The Perfect Blend: Exploring Shanghai’s Experimental Coffee Culture

In China’s largest metropolis, coffee drinking is an essential daily ritual. Zhoe Zhang explores the city’s booming café culture

Shanghai wears an unlikely crown. Home to nearly 8,000 cafés, the Chinese metropolis has the most coffee shops of any city, beating even Tokyo and London. Italians might boast about their espresso expertise, and Americans lay claim to the frappuccino, but China's largest city can confidently call itself the world's coffee capital. Cafés are ubiquitous here; international chains rub shoulders with pour-over speciality shops and mom-and-pop neighbourhood joints. The modern stereotype of the Shanghainese? Coffee drinkers.

Café culture is an old import to the city. Coffee was first introduced by the British after the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing between China and Britain in 1842, which saw Shanghai open its port to trade, and allowed the import of foreign goods for the first time. Back then, popularity was limited in a culture more inclined to taking tea, but that changed in the 1920s, when a surge of mainly Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of Europe's war landed in the city and picked coffee shops as their choice of enterprise, bringing the traditions of European coffee houses with them.

A stone's throw from The Bund waterfront, East Sea Coffee, opened in 1934 by Russian-Jewish immigrant Semyon Liberman, is the city's oldest surviving café. With competition fierce, shop owners had to invent innovative strategies to attract customers. A "sit down" service, where people could take a seat and drink coffee while tucking into desserts, or hot food, was an enticing offering. Today, you can still order a coffee-and-dessert combo here, sipping the simplest black coffee as you tuck into a classic Shanghai-style Mont Blanc.

It's not just the food that's nostalgic at East Sea Coffee, though. Behind a red-brick exterior, art deco chandeliers hang low from the café's tall ceiling, black-and-white tiles grace the floor, and the counter is made from rosewood embellished with Chinese carved relief. The customers play their role, too, with grandpas and grandmas resplendent in suits and dresses.

o.p.s. pairs signature brews with seasonal ingredients.

In the nearly 100 years since East Sea Coffee opened, Shanghai's café offering has multiplied and metamorphosed. In the city's former French Concession area, between historic European garden villas and leafy lanes, you'll now find up to 50 cafés on one street.

On Taiyuan Road, queues snake out the door of o.p.s. - open mind, possibilities and space - every day. There are no americanos or lattes on the menu: the café focuses on what it calls "signature" coffee, offering a seasonally changing menu of inventive drinks made using different roasts mixed with complementary ingredients, including dark roasted beans mixed with fruits, or blends of coffee and wine. "We hope to build a place where customers can feel the whole process of handmade coffee, from the beans to the design, through the cup in their hands," explains co-founder Siwei Chen. "We want people to have a deeper emotional connection with coffee."

The "gin-ish" coffee from the winter menu is a twist on an Irish coffee - a mix of a dark roast espresso and a Japanese gin. The taste reminds me of a hot chocolate; a rich coffee accompanied by a foamy cream. Fragrant dried fig leaves garnish the cup.

But it's not just the drinks that are unique at o.p.s. Upon ordering, a barista explains the ingredients used in your coffee of choice and how it will be made, before handing you a card explaining the inspiration for the drink. "We love coffee, and we want our customers to love it, too," says Chen.

Other Shanghainese coffee shops err more towards traditional coffee house menus, sticking to tried-and-tested methods of brewing. Now five years old, Onirii Coffee specialises in classic pour-overs. After three shop relocations, owner Wing Wu has finally settled on Changle Lu, in the heart of the former French Concession. This isn't a grab-and-go stop - most regulars sit down and enjoy at least a couple of cups while chatting to Wu.

He's known for his jokes, but is serious when it comes to Onirii's coffee offering. He won't serve what he calls "OK" or even "good" cups, personally selecting the best roasts for his regularly changing menu and employing an award-winning roaster. Occasionally, there's just one choice available - only a select few roasts reach his high standards.

Pour over at Onirii Coffee in Shanghai, China

o.p.s., left, and tried-and-tested pour overs at Onirii Coffee.

Wu is part of a bigger trend of Shanghainese baristas pursuing perfection in their craft. Cafés offering similarly perfected brews include neighbourhood hangout M2F and hip hotspot Blacksheep Espresso. Many baristas take part in coffee competitions. For Wu, it's about achieving the unachievable. "All I want to do is serve a perfect cup of coffee," he says.

As we chat, the café lights dim. Onirii Coffee transforms into a bar in the evening, serving cocktails and whiskeys. It's a new trend in Shanghai. Amid the difficulties of operating during the pandemic, many cafés decided to make the best use of their space and generate higher profits by opening late, but the change is also symptomatic of an evolving café scene. Young Shanghainese are seeking multi-hyphenate venues that serve up multiple experiences in one space.

As dusk falls, I head over to Wulumuqi Road's Dufour Café & Bar. This popular evening hangout opened in 2020, just after Covid hit, mixing coffee, cocktails and music in one space. Arrive during the day and you can quietly read a book in the streetside front garden. Saunter in on a Friday night with friends and you'll be sipping cocktails to a soundtrack of house music, city pop or jazz vinyls. Dufour runs its own music label.

Drinks at Dufour, Shanghai, China
Dufour, Shanghai, China

Dufour, one of a number of Shanghai cafés serving cocktails at night.

Barista and bartender Rome Luo was a regular visitor to the café before she began working behind the counter. "I felt pressure when I went to those speciality coffee shops," she says. "Dufour is different. It's cool, fun and chill."

Coffee in Shanghai represents the city's multi-faceted character. A cup is a demonstration of a historic moment when east first met west. It's a showcase of the Chinese craftsman's spirit, pursuing the best, and aiming for continued innovation, and it represents modern Shanghai and the distinctive lifestyle of young Shanghainese today. Coffee drinker? Around here, it's a stereotype worn with pride.

Read more about modern rituals in our latest issue.

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