in cinnamon sugar and served with ice cream and chocolate fudge sauce.
When it comes to coffee, The Coffee Academics makes much of its three-group Slayer espresso machine, but we were drawn to the filter coffee, with a choice of the house espresso plus four single origins, each matched to its own preparation method: Clever Dripper, AeroPress, Chemex or ice-drip. We selected a washed Ethiopian Kochere, which arrived in a chemistry beaker with a small glass to the side. It was served at the perfect drinking temperature, and was a subtle, well-rounded and beautifully balanced brew.
The Coffee Academics,
35-45 Johnston Road, Wan Chai;
Another homegrown chain is 18 Grams, which began in 2010 and now has eight branches, including a flagship roastery/café in Wan Chai, two in Mong Kok, one in Harbour City and one in Sai Kung.
There are also two 18 Grams in Causeway Bay: one on Cannon Street and the one we visited in the basement of the soaring Times Square shopping complex. We’re very fond of the Cannon Street branch, but chose Times Square to highlight the variety of speciality coffee available in Hong Kong. It’s located inside the CitySuper store and is a kiosk-like arrangement with an L-shaped counter – easily the smallest coffee shop we visited.
At the counter you can choose to sit on one of the transparent bar stools next to the espresso machine or by the till. Either way, you can’t really avoid chatting with the friendly barista (as a rule we found Hong Kong’s baristas to be friendly, engaging and knowledgeable, with excellent English). Be warned, though: we only popped in for a swift espresso, but were talked into trying a V60 of an Ecuador Finca San Alego single origin.
Interestingly, 18 Grams roasts a range of espresso blends, with the branches using different blends. Cannon Street, for example, uses the Black Sheep blend, while Times Square uses Big Bad Wolf, a blend of beans from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil. This is big, bold and fairly bright, contrasting with the more mellow Black Sheep. The V60 proved even more of a contrast, steadily improving and evolving as it cooled. By the time we reached the bottom of the cup, it was very fine indeed.
Not surprisingly, given its size, the Times Square branch doesn’t serve food, but it’s another great late-night option, staying open until 10pm in the week and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
18 Grams Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay; 18grams.com
Although the majority of the places we visited were on Hong Kong Island, there’s plenty of good coffee in Kowloon and the New Territories, so we thought we’d finish at N1 Coffee & Co in Tsim Sha Tsui in southern Kowloon. It’s part of a small group of affiliated cafés that all use the same roaster – each coffee shop is operated independently, serving different espresso blends and single origins. The bulk of the roasting is done at a facility in the New Territories, but a 1kg roaster sits in the window at N1 roasting some single origins.
Our trip here brought us full circle in terms of decor and atmosphere, N1 having more in common with Barista Jam than the other coffee shops we visited on our short tour. The premises are long and thin – more a corridor than a shop, with a small seating area at the back. Once you’ve passed the roaster, the counter’s on your left, with a narrow bar against the right-hand wall. Stretch out both arms and you could rest one hand on the wall and the other on the gleaming Black Eagle. Beyond the small, behind-the-counter kitchen, N1 widens out, with space for a handful of two- and four-person tables. Seating is provided in the form of barrels and tree trunks, along with the occasional chair.
N1 has two espresso blends and a single origin, plus three more on pour-over through V60, AeroPress or syphon, while ice-drip is also available. The single origins change every week, with the roastery having up to 20 different green beans to choose from. We tried the house blend, which turned out to be a classic, well-balanced espresso with a hint of acidity. We followed that with a flat white, where the coffee was in perfect harmony with the milk, and rounded things off with a slice of the excellent blueberry cheesecake.
N1 Coffee & Co, Shop G, 34 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui; facebook.com/N1-Coffee-Co-473097382816950/
We only just scratched the surface of Hong Kong’s varied coffee scene. What’s beyond doubt is the dedication to quality we found in every shop we visited. The future of speciality coffee in Hong Kong looks bright.
Brian writes Brian’s Coffee Spot (brian-coffee-spot.com), a blog dedicated to sharing great places to drink coffee around the world.