Business that's full of beans
David Phair takes the plunge and battles through smoggy Central on the scent of
Venture up the hill from Central and the choking stench of diesel fumes in one choice spot gives way to a heady aroma of coffee. At the top end of Old Bailey Street near Caine Road, Olympia Graeco-Egyptian Coffee has been roasting and grinding coffee beans since the 1930s.
Although its location has changed frequently, Ho Shiu-kai, owner for the past 43 years, says his secret mix of robusta and arabica beans from Indonesia has customers returning from as far away as Australia and Canada.
'If they're in town I've even popped down to the hotel where they are staying to drop some off for them,' he says.
Indonesian beans, unlike ones from South America, for example, are not so sour, he explains.
Mr Ho, who drinks four cups and one mug of his brew a day, says part of the secret of serving good coffee lies in hand-roasting the beans in small quantities. 'Big companies use automatic roasting machines with large quantities of beans. But small amounts are better; and, by watching them, you know when they are roasted correctly,' he says.
He considers the best way to serve coffee is the Turkish method. Boil the water, add one teaspoon of coffee for each cup, then bring back to the boil and serve.
'It's quick, simple and there is a natural taste,' he says.
He dislikes filter machines, because the paper soaks up the natural oils from the coffee, but thinks cafetieres - also known as plungers - work nearly as well, and suggests that a specialist grind the coffee for the appropriate machine.
Mr Ho also points out that coffee should be drunk without milk, which can leave a bitter taste.
From his experience, added milk can also lead to stomach ache.
Rival Pacific Coffee, meanwhile, is selling the latest hassle-free coffee machines. Costing up to several thousand dollars, they grind the beans and use the drip method to prepare the coffee. Some also have features such as a steam jet to make speciality coffees like cappuccino.
Thomas Neir, the managing director, says these machines are ideal for people in Hong Kong who want a good cup of coffee, quickly.
By branching out into selling coffee equipment, he hopes to expand people's knowledge about coffee because, as he points out, 'Hong Kong is more of a tea-drinking society'.
But he reckons a perfect cup of coffee can be brewed using a filter, plunger, or even a mocha pot that sits on the stove, although these methods are not so convenient.
'[Before buying] you need to check the amount of effort involved with them, but they all make great coffee.' As a rule of thumb, a new machine such as a Gaggia will make coffee in seconds. An espresso machine will take perhaps 30 seconds, while a plunger or mocha pot requires five minutes.
You can buy a grinder for a couple of hundred dollars to make really fresh coffee: select a fairly coarse setting for a cafetiere, fairly fine for a filter and even finer for an espresso machine.
However, Mr Neir finds most people ask Pacific Coffee to grind the beans for them 'because most people don't know how to'.
He offers several tips for successful coffee making.
Start with a good basic coffee such as Colombian, or Kenyan, which tastes more earthy.
'Use mineral water to bring out the flavour of the coffee. The water in Hong Kong is soft so the coffee doesn't taste as rich,' advises Mr Neir.
'Pacific Coffee uses more coffee in Hong Kong - 10 grams per cup as opposed to nine grams in the US.' If using mineral water is inconvenient, filter the water before using it, as Pacific Coffee does.
And in terms of storing the coffee, Mr Neir offers this advice: 'Use an airtight container and store it in a cool place out of the light. It will keep really fine.' He advises against placing it in the fridge because of the risk of exposure to moisture.
Other general pointers to bear in mind: make no more than will be drunk, to prevent the coffee becoming stewed. And avoid re-heating coffee - it will taste flat.