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What's Next For Hong Kong's Third-Wave Coffee Culture?

Tracing its past, present, and future, we uncover how the city’s coffee community has adopted the unique aesthetic of a global coffee movement through a local lens.

By Gavin Yeung
September 23, 2021

As they say, it came slowly at first, then all at once. Against the backdrop of months of political unrest followed by a global pandemic, Hong Kong’s usually sedate coffee scene – which in normal times sees only a handful of café openings in a year—inexplicably witnessed an explosion of new coffee shops in hotspots of youth culture such as Sham Shui Po and Sai Ying Pun, and even all the way to far-flung industrial areas like Fo Tan and the placid island of Peng Chau. It’s something that has left seasoned baristas in a state of bewilderment. 

“In this half-year, the rate of cafés opening has been two to three times faster than before,” observes Chester Tam, founder of local coffee roaster Ideaology and a panel judge at the World Barista Championship. “Larger operators like Habitū, The Coffee Academics, NOC, and % Arabica have consistently opened locations in the past, but this year [2020] you’ve really seen that small independents can do it, too.” With this sudden proliferation of cafés, Hong Kong’s coffee culture seems to be surging to new heights, capping off a journey that began nearly two decades ago with the advent of third-wave coffee.  

What exactly is ‘third-wave’ coffee? It’s useful to compare it with the waves that came before it. The first wave, which took place for much of the 20th century, is synonymous with cheap and low-quality coffee—such as instant coffee or diner coffee with free refills. The second wave saw a greater focus on countries of origin and the processes of artisanal sourcing, blending, and roasting, and was popularised by the rise of Starbucks in the 1980s and 1990s. By contrast, the third wave elevates coffee to an art form with a near-obsessive fixation on speciality coffee beans, terroir, and connoisseurship in the process of making a cup of coffee, frequently drawing comparisons with the equally cerebral culture of wine appreciation. 

Coffee has always found a natural home in Hong Kong thanks to the relentless pace of urban life here, giving rise to distinctly local drinks like coffee sweetened with condensed milk, as well as yuen yeung, a potent blend of coffee and milk tea. Speciality coffee thus found a receptive audience when it arrived in Hong Kong in the mid- to late-2000s with the opening of pioneering cafés like Knockbox Coffee Company, 18 Grams, and Accro Coffee. 

Photo: BYO by NODI

Over the last couple of decades, the palate of Hong Kong consumers has also transformed rapidly, graduating from bitter coffee drunk purely for the caffeine rush to a refined drink that can be prepared a dozen ways, with each individual process serving to bring out different nuances from the beans. These days, it’s not uncommon for third-wave cafés to offer customers a choice of fruity or nutty roasts, if not an entire spectrum of geographical origins, from Ethiopia to Papua New Guinea. 

While each person’s definition of good coffee is deeply subjective, Ideaology’s Tam maintains the importance of making the sweet, sour, and bitter flavours in a brew complement each other. “The complexity in these three tastes should be pronounced while remaining well-balanced—no one taste should overpower the other,” he says. An advocate of the pour-over method for its ability to express the more subtle flavours, Tam says that a variety of factors can affect the final outcome, from the ambient and water temperatures to the type of kettle used, and even the pattern in which the water is poured over the grounds. 

Photo: Ideology

It’s no exaggeration to say that today’s Hong Kong boasts one of the most developed coffee cultures in Asia, with a robust ecosystem of independent shops, café chains, roasters, distributors, and even barista competitions that rival those of much larger Asian metropolises such as Tokyo and Seoul. Indeed, the local third-wave coffee scene is mature enough to be broken down into sub-waves of its own. The first generation largely comprises the members of Cafe Union, a tight-knit collective of early speciality coffee shops that shared a grassroots DIY mentality, and who banded together to increase their purchasing power with overseas bean suppliers.  

While many of these cafés grew slowly, with some eventually developing into roasters—as in the case of Tam’s Ideaology – the second generation that followed can be characterised by a slicker, increasingly commercial approach that married a more liberal attitude to their drinks programme (think matcha lattes) with polished, Instagram-friendly design and robust food menus. Many of these second-generation cafés, such as The Cupping Room, NOC, and Elephant Grounds (which recently raised the curtain on a 7,000sqft flagship store on Hollywood Road, where small batches of beans are freshly roasted every morning) have since grown into chains of five or more locations, capitalising on trophy wins at prestigious competitions like the World Brewers Cup and the Grand Barista Championship to gain wider investor backing.  

Photo: Elephant Grounds

This brings us to the third generation, or the explosion in new cafés beginning in 2019, which has seen a multitude of expressions of coffee culture take root in all four corners of Hong Kong. They’re defined by their small scale and independent operations, sophisticated designs, a greater emphasis on a distinct Hong Kong coffee identity, and the sheer variety in lifestyles that are represented through the lens of the café. Take, for example, Bone Studio in the Mid-Levels, which combines a design agency with a front-of-house café reminiscent of a Japanese kissaten; First Boy Coffee, a neighbourhood coffee shop in Kennedy Town that shares a space with a motorcycle dealer; Found, a café heavy on CBD-infused coffee and tucked away in quiet Po Hing Fong; and Coffee Analog, a café by day and moody whisky bar by night in Prince Edward.  

Photo: Tai Wo Tang

One of the reasons for this boom is an abundance of emerging artisanal baristas who are daring enough to open their own cafés after working for speciality coffee chains like % Arabica, Fuel Espresso, NODI Coffee, and NOC, according to Henry Shek, who opened his own café, Tai Wo Tang, inside a heritage medicinal parlour in Kowloon City. “There is both a supply and demand for artisanal coffee,” he says. 

This factor, combined with the highest rate of unemployment in 15 years—meaning more idle white-collar professionals who suddenly have the time to open a café of their own—and record numbers of vacant street-level shops due to the pandemic, has somewhat ironically created market conditions that have never been more fertile for new entrants to the local café scene, given Hong Kong’s usually astronomical rents during more normal times. 

Photo: NODI

NODI founder Derek So, who considers his brand a part of the second generation, refers to the newest generation by using the Chinese idiom ‘bai hua qi fang’, which translates to ‘hundreds of flowers blossoming at once’. “Coffee shops are a good channel to express your ideas and creativity as you can directly communicate with your customers and get immediate feedback,” says So. “It’s very exciting to see the coffee scene booming, which gives customers more options according to their own behaviour and taste. Different locations and communities deserve something more tailored and unique to them.” 

However, Ideaology’s Tam holds a more cautious view towards the business sustainability of the third-generation speciality cafés, citing a historical perspective. “There are less than 10 cafés that have survived until the present day from when I entered the industry 14 years ago,” he says, though he admits that within the F&B industry, cafés have been among the least affected by the pandemic when compared to traditional restaurants and diners. “They’re able to bounce back much quicker than other places, so people perceive cafés as being safer.” 

At the end of the day, consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries from the glut of cafés, with more choices and lifestyle niches to experience than ever before. Hong Kong’s high rents mean that cafés very quickly sink or swim, ensuring a constant stream of novelty. Meanwhile, the city’s strong links with East and West facilitate an oft-cited melting pot of influences that produces truly original permutations of coffee culture, which are then absorbed by a uniquely receptive audience. 

Despite the unprecedented challenges facing the economy as a whole, it remains clear that Hong Kong’s third-wave coffee culture is stronger and more vibrant than ever before. Indeed, if the café boom this year is testament to anything, it is the plucky, can-do attitude and an openness to the world—that Lion Rock spirit—that defines Hong Kong’s coffee scene, carving out a culture that has remained innovative and vibrant. It’s one that will continue to bloom for many years to come.