Ascending the stairwell to Rabbithole Coffee and Roaster in Hong Kong’s Central district can be a bit of an Alice in Wonderland experience. Inside, the second-floor space is gleaming with top-end espresso machinery and brewing equipment, and a plain communal table surrounded by coffee drinkers commands the centre of the room. Outside of the shop’s floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond the narrow balcony, the city’s denizens float by on their way up the city’s hilly terrain via the Central-Mid Levels escalator, the longest outdoor covered escalator in the world.
The atmosphere is serene, punctuated only occasionally by the whirr of a grinder, the clack-clack of freshly ground beans being deposited into filter baskets, or the lively conversations usually started by Mike Fung, Rabbithole’s ebullient owner. The usual coffee shop frills are also conspicuously absent: there are no cakes, salads or sandwiches. There are no teas or juices and there are no syrupy frappuccinos. The menu only lists single origin beans – Kenyan, Nicaraguan, Ethiopian – with recommended brewing methods for each, and coffees are crafted in front of the customer with remarkable precision.
Meanwhile, about 15 minutes away by foot is Patrick Tam and Frances Lam’s Knockbox Coffee Company, a tiny ground floor corner space located on a quiet side street in the increasingly hip Sheung Wan area. It too serves nothing but hand-brewed coffee and espresso in utterly stripped back and minimalist surroundings. In the day, with only a few coffee drinkers propping up the bar, the mood is mellow and reverential; on Friday nights, when new batches of freshly roasted coffee beans are being cupped and tasted, the tiny space becomes a cacophonous watering hole for the city’s most serious coffee enthusiasts.
Knockbox is a place where a single origin bean can be offered via three different brewing methods (siphon, pourover, Aeropress), and the barista offers you a waft of your freshly ground beans – with all the seriousness of a sommelier – before proceeding. You may be implored to sniff out the vanilla and dark honey notes of an Ecuadorian Le Loja, or taste bouquets of red berries in an Ethiopian Sidamo Ardi.
Having only opened in late 2011 and early 2012, respectively, Rabbithole and Knockbox are a part of a new breed of coffee bars that have been cropping up in Hong Kong over the last five years, battling high rents and a tea-centric drinking culture to bring some much-needed freshness to the city’s chain-saturated market. In a city where “coffee” has traditionally meant bitter, astringent espressos or a pot of Americano slowly stewing on a hotplate, many of these new cafes are emphasising specialty coffee – a term that refers to high-quality, distinctly unique beans that are from known and approved provenance, prepared and served with exacting standards. It is a term that is gaining momentum in the coffee world, indicating a level of quality found not only in the bean itself, but in how it is prepared.
Their approach is also remarkably defiant in a climate where many coffee bars have turned to emphasising hot food and cakes to increase their already-slim profit margins. (Sometimes, even this is not enough. The excellent 18 Grams in Causeway Bay, for example, only narrowly dodged demolition in May 2012.)
At the same time, corporations are also waking up to the smell of specialty coffee, and are eager to capitalise on the city’s growing interest. On 21 July, 20-year-old Pacific Coffee Company chain unveiled its most ambitious branch yet, the Pacific Coffee Emporium. Earmarked as the company’s flagship store, the location sprawls more than 4,000sqft of prime property in the Causeway Bay neighbourhood, with three distinct spaces (retail, café and a roastery and brew bar area) and a 59m long corridor with benches, tables and bike racks flanking one side. Most significant, however, is the addition of single origin coffees, roasted in-house and, much like Rabbithole and Knockbox, the option to choose various brewing methods. It is a telling sign that specialty coffee may be about to go mainstream.
These days, Tam believes that Hong Kong’s coffee scene is on par with the rest of the world – possibly even better. “Mostly, [Hong Kong baristas] are well-travelled,” he explained. “We have tried coffee at famous sites, shipped their coffee over and brewed them with different techniques. We may not grow coffee beans, but we have people who know more about roasting than most cafés in the world.”
When Tam is not roasting his beans himself, he relies on local micro-roaster Fresh Coffee and Tea (based in North Point) for top-quality beans. Other local coffee roasters include Coffee Assembly, a pioneer that began roasting in 2006, and Glory Coffee and Fahrenheit 500, both of which supply roasted beans for 18 Grams and Espresso Alchemy.
Thanks to this new breed of coffee bars, those looking for a serious coffee education, or just a great cup, have more choice than ever before. In the western district of Sheung Wan, in addition to Knockbox, there isCoco Espresso and Barista Jam, both of which excel in Australian-style espresso drinks and brewed options. Barista Jam, with its cool grey concrete façade, is a favourite among home-brewers, who come to down expertly-made ristrettos (a shorter, purer shot of espresso), and stock up on raw green coffee beans and professional tools. Farther east, in Quarry Bay, are veteran siphon specialists Xen Coffee and newcomerEspresso Alchemy (appearing on the scene in March 2012), the latter pitching itself defiantly next to a branch of a McCafé, a McDonald’s spin-off. In addition to regular coffee tasting and latte art lessons, customers are inadvertently educated each time they sit down and have a read of the menu – the incredible amount of detail about each single origin coffee bean (including the altitude at which it was grown) goes beyond that of any other café at the moment.
Or head to the Cupping Room in Stanley, on Hong Kong island’s southern tip. Opened in December 2011, Derek Chiu (runner-up in the 2011 Hong Kong Barista Championship, the precursor to the annualWorld Barista Championship) regularly hosts tasting sessions and recently introduced a guest roaster of the month programme to showcase espresso blends and single origin beans from acclaimed brands around the world (Maryland’s Ceremony Coffee Roasters and California’s Klatch Coffee made recent appearances). Housed in the ultra-modern Stanley Plaza shopping centre but tucked away on its quiet upper levels, The Cupping Room is a welcoming space blending industrial design details (exposed ducts, white brick walls, wood-top tables) and warm, personable service. Like at many of Hong Kong’s new cafes, interaction with the baristas is encouraged and the coffee-making process is transparent.
“I want to get people together,” said Rabbithole’s Fung. “We try to educate people by making their coffee right in front of them. It’s not that we’re trying to show off – we actually want you to see how coffee is made. You can see exactly what is going on here, whether the barista is making a good shot or not. [Hong Kongers are] thinking, maybe I’ve had enough of chain coffee. They’re saying ‘I want something better’. So that’s why we’re here.”
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