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Wmf explains China’s coffee market

China coffee

GEISLINGEN/STEIGE, Germany – At the time the People’s Republic was founded in 1949 and the history of modern China began, coffee played virtually no part in everyday life. Now, over 70 years later, a very different picture has emerged – like so many things in this country. With a drinking culture that was long defined by tea and rice wine, China has now become one of the top boom markets in the coffee industry. Small, specialist cafés are growing in importance alongside the national and international coffee shop and convenience store chains.

But the world’s most populous country is not just a highly attractive sales market. Chinese coffees come in exciting flavour profiles, and as far as quality is concerned, they have long been a match for varieties from other renowned growing regions. So for the coffee professionals and enthusiasts at the WMF Coffee Excellence Centre, it is worth taking a look at Chinese coffee culture.

The land of tea gets a taste for coffee

Finding the right words to describe China and its food and drink culture is no easy task. As the third-largest country in the world by area and with a population of 1.4 billion people, it is no surprise that certain aspects of its culture often differ greatly from region to region, including art, cuisine and even language. For example, the spicy and aromatic dishes of the western province of Sichuan stand in stark contrast to the sweet and sour flavours in the south and east of the country.

But when it comes to beverages, the picture is much more uniform: rice wine, local beer and tea are enjoyed everywhere, and the latter in particular is often considered to be China’s national beverage. The fondness for coffee in the West finally began to gain a foothold in China some decades ago. In the 1990s, the initial, individual coffee shops provided the basis (1) for a rapid development that continues to this day.

Unparalleled growth and increasing quality

The port city of Shanghai can undoubtedly be considered the epicentre of the Chinese coffee boom. The familiar, Western chain cafés opened their first branches here little more than 20 years ago – now, this city of 24 million people boasts around 8,000 coffee shops (2). Between 2008 and 2018 alone, coffee consumption in China rose by an impressive 1,032 per cent, and a growth rate of 30 per cent per year (3) is predicted for the future.

So it’s no wonder that a host of companies from China and abroad are attempting to position themselves in this attractive market. In addition to familiar coffee shop corporations from America and Europe, local start-ups have caused a particular stir in recent years. These new players have enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Chinese coffee market with a consistent focus on digitalisation and self-service. The straightforward ordering and payment processes offered by these companies are clearly targeted at young Chinese people with modern lifestyles.

It’s not just the major corporations that are benefiting from this increased interest in coffee. Small, owner-operated cafés have now become a firm fixture in the Chinese coffee market. They offer customers – who are becoming more and more familiar with the quality criteria (4) – carefully selected and prepared coffees in a pleasant atmosphere. Alongside favourite specialities such as latte macchiato and Americano, cold beverages like iced latte, iced Americano or frappé enjoy great popularity, particularly in summer. This trend is complemented by the positive development of beans grown in China.

High yield, fine flavours

Coffee growing in China began in the late 19th century in the Yunnan region, and even today, almost all Chinese coffee still comes from the south-western province. The government was quick to identify coffee as an important factor in the economy, and cultivated land was significantly expanded as part of an initiative, resulting in major increases in yield. At 140,000 tons a year, around 1.5 per cent of global production (5) is now harvested in Yunnan.

However, since industrial farming was introduced in the 1950s, it is not just the quantities that have increased dramatically, but the quality too. Today, many farms and cooperatives operate with high standards and levels of expertise. Among experts, beans of the “Catimor” variety, which dominate the cultivated land in Yunnan, enjoy a good reputation: this variant of Arabica is characterised by its sweet and fruity notes, earthy undertones and slight acidity (6). Chinese beans are therefore an excellent alternative to common coffees from Latin America or Africa. Cafés and roasting facilities in China have long been familiar with these merits – but in the West too, beans from Yunnan are enjoying ever-greater popularity, whether in a blend or as single-origin coffee.

Top quality and digital solutions for a future market

The Chinese market is also highly significant for the WMF Group in the field of coffee machines. Purchasing power has increased enormously within just a few years, and combined with a boom in the number of coffee shops and convenience stores, this is bringing about a rapid growth in demand. Although per capita coffee consumption in China is still well below the European or American average, conurbations it is increasing significantly, especially in the major conurbations.

The driving force behind this unique development is the growing Chinese middle class. Over 150 million of the country’s households are already counted in this income category and this number could more than double by 2035. But income growth alone cannot explain this boom. A crucial second factor is the growing affinity with a modern, urban lifestyle. This is why many young Chinese consider integrated mobile ordering and payment solutions and a high level of automation to be important factors alongside the coffee specialities themselves.

Digital platform for efficient automation

WMF Professional Coffee Machines is meeting these requirements with various technical and digital solutions. The high-quality, fully automatic coffee machines ensure that customers receive their favourite drink in top quality every time. Convenience stores and quick-service restaurants generally use medium and large fully automatic machines. By contrast, partially automated portafilter machines, such as the WMF espresso, are of interest for specialist cafés and coffee shops.

WMF is also fulfilling the needs of the Chinese market on the software side: the process of integrating digital applications for ordering is straightforward, and support for mobile payment providers such as WeChat or AliPay presents no problems at all.

WMF is also the only manufacturer to offer a digital solution developed in-house that complies with China’s legal requirements and is hosted locally. It gives operators the same benefits as the global telemetry platform WMF CoffeeConnect, such as precise monitoring and evaluation of device data and beverage output.

These options are particularly relevant in self-service environments, which are increasingly popular in China. Even fully automated stores with no cashier can be managed efficiently in this way. In addition, technical innovations are making some exciting new concepts possible, like “robotic coffee bars”, which use WMF machines.

Always focused on customer needs

In the 15 years since the first branch was set up in China, WMF Professional Coffee Machines has become firmly established in the country. The company was one of the few Western manufacturers not to rely on importers, instead founding its own business locally. This approach allows it to tailor its direct sales for key accounts, as well as its service offering and product management process, so that they are a precise match for the local conditions.

To ensure that all customers get the machines and technology they need for their business model despite the high level of demand, the company also works with a number of sales partners. These are distributed over the major centres of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Chengdu, meaning they cover most of the market. In Shanghai in particular, which has always played a leading role in Chinese coffee culture, WMF and its partners have a strong presence. However, these are not the only distribution channels: customers can also obtain their desired devices from a range of roasters, hotel equipment dealers and operators.

As in other regions, WMF customers in China come from a diverse range of sectors. They include the familiar coffee shop chain Tim Hortons, which relies on WMF espresso, but convenience stores such as Family Mart and quick-service restaurants like Dicos, Burger King or the Alibaba subsidiary Hema deserve special mention. They generally use powerful, high-quality fully automatic machines, such as the WMF 1500 S and the WMF 5000 S. Combining a high level of efficiency with innovative model options, they stand out in the extremely competitive Chinese market by offering top quality at fair prices. Together with the digitalisation and automation options already mentioned, they represent a unique overall package.

(1) Chinosity, The Rise of Café Culture in China (https://www.chinosity.com/2019/02/25/the-rise-of-cafe-culture-in-china/)
(2) AsiaOne, Coffee culture hits new highs in China (https://www.asiaone.com/china/coffee-culture-hits-new-highs-china)
(3) Perfect Daily Grind, Entering China’s Emerging Coffee Market (https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/02/entering-chinas-emerging-coffee-market/)
(4) AsiaOne, Coffee culture hits new highs in China
(5) Perfect Daily Grind, The Increasing Quality of Chinese-Grown Coffee (https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/09/the-increasing-quality-of-chinese-grown-coffee/)
(6) Perfect Daily Grind, The Increasing Quality of Chinese-Grown Coffee