Foam, Sweet Foam: Starbucks and McDonald’s Tap China Latte Art Craze

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China latte art coffee obsession

China’s economic growth has slowed to under 7 percent a year, but annual coffee consumption is growing in the double digits. China now imports more than three times as much coffee as it did a decade ago, while domestic coffee production is growing too. But it’s not just coffee drinking that’s booming; it’s the coffee culture that Chinese consumers are embracing, as seen in a growing obsession with latte art.

China’s (and Asia’s, with Korea’s Caffebenne wooing investors to expand globally) embrace of latte art is a clear sign that its possible we’re but a single generation away from a China-centered coffee world. Starbucks, the world’s coffee giant, certainly sees a latte potential in Chinese coffee-lovers. It hopes to have more stores in China than the US in the not-too-distant future, and also plans to introduce its Teavana chain in the country later this year.

For three years now Starbucks has been sponsoring a Latte Art Throwdown Tour, inspired by its monthly barista throwdown back home in Seattle. Last year the tour, featuring 79 Starbucks China baristas, stopped in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Xian, Beijing and Tianjin. The goal, according to Starbucks, is “to build excitement and momentum around the launch of latte art as a standard offering in China.”

As Starbucks China president Belinda Wong commented in a press release, “Every cup of Starbucks coffee, whether it’s our fresh brew or an espresso beverage, starts with sourcing the finest coffees from around the world. By extending our offerings to include the pour-over and latte art, we are showcasing these quality ingredients in a full-flavored coffee beverage. More significantly, the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into each cup of Starbucks pour-over or latte art is highlighted in an exceptional way. We are excited to share this experience with our customers in China.”

china latte starbucks baristas

Starbucks’ recent Regional Barista Championships in Hong Kong drew 14 Starbucks employees from across Asia. The winner: Nopparat Arpornsuwan, a Thai barista—and, worth noting, a woman, belying Western barista competitions that have lamented the dearth of female barista competitors (and thus winners.)

Today, on March 29, Shanghai welcomes latte artists (such as Germany’s Daniel Gerlach) as the host city for the 2016 World Latte Art Championship, which runs through April 1st.

china latte cup

The winner must master a number of feats, and competition will be fierce:

The World Latte Art Championship highlights artistic expression in a competition platform that challenges the barista in an on-demand performance.

For the preliminary round of the championship, baristas produce a single creative latte pattern at the Art Bar, then move to the WLAC stage to create two identical free-pour lattes and two identical designer lattes. Scores from the Art Bar and Stage are combined, and the top 6 competitors qualify for the final round, where they are asked to create two identical free-pour macchiato, two identical free-pour lattes, and two identical designer patterned lattes. The top-scoring competitor in the final round is declared the World Latte Art Champion.

Baristas are judged based on visual attributes, creativity, identical patterns in the pairs, contrast in patterns, and overall performance.

china latte starbucks ceo

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is paying attention. Earlier this month, he brought a group of Starbucks China employees and baristas to its global HQ in Seattle for a choreographed, Sichuan opera-like performance, an early hint of how China’s booming coffee culture could come to influence the world’s.

Selfie Coffee latte art Singapore

Of course, smaller cafes across Asia are on top of the trend and taking coffee art to the next level. From the Philippines to South Korea, the Instagram-ready craze is to print your selfie as latte art. Opened in 2015, Singapore’s Selfie Coffee chain is already printing over 100 selfie coffees a day. If the selfie coffee doesn’t give you a jolt the price tag might, at close to $6.50 a cup. (Can a Singapore-over cafe concept be far behind?)

china latte illy

“China will have representatives in all four of our World Championships competitions in Shanghai. I think it’s safe to say this represents a significant interest in the world of Specialty Coffee in China,” Alex Bernson, Marketing Manager at World Coffee Events, the group behind World Latte Art Championships, told brandchannel. “The Chinese coffee market is starting to step into prominence on the world stage, and there is a ton of enthusiasm behind it,” Bernson added.

That enthusiasm is on display on any of China’s most popular social media platforms. From Weibo to Meipai, hundreds of latte art photos, video clips and DIY videos are uploaded and tagged daily.

Latte art classes, or 拉花班 (“latte flower class”) are also becoming more common in cities across China. In Hong Kong’s Coffee Public shop, those interested in learning latte art can register for a two and half hour class for HK$198 ($25.50). Coffee Studio offers a similar class for about $10 more.

But for latte art—and coffee culture—to grow in China, there will have to be some agreement about what to call it in Chinese.

china latte starbucks 2china latte starbucks

McDonald’s—and yes McDonald’s McCafes in China produce latte art, as can be seen at its high-concept McDonald’s Next flagship in Hong Kong—uses the term 用咖啡作画 or “painting with coffee.”

Yet other local coffee houses—like Hefei’s Bocoffee—use the general term 拉花咖啡 (lāhuā kāfēi) or “latte coffee” to describe latte art. Social media users are all over the map but those on Instagram often use #拉花咖啡 “latte coffee” when posting latte art snaps.

china latte mccafe

Starbucks China is going another direction. Actually, two direction. In social media posts on Weibo, Starbucks has used two common terms for latte art, both 拿铁艺术 (nátiě yìshù) and 拉花艺术 (lāhuā yìshù).

Beyond Starbucks and McDonald’s embrace of China’s coffee obsession, Italian commercial espresso machine maker La Marzocco is doing all it can to encourage the region’s boom in coffee culture and latte art. La Marzocco has recently been sending brand envoys to numerous latte art barista competitions throughout China, from Wuhan to Nanjing.

china latte baristas

In a nation where a home coffee machine is still extremely rare, espresso machines remain something only found in retail stores. But China’s coffee culture revolves almost exclusively around espresso-based drinks and not black coffee. (Indeed, the deep, slow-moving lines at China Starbucks are a result, in part, of everyone ordering complex espresso drinks and nobody ordering drip coffee.)

Single serving coffee giant Nespresso sees a huge opportunity to equip China’s coffee connoisseurs with a home system. The Swiss brand is currently gearing up to make a huge run on China, where it operates six boutiques in major cities. Introducing an automatic single-serving machines to Chinese coffee lovers has been a goal of Nespresso for several years now.

There are all manner of other small reasons China’s embrace of coffee makes sense. From its existing, easily converted and ancient tea house social scene to its love of hot beverages even in hot weather. Also is how latte art opens a window for Chinese consumers to safely express their individuality in a culture that, of yet, is not especially big on individuality.

One only need look at the skyrocketing popularity of cosplaying in China, a hobby that until just a few years ago was unheard of. Last year, the cosplay heavy Shanghai Comic Convention attracted 20,000 attendees in its first year.

[Image at top via DMA Cafe/Instagram]

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