The subtlety of fine coffee sparks a passion in wine expert
Chris So, the founder of winelist.hk wine consultant and Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) educator, is normally encountered over a glass of wine. So there is something disconcerting about sitting with him over a couple of espressos in Sheung Wan.
So, who has reached an advanced stage in his master of wine examinations, has not given up on his original passion, but has begun to pursue a parallel one. He has become a coffee geek.
"It started about three years ago," he says. "Before I drank coffee, but it wasn't like wine tasting. I didn't really analyse or learn about the background. But then I travelled to Europe to see the wine areas, and especially in Italy, people drink a lot of espresso. I found it was really good for digestion and counteracting the wine in my system. Giving me a kick."
So, whose background before wine was in civil engineering, also established that wine tasting had disciplined his nose and palate for coffee appreciation. Parallels between the drinks were immediately apparent.
"Winemaking and coffee making have similarities, and roasting is an art. You get chocolate, or nuts, or caramelisation through the process. That's how they control the acidity, the roasty character or the bitterness. There are methods of brewing coffee that bring out the delicate flavours of the place [the beans grow] and the varieties of beans they use.
"There is an Ethiopian coffee called Yirgacheffe which is really floral and quite fruity. It's like a Burgundy wine. I started learning about different ways of making coffee," he says.
Having decided that coffee had complexities he wanted to study, So began looking for outlets in Hong Kong that were up to Italian standards.
Initially he found that there weren't many, but recently things have changed, he says. Good, small coffee outlets have started cropping up, not just in areas such as Quarry Bay, Kennedy Town and Sheung Wan on Hong Kong island, but also near his home in the New Territories.
He and his wife, who is taking coffee appreciation classes, are regulars at Accro Coffee in Yuen Long, where he "got addicted" to the siphon and hand-drip coffee.
Despite a busy schedule teaching WSET courses and working towards his own master of wine qualification, So took some coffee courses.
"There are two main associations, the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe [SCAE] and the Speciality Coffee Association of America. These are the ones pushing certificates around the world. There is also the Speciality Coffee Association of Japan, which runs the World Siphonist Championship," he says.
"I have completed the SCAE on brewing and grinding coffee. I have level one and two," he says. "I grind my own beans, and sometimes roast them."
So likes to patronise independent outlets such as Barista Jam and Cupping Room in Sheung Wan but does not disparage chains such as Habitu, which operates the speciality Coffee Academics outlets.
He even has a polite word or two for Starbucks, generally excoriated by coffee connoisseurs. "In speciality coffee places a cup could go for HK$50 or HK$100. People want to differentiate themselves from going to Starbucks now, but Starbucks is a good thing. They introduced many people to coffee, and everybody has to start from somewhere. For milk-based coffee the independent places rarely charge more than HK$30 because they want to compete with the chains. What the chains don't do so well is black coffee. The independents take time to make coffee by hand," he says.
Although enthusiastic about the flowering of Hong Kong's independent coffee outlet scene, So is not convinced it will last, pointing out the vulnerability of small businesses to unreasonable rent increases.
He is, however, doing his bit to help some of them with their operations - as a consultant as well as customer.
"It's more of a hobby than anything, but I do some consulting. In the future I might expand more into that and maybe do a coffee website.
"There are so many parallels between the wine and coffee industries and the taste and the actual craft of appreciation. That's true for tea as well. In the future I want to find out more about tea."