Felix Wong Kim-fei gets tired of being asked to name the best coffee in the world. 'It's like asking someone to name the most beautiful woman in the world. There is no correct answer. It's a matter of personal taste, and developing good taste goes beyond shallow understanding,' says the director of the two-year-old Cafe Corridor. Vincent Cheng Man-fai, training specialist for the Lavazza Training Centre, which opened in December, says Hongkongers are at least three years behind people in Japan, Korea and Taiwan when it comes to their level of coffee appreciation. He says customers at places such as Starbucks focus more on 'the big sofas, the free Wi-fi internet and the music playing in the background than the actual coffee itself'. The situation is improving, Wong says. 'In the past year alone, I've found many more serious coffee lovers out there who look at coffee the way sommeliers look at wine.' These aficionados examine the colour, aroma, temperature and balance of flavours before tasting. Well-versed in coffee-speak, they know, for instance, the difference between arabica and robusta coffee beans. Some coffee connoisseurs are so particular about the freshness of their roasted beans that they order their supply online from local firm Lion Rock Coffee, which was established in 2007. The company website posts a live countdown to the next roasting, which happens at least weekly. Once roasted, the coffee beans are shipped immediately, and Lion Rock recommends they be consumed within 14 days of receipt. Despite these promising changes, most Hong Kong coffee shops are still prone to mistakes, says Cheng. 'The most common offence is that it is too hot. Coffee should be made with water between 60 and 65 degrees Celsius, but many shops are killing the flavour with water temperatures of 90 degrees.' As for iced coffee, he says 'it's like adding ice cubes to beer. Coffee is traditionally drunk hot, even in summer in Italy.' Cheng says too much foam is also a problem. 'The foam should be at rim level, with a brown ring around the edges to allow the aroma from the espresso to escape,' he says. 'Foam in Italian is 'milk cream', which is smooth with soft bubbles. It's not supposed to taste like a big gulp of air,' explains Letizia Barbagli, the owner of Caffe Pascucci, which opened two stores late last year. One reason for Hong Kong's below-par coffee is a lack of education. Sanjay Ponnapa, chief executive of Fuel Espresso, a New Zealand-based company that opened a local branch in November, says the lack of schooling for baristas could be intentional. 'There's an enormous amount of secrecy behind making coffee. From the harvesting to the roasting to the brewing of coffee, nobody wants to teach others what they've learned,' he says. 'There are no schools or books - most of it is by trial and error.' A descendant of a family who have grown coffee in India since the 1700s, Ponnapa is privy to 'secret' techniques that include considering atmospheric pressure and humidity. Younger generations from both the Lavazza and Pascucci family are still involved in the family business and monitor how trade knowledge is passed down. Wong is largely self-taught through stints in coffee bars in Australia and involvement in coffee blogs. He started roasting coffee on a large frying pan at home. With nothing more than online video clips from YouTube as a guide and dedicated practice, Wong has become one of Hong Kong's top latte artists, drawing intricate designs atop his lattes. These days Wong shares his coffee knowledge with fans. Every month he hosts two or three coffee Talks, at Cafe Corridor, with topics ranging from cupping, or coffee-tasting sessions, to different brewing techniques. Each meeting lasts four hours and ranges from HK$500 to HK$800, depending on the level. At the Lavazza Training Centre, Cheng offers basic, practical and advanced courses. The basic class, geared toward hobbyists, covers at-home brewing techniques using instruments such as the siphon, the plunger or French press, the filter and the moka pot. The practical class is aimed at restaurant staff or junior baristas wanting to fine-tune their skills, and requires applicants to pass a preliminary interview. The advanced course, which concludes with formal certification issued by Lavazza, is by far the most popular. 'A lot of people dream of opening a coffee shop one day,' says Cheng, adding that students in the advanced course tend to come from outside the food and beverage industry and include lawyers and accountants. Their ages range from the early 20s to late 40s. With its high margins and straightforward business model, coffee shops appear to be an ideal investment at first, says Cheng. 'You spend HK$2 to make a cup of coffee, but you can sell it for more than HK$20. But there are thousands of people out there who can do the same thing and competition is fierce. At the end of the day, your coffee has to be better than others - and that takes a lot of effort.' Wong says he didn't initially realise the complexities of the trade. 'I didn't start a coffee shop because I loved coffee,' he says. 'It was the opposite - starting this business and trying to make it work taught me a lot more about coffee than I thought I needed to know. And in the process, I fell in love with coffee.' Both Fuel Espresso and Cafe Corridor operate in the Italian style: they only offer one cup size. 'Americans have introduced this idea of different sizes, but the correct way is to have just one,' Ponnapa says. 'A latte is one part espresso and five parts milk. If you vary the size, the barista is just adding more milk, not more shots of espresso. So the proportions of the drink are thrown off, and you end up with a more diluted latte.' Ponnapa also refuses to serve Fuel Espresso's coffee with flavoured syrups. 'The Italians like their coffee in its most basic form and so do we. We are purists.' Barbagli, on the other hand, says some innovation is necessary, pointing out even some coffee shops in Italy are starting to embrace more creative coffee drinks. A roaster and distributor of coffee since 1883, Pascucci opened its first coffee shop in Italy in 2000. 'The Pascucci family did not want to open another one of the thousands of cookie-cutter coffee shops in Italy,' says Barbagli. The firm introduced a new line of signature drinks, including some topped with confuso, a patented cream made with a secret recipe using coffee beans. They also offered novelty items such as Pasquita, a coffee soda served chilled with a slice of orange, and caffe di bimbi, made from roasted barley beans as a caffeine-free alternative for children. The fraspuccio meringato - a cold drink with espresso, confuso cream, sugar and skim milk - has been the company's biggest hit in Hong Kong. The drink is responsible for 40 per cent of the firm's total beverage sales. The Caffe Pascucci items work well with the Hong Kong palate, which is partial to milk-based and more dessert-style coffee drinks, says Wong. About 70 per cent of Cafe Corridor's customers order a latte or cappuccino, with very few opting for a straight-up espresso. 'People also limit their intake of espresso because they are concerned about caffeine,' says Barbagli, who uses Pascucci Gold Blend coffee containing less than 1.2 per cent caffeine in contrast to the standard 3 per cent. 'Espresso has less caffeine than drip coffee because of [the water's] limited contact with the beans,' says Cheng. Coffee consumption is much smaller in Hong Kong than in European countries, where coffee drinking is a part of daily life. 'In Italy, people easily drink four or five cups of espresso a day,' says Ponnapa. 'In Hong Kong, one good cup is enough. But people also drink coffee through to the later hours.' While more than 70 per cent of coffee sales occur before 11am in New Zealand, Hong Kong has peak periods from 9.30am until 11am and then again from 1.30pm until 4.30pm. The increased interest in incorporating coffee into the fast-paced Hong Kong lifestyle has led both Pascucci and Fuel Espresso to lay plans for expansion. The latter already has five to six shops set to open by year's end, and Pascucci is eyeing the mainland market. 'Looking around now, Hong Kong is ready,' says Ponnapa. 'Yes, there was coffee before, but something was missing. There was no soul. Now there is.'