High-end coffee culture takes off
When it comes to coffee in Hong Kong, there's good news and there's bad. On the negative side, cafe culture isn't as entrenched and vibrant as hyper-caffeinated cities such as Seattle and Melbourne.
Asia is certainly finding its groove with caffeine.
This is about trained coffee makers - baristas - treating their pursuit like a science experiment and using high-end machines to tease the finest of flavours from roasted coffee beans.
It sounds simple. Hot water is forced through tightly packed ground beans at a high pressure. Warm or frothy milk might be added to the extracted result.
The difference between an average and an outstanding coffee - one that might, say, win its maker a top rank in the World Barista Championship - is the result of extremely small changes, says Craig Simon, Australia's reigning barista champion and fourth placed in the world.
"It's a simple process, but the details of making it taste good are very intricate and meticulous," says Simon, who is based in Melbourne and works for Veneziano Coffee Roasters and also runs his own consulting business, Think Tank Coffee.
Simon once spent a week in Panama developing a drying method for beans that he then used in winning championship competitions, later selling some of the small batch for around A$400 (HK$2,900) a kilo.
The type of beans and the way they've been roasted, the water temperature, the quality of the water, the cleanliness and quality of the machine - all these factors matter. "You need the whole cycle of coffee to be aiming for the highest level to have the best chance to make a great cup of coffee," says Simon, who credits his training as a professional drummer with helping him master the intricacies of creating the perfect cup of coffee.
Melbourne is repeatedly crowned one of the world's best cities for coffee, in large part due to the rich wave of European migration during and after the second world war. Greeks and Italians adapted quickly, opening cafes with traditional bitter and intense espressos.
It has taken years to shake off those old ways and in their place hundreds of Melbourne cafes now offer a vast array of coffee choices that are a sign of things to come in Asia.
There's high-end drip-filter coffee, specialised local roasting of beans, and coffee whose origins can be traced back like a fine wine. "It's a more sensory experience based on quality and uniqueness and complexity of your taste experience," says Simon.
The good news for Hong Kong is that the best of this is already in Asia. "I would say they're probably starting ahead of the curve," says Simon, citing the work of Kapo Chiu, from The Cupping Room in Sheung Wan.
Chui took second place at this year's World Barista Championship. First place went to Hidenori Izaki from Japan - the first win for a barista from Asia.
Izaki believes he took the crown, in part, because he could show the importance of the link between the barista and the growers and processors. Izaki worked closely with a producer from Costa Rica, discussing how to create the right style of espresso for his market.
"We found the matching of soil, variety, processing and drying method that gave us solutions to decrease acidity and increase sweetness," says Izaki, who also helped with harvesting and processing the beans.
Izaki sees Asian baristas becoming more confident in their techniques, getting coached by foreign baristas and other specialists. "Speciality coffee shops are now increasing dramatically," says Izaki, of the Japanese experience.
Like Izaki's stint in Costa Rica, the best baristas will be much more hands-on in the coffee chain in the future, giving feedback to producers to create beans tailored for a particular country's needs, he says.
Blake Dinkin took a gamble that people in Asia, and possibly other parts of the world, would be prepared to pay more for specialist coffee. Dinkin launched Black Ivory Coffee after experimenting with different ways of getting the best from beans.
His conclusion: Thai Arabica beans that have been digested and expelled by elephants give a more refined flavour. Yes, the beans are harvested from the elephant's poo.
Civet cats have long been known for producing coffee by this means. But kopi luwak, as it's called, has been slammed as unethical and cruel - civets are being overfed the ripe coffee cherries and many are being held in cages.
"I loved the quirkiness of the story of the kopi luwak, but thought I could improve upon it both in taste and in ethics," says Dinkin. He says his beans are naturally refined through a vegetarian diet fed to elephants at northern Thailand's Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation refuge.
The coffee is mainly available in five-star hotels around Asia for about US$50 a cup, but it's also available in Hong Kong through Culinart catering.
Culinart will start offering Black Ivory Coffee next week. Culinart's Stanley Wong likes the overall experience of the coffee and the lighter style of roast.
"Coffee is starting to become more like wine. With greater education in Asia there is an appreciation for the differences in origin, production method, roast, grind and brewer," says Dinkin.