The coffee connoisseur with a cult following in Hong Kong, and how she got the perfect blend
Australian Kim Oelrichs couldn't believe how bad the coffee was in Hong Kong when she arrived, and set about teaching baristas how to make the perfect cup. Now she has her own coffee supply company
When US coffee house culture broke into the mainstream Western world in the 1990s, thanks to television shows such as Friends and Seinfeld, Kim Oelrichs was already working as a barista on Australia’s Gold Coast.
And when Starbucks started expanding beyond its local Pacific northwest roots, taking California by storm around the same time, Oelrichs was already mastering the art of the perfect blend in a coffee shop in Brisbane. In fact, her initial training has roots overseas in Europe, where coffee has been a part of local culture for centuries.
“The first place I got a job in Oz [Australia] they were actually really strict about teaching you how to make coffee,” says Oelrichs. “And the place was owned by two Greek brothers. They ended up teaching me their way of coffee.”
Oelrichs started to develop a highly personalised style of roasting, blending and brewing, along with how the coffee was served to the customer. She started to refine her talents, pick up tricks, and ultimately became a local expert in whichever Australian coffee shop she worked.
“You know you’re doing something right when people will travel to have your coffee,” she says, adding that she developed a local following of people who would drive to wherever she was working at the time.
It turns out one of her loyal customers was a close friend of Wayne Parfitt, the owner of Castelo Concepts, a Hong Kong-based restaurant chain founded in 1992. So in 2007, Oelrichs took a job offer from Parfitt and came to the city to be the company’s barista trainer. Castelo Concepts runs dozens of restaurants all over Hong Kong and Vietnam, including Wagyu, the High Street Grill and TigerLily. Oelrichs says that upon arrival, she realised she had her work cut out.
“When I first came to Hong Kong the coffee was so bad, and every place I went to I watched them make it and they had no idea. And the only coffee you could find was Starbucks and Pacific Coffee. And coffee can be so much better than that.”
Starbucks opened its first two outlets in Hong Kong in 2000 – one at Exchange Square in Central and another on Hysan Avenue in Causeway Bay. The move was part of the Seattle-based company’s push into Asia after opening a location in Tokyo in 1996, as it simultaneously opened shops in Seoul and Shanghai.
The global coffee industry has boomed in the past 20 years and is valued at around US$100 billion. The expansion is largely attributed to millennials and their love of cafe culture.
In Hong Kong, along with Oelrichs’ expertise, Castelo Concepts’ restaurants started earning a name for serving excellent coffee. The chain, which focuses on Western-style eateries, capitalised on an expat community looking for quality brews. Oelrichs was training baristas all over the city in the art of making the perfect cup, from steaming the milk in just the right way and how to pour the coffee, to making sure the crema (the oily foam at the top of a good espresso, which she says is the most important ingredient) is just perfect.
Oelrichs, who is naturally hesitant to spill many of her coffee-making secrets, also notes she practises the art of simplicity, rather than bogging down the process with fancy add-ons.
In 2015 Oelrichs started Kim and Co Coffee Culture, which supplies a specific blend to Castelo Concepts and a few other venues in the city. Her blend uses 100 per cent arabica beans from Colombia, Ethiopia and Sumatra.
Oelrichs says the “cupping” process – how you pick various flavours – is quite complicated and it took her years to perfect her blend. She says Kim and Co’s mix has a “great body but is still smooth” and her website describes it as having a “beautifully rich nose and velvety clean finish”.
Pun Wong, the manager of Mr Wolf in Central, who has worked in a number of Castelo’s restaurants over the years, says Oelrichs’ coffee has become such a staple, it has taken on a religious connotation.
“After working in so many venues it’s amazing to see such a cult following for Kim’s coffee. The consistency is always there, which is always so important for the customers.”
Oelrichs, whose favourite style of coffee is a flat white (an espresso with microfoam), says having a career that now has a cult following is something she’s incredibly proud of.
“I don’t want this to sound corny or anything, but people just seem to love my coffee, and I fell in love with it too. I just love making people good coffee.”