Trends: the latest thing in coffee

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 5:52pm

A fresh coffee movement is brewing in the city, meaning the drink is becoming something to appreciate like wine, not just to boost productivity.

The third wave sides with lighter roasts that accent the characteristics of single-origin coffees, regardless of how quirky they might be. At times, they surprise even the most experienced coffee drinkers with their clear notes of flower, fruit, herb or wine that are otherwise overshadowed by the rubbery bitterness in dark roasts.

A third wave coffee menu can be as intimidating as a wine list to the occasional drinker. Instead of the familiar Italian trio of espresso, latte and cappuccino, the menu lists the names of coffee regions and farms - El Salvador, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, among many others. Knockbox Coffee Company in Mong Kok is one of the few cafes that serves these speciality coffees, as well as the espresso-based drinks.

The new cafe has a British-inspired modern interior, featuring a long bar table where customers can witness the meticulous process of coffee-making.

The coffee house used to sit in a quiet corner on the offbeat Tai Ping Shan Street, in Sheung Wan, where it gathered a community of connoisseurs who spoke fluent coffee. At the start, the coffee house was something of an enigma.

Partly this has to do with where many Hongkongers get their idea of coffee: Starbucks. In the 12 years since the giant made its debut in Hong Kong, it has convinced customers that its version is how coffee should taste, even though connoisseurs deem the coffee to have a charred note, a result of its musky dark roasts. While dark roasts are enjoyed by many, they are not the only option - in fact Starbucks has started selling lighter roasts.

"It took us a considerable time to convince our customers that what we serve is, in fact, coffee," says Patrick Tam, Knockbox's owner, of his lighter roasts.

"In the beginning, most of our customers ordered espresso-based drinks. Then we started to offer freshly brewed speciality coffee," he says. "Sometimes, it just took them one sip, and they were hooked. Now as many as 70 per cent of our customers order speciality coffee."

The pour-over, despite being one of the most primitive ways of making coffee, is among the most popular third wave brewing methods. Coarsely ground coffee is put in a paper cone filter and flushed with hot water, which then passes through the filter paper and, carrying the dissolved coffee flavours, drips into the cup below, leaving behind the coffee particles. This method is used at both Knockbox and Rabbithole Coffee.

"Brewing techniques emphasise the characteristics of the coffees and make their origins more apparent," says Tam. "This is how my grandma makes coffee at home," Tam recalls an Indonesian customer telling him. "How come yours tastes so much better?"

It is normal, perhaps only in Knockbox, to see people come in and strike up meaningful conversations about their chosen drink - sometimes for hours - with topics ranging from how the altitude of the farm affects the ripening process of the coffee cherry to the percentage of total dissolved solids in the final cup, measured with the help of a dedicated refractometer.

Like many proponents of the movement, Tam likens the surging appreciation of speciality coffee to wine tasting. But considering the long history of wine appreciation, there are obvious differences between where the two chemically complex drinks stand in the market.

Tam quotes the Canadian coffee expert Mark Prince, "If wine was sold the way coffee is usually sold today, you'd go to a supermarket and see a row of five to 12 bottles, with labels that say, French wine, American wine, Italian wine, with no mention of vineyard, grape varietal or vintage year."

Mike Fung Kin-kay, owner of Rabbithole Coffee and Roaster, which opened in Central in early 2012, is aware of the wine analogy.

"Like wine, the condition of coffee changes with time and its storage environment. But the roasting and brewing process of coffee is where most mishandling can occur, whereas it's less likely to go wrong when you pour a well-chosen bottle of wine," he says.

Although Fung is more than happy to serve you coffee, Rabbithole is technically not a cafe but an equipment shop and coffee wholesaler that supplies beans to a growing number of cafes that are serious about their coffee.

The shop offers a communal table, inspired by the many independent cafes in Melbourne, intended to encourage interaction between customers and baristas, and often with the owner himself.

Fung emphasises the importance of freshness. "Many commercial coffee shops order beans in large quantities - often enough to last a few months. By the time the coffee is actually made, it's not fresh any more and has lost much of its charisma," he says.

An unlikely participant in the third wave movement is the Pacific Coffee Company, which opened its first cafe almost a decade earlier than the first Starbucks in the territory.

Last month the company opened a 4,000-sq ft flagship cafe which is divided into three parts: the familiar counter that serves espresso-based drinks, a speciality coffee counter, and a roasting area sporting a chunky Probat roasting machine and dozens of bags of green coffee beans.

Jonathan Somerville, Pacific Coffee's chief operating officer, says, "It's probably a good reference point that about 10 years ago, a lot of people enjoyed full-bodied cabernet sauvignons and merlots coming from Bordeaux. Then recently they have started to enjoy the subtlety of pinot noirs from Burgundy.

"The same is happening with coffee, which people used to think of as a cup of Joe - strong and powerful. Now more people are beginning to see the subtlety and characters of it," he says.


Knockbox Coffee Company

G/F, 21 Hak Po Street, Mong Kok,

Kowloon (no phone)

Rabbithole Coffee and Roaster

2/F, 26 Cochrane Street,

Central, tel: 2581 0861

Pacific Coffee Emporium

Shop 6, G/F, 9 Kingston Street,

Fashion Walk, Causeway Bay,

tel: 2415 0015