iphoneSadly, rather than creating their own symbols of success, such as artisan-crafted gaiwans, young, upwardly mobile Chinese are choosing instead to adopt the western trappings of success, most prominently iPhones and Starbucks coffee.  This relatively newfound demand for coffee in China has spurred some of the tea farmers in Yunnan province, from which some of China’s best pu-erhs come, to switch from harvesting tea to harvesting a more lucrative commodity – coffee – which currently commands up to three times as much money as tea.  Many of the changemakers driving the popularity of coffee are Chinese nationals who attended American universities and discovered coffee in the United States.  Despite its high price tag – a Starbucks cappuccino in China costs over 4.00 USD – or perhaps because of it, more and more Chinese are making the switch from tea to coffee.

Less lovers of the leaf become too alarmed at this trend, let’s put coffee consumption in China in perspective: At 120,000 tons last year, China’s coffee consumption was only 6% of coffee consumption in the U.S. – the U.S. still being the world’s top consumer of coffee.  However, analysts expect the Chinese demand for coffee to grow nearly 40% each year until about 2015!  The top two companies driving the preference for coffee are Starbucks and Nestle, both of whom are training farmers in China and buying the beans from newly minted coffee barons in Yunnan province, where the region’s rich soil and high altitudes make it the perfect spot for coffee plants.  In fact, Starbucks plans to double its number of stores in China to 1,500 over the next two years, which would make China its second-largest market after the U.S.

Traditionally, the Chinese, the vast majority of whom still turn to tea as their daily beverage, have dismissed coffee as too bitter, but thanks to a splash of milk and a tablespoon or two of sugar, coffee has become not only palatable, but preferred.  It is the perfect mobile status symbol, giving those who consume it a certain cachet among their friends and colleagues and giving those who produce it a potentially excellent profit margin.  Although rags-to-riches stories abound in the new Chinese coffee industry, there is certainly no guarantee that those farmers who opt to grow coffee beans will become instant millionaires.  A lack of preparation and training as well as fluctuating prices make the switch risky; but for those who do succeed, the rewards can be high.

It is unclear what the future holds for the coffee industry in China given recent developments in the tea industry, particularly in the U.S.  With Starbucks’ recent acquisition of Teavana and the opening of its first Tazo tea shop in Seattle, tea businesses across the U.S. are cautiously optimistic that the tea industry in this coffee stronghold may well be poised to take off, just as the coffee industry did some 20 years ago.  If that happens and young Chinese continue to take their cue from their U.S. counterparts, those artisan-crafted gaiwans and cups of steaming green tea may replace the ubiquitous iPhones and coffee cups over the next decade.  We can only hope.

Source: “China’s tea farmers switching to coffee,” David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2012, Page A1.