Starbucks opened the world’s largest Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai. Enough said, let’s go take look.
From the outside, it looked quite impressive. Coffee drinking habits among the Chinese has been the new growth for cafes – everyone opened a coffee chain, even Alibaba. They all got it wrong. Starbucks does not sell coffee, it sells the lifestyle – the hippie, DINKS, every-coffee-is-special-because-its-mine=self-centred lifestyle.
Because it was the lifestyle spot, everyone was friendly. They didn’t horde the extra seats, they made small talk with you, it was the civility that the Chinese government can only dream of. And I am not talking about the expatriates. Over 90% of the clientele was Chinese. Tourists from other provinces made the bulk of it. Instead of raising their voices to call out their orders, they conscientiously whispered their requests and questions, take the number and receipt, and walked to the nearest empty seat.
Working with the Italian maestro of bread to provide the pastry and bread for the roastery, Starbucks brought Princi to the discerning tastebuds of the Shanghainese. When you are providing the high end cafe experience, nothing but the best can do.
This being China, they dedicated a whole floor to tea. Over 80% of the Chinese population still drinks tea every day, Therefore, Starbucks makes drinking tea sexy. Teavana aims to be the Starbucks equivalent of coffee. Curated tea leaves from different part of the world, including China, the tea comes flavoured with other ingredients. Jasmine-infused Oolong tea (what!?!), rose buds with earl grey, and also high-grade single sourced tea leaves – all conveniently packed in special tea bags and packaging to maximise the flavours.
And if you decide to go with leaves, Starbucks try to sell you their tea kit which is much better than your teapot that your grandma handed down. It has yet to take off, given the long history and deep cultural attachment to tea drinking in this country, where a gram of the best tea is worth more than gold.
Seriously, green coloured tea?
And of course, you need to try the coffee. Firstly, you can still order your soy milk macchiato without sugar, really hot, extra shot and a flavour shot of vanilla, except that you have an additional choice of the coffee bean. Woohoo! Now it’s really MY drink. There were 8 choices available, all of a different profile, and also one from Yunnan China.
Well, China is not exactly a coffee producing country, there are still pockets of cultivation around Yunnan and Hainan, where the altitude and humidity mean that you get a really acidic coffee.
You get to choose 3 other ways of drinking the coffee. You can order a hand-brewed coffee that is similar to the experience in other Reserve stores. You can order a special machine brewed coffee that Starbucks designed the best algorithm for each coffee varietal. It is not batched brewed like your Daily Special in the normal store, but individually brewed when you ordered. A bit like the Nespresso pods, but every brew is different depending on the coffee varietal. Fancy.
And the third way to enjoy it is the siphon brew. I liked this technique because of the process, not because it produced another level of aroma or taste, etc. You sit in front of the barista, see him grind the beans and let you smell the aroma of freshly ground beans, and then see the slow process of watching the water boil. It creates a vacuum and the water gets sucked up to a second canister holding the coffee. The coffee gets brewed while the temperature is maintained at around 95ºC, the ideal temperature for coffee. And then air is reintroduced and the coffee flows back to the lower canister. What a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Everything is roasted in-house. Because of friendly locals who were like me, trying out the experience, I managed to try 3 types of coffee – China, Peru and Tanzania. I liked the Peruvian one the best (not my choice, btw) – earthy tone, tasty and strong – the way I liked it. But I had been drinking South American coffee, I chose the Tanzanian one, which has a similar taste profile of the Ethiopian ones, acidic, fruity and light – more of a ladies’ choice (which my new found lady friends concurred). And finally, the lightweight Chinese coffee – it was really light. I guessed it needed the treatment that we do to coffee in Singapore – roast it in butter and sugar, give it a more complex taste.
Besides the coffee, I ordered the Princi vegetarian pizza and a strawberry jam-filled croissant. The croissant was amazing! The pizza could do some reheating, it was quite cold – nothing worse than a cold pizza.
Rocco Princi made a name for himself in Milan making artisan bread. Italian bread is a rustic, heavy concoction. So I was expecting something to that effect. What I got was more towards a Japanese-type bakery, where the flour was milled to finest possible, losing the texture of good, rustic bread.
I am sorry, this was not the Princi I was expecting.
The overall experience was really interesting. I am surprised the Chinese put up their best behaviour when they enter into this place. I would not think it would stay like this for a long time. The staff was already quite agitated by the sheer volume of people coming and they did look overworked. According to press reports, these baristas were chosen from all around the country and they were relocated to work in this Shanghai outlet. It became like the creme de la creme, a beauty contest of baristas – only the best can come to work here and command the respect (and paycheck).
Speaking the barista that made my coffee, he was from Beijing, very knowledgeable of the coffees he was making. He did miss home, and he said he has not have a break for at least 4 hours, making at least 100 cups of siphon coffee in the process. He was not really in the mind for small talk I can sense.
And irony? They opened another Starbucks, the normal one, right across the street. A Starbucks at every street corner, cover the demographics.
After all, it is still a Starbucks.
Starbucks Reserve Roastery
789 Nanjing Xi Lu,
near Shimen Yi Lu
Date Visited : Oct 2018