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Shanghai: For all the coffee in China

By: Andrea Burton

July 5, 2019

Shanghai @ Shutterstock

Shanghai @ Shutterstock

I waited patiently at the crossing on Nanjing Road and as soon as the light turned green I took off to paint the Shanghai coffee scene red.

It had been four long decaffeinated years since Iʼd last visited Shanghai and even though I was in China I knew that this time, I’d make coffee my cup of tea. Coffee consumption in Chinaʼs largest city continues to grow at a rapid rate, with consumers now welcoming third wave coffee and coffeehouses with open arms. It can take around three to four years for a coffee plant to mature and produce cherries, and in the time since my last visit the coffee scene in Shanghai has certainly ‘grownʼ up.

Coffee in China is grown on coffee farms in Yunnan province, an area known for its high quality production of arabica beans. Farmers and villagers alike are passionate about growing and processing coffee, not only to further grown their economy but to cultivate their communities too. The resulting coffee is often not served in its purest form however. According to Shanghainese baristas I spoke to, the coffee grown in China is used to create espresso blends alongside specialty imported coffee beans from outside countries, including but not limited to Vietnam. Nevertheless, there’s a great sense of pride about the coffee produced in Yunnan, and I wanted to see if this had filtered through into the increasingly hip coffee scene in Shanghai.

© Andrea Burton

The heart of latte art

My latte layover in Shanghai lasted two days and Iʼd set myself a mission to discover speciality coffee spots in the district of Pudong. I took the metro to Middle Huaihai Road station and minutes later I was sitting in my first stop Metal Hands, a coffee boutique that felt intimate and cosy. Around me, I spied fellow coffee lovers enjoying elegant lattes alongside dainty slices of cake that looked almost too good to eat.

The name Metal Hands pays homage to a traditional type of espresso machine where a metal lever is pulled to produce a shot of coffee. Such a machine takes pride of place on site and was used by my barista to make my long awaited, post landing coffee called “The Dirty” – a double espresso topped with creamy ice cold whole milk, served in a short 8oz glass. I suspected that the espresso used in my coffee was a single origin Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and indeed it was. The milk swirls and marbles with the heat of the espresso and, unless stirred, the last sip offers the strongest taste.

A genuine coffee haven where I could happily sip all day, Metal Hands sits unobtrusively on the corner of a quiet side street lined with stylish independent stores. Iʼd certainly return here any time, and highly recommend you pay a visit too.

Metal Hands, 234 Nanchang Lu, Shanghai – a five minute walk from Middle Huaihai Rd metro station

Metal Hands coffee shop © Andrea Burton

Seesaw: Shanghai’s coffee chain

As in most large cities, you wonʼt need to roam too far in Shanghai before stumbling across a coffee chain for your morning cup of joe. One of the best known here is Seesaw, said to be responsible for pinning specialty coffee firmly on the Chinese map with around 20 cafes and their very own barista training school. I found myself at the Huangpu District location’s shiny counter, which appeared to be the go-to coffee spot for shoppers on the busy Huaihai Road. After some deliberation I ordered a filter coffee in the form of a pour over called the Yunnan Seesaw Sun Dried, as I wanted to try a non-imported variety and taste Chinese grown, processed, roasted and brewed coffee in one of its truest forms.

As I waited for my coffee to brew I attempted to initiate conversation with my barista, who informed me while brewing three different filter coffees simultaneously that the coffee comes directly from Seesaw’s very own plantation in the Yunnan region. Ironically mine bore all the hallmarks and tasting notes of tea: fruity with a floral finish, like sipping a liquid botanical garden – a pleasant, refreshing surprise.

Seesaw, 755 Huaihai Middle Road Huangpu District, Shanghai (other locations available)

Seesaw coffee © Andrea Burton

Off the beaten coffee track

I decided to take a trip down memory lane and head to the leafy area known as the French Concession, which I’d visited before on previous trips. Finding myself sandwiched between two walking tours along a very busy street, it was a relief to spot GX Coffee and slip inside to seek some caffeinated solace.

While sipping my Red Velvet flat white I spoke with GX Coffee boss Jing, who explained that their coffee – an imported blend of beans from Columbia, Tanzania and Ethiopia – was roasted in the suburban district of SongJiang, an area of significant cultural heritage in Shanghai. Jing was curious about my extreme coffee fanaticism, so over another latte I explained that my role as cabin crew for Virgin Atlantic provides me with the opportunity to visit coffee shops across the globe and share my findings with our readers. Although not heavily featured on the top ten lists or particularly easy to locate, GX Coffee is exactly the sort of place I love to stumble upon, and reflects perfectly the fast-growing third wave coffee culture in the city.

GX Coffee, No.94 Maoming, South Road, Shanghai – approx 15-20 minutes’ walk from Nanjing Rd West metro station

GX Coffee © Andrea Burton

The decaf detour

Having loosely researched how Iʼd navigate the Shanghai coffee scene, itʼs fair to say that as time went by I didn’t stick exactly to the script. The most impromptu coffee moments are usually the best (perhaps Iʼll make that another post) and after a 15-minute stroll from Xintiandi station I inadvertently came across Tian Café – one of those serendipitous discoveries. Later I discovered there are actually two cafes that share the same name and the one Iʼd visited was the lesser known of the two. This simple, modest cafe has just three coffee tables and a homely fireplace, so I took a seat to savour a decaffeinated latte made for me by my barista Nanger. I was the only customer, so he took some time to perfect the intricate latte art on my brew.

After my coffee, I asked Nanger about a cafe Iʼd read about called Café Chez W. With great excitement he leapt from behind the counter to offer me directions – turns out the cafe is in fact owned by a friend of his and was only a short walk away. As I left, Nanger handed me a copy of a Shanghai Coffee Guide in which ironically Tian Café wasnʼt featured at all, though if youʼre seeking a tucked-away gem far from the crowds, this coffee hideaway is the perfect spot.

Tian Café, 569 Fuxing Zhong Lu, Shanghai  – a 15 minute walk from Xintiandi Metro Station

Tian Cafe © Andrea Burton

A breath of freshly ground air

After being ushered into Café Chez W by owner and barista Yimu, the first thing I noticed was the twin aromas of ground coffee brewing and the freshly baked scones heʼd just taken out of the oven. Few other smells are as welcoming.

From the polaroids on the walls to various items of memorabilia on the shelves, the cafe felt like a museum of Yimu’s travels. A small staircase led me to a bright loft-style dining room with a record player and collection of vinyl records, where a gentle breeze wafted in from the terrace and tree branches hung down above the table. Over an iced oat milk latte, I asked former engineer Yimu more about his motivation for setting up his business and he told me he single-handedly founded Cafe Chez W in 2017 after realising he wanted to pursue something more aligned to his interests.

“I worked as a software engineer in the US for seven years, and Iʼd always loved coffee and enjoyed cooking for myself and my friends,” he explained. “Suddenly I felt that I wanted to do something that was closer to my heart so I left my job and moved to Paris, where I studied cooking and learned to make coffee at a Parisian cafe. After about a year I decided to return to Shanghai and open my own coffee shop.”

Yimu, founder of Cafe Chez W © Andrea Burton

My experience of the Shanghai coffee scene was long overdue, and though I spent my layover catching up a bit, there remain around 7,000 coffee spots in Shanghai alone left to explore! It will take a little bit longer to work my way through those, so I’ll have to hope my roster includes lots more opportunity for me to discover more in the future.

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to Shanghai from London Heathrow.

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Andrea Burton

Londoner and coffee connoisseur Andrea is a member of our cabin crew and has worked at Virgin Atlantic for more than 13 years. Reporting from our destinations around the world, her mission is to share the best coffee and coffee shops discovered on her layovers.

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