The Perfect Blend: Exploring Shanghai’s Experimental Coffee Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discover More
Six Eccentric Wes Anderson-Inspired Cafés