Exploring Hong Kong’s specialty coffee culture

Amelia Cooper
July 15, 2022
Exploring Hong Kong’s specialty coffee culture

Over the last 70 years, Hong Kong’s specialty coffee culture has undergone a rapid transformation and its exported coffee is now making headlines. 

Notably, the country has developed from a relative outlier to the home of barista champions and record-breakingly high-price coffee purchases. Additionally, it is estimated the country’s roasted coffee market will increase to $430.59 million in 2025, with a CAGR of 7.22% from 2020 to 2025.

It is important to note how quickly this transformation has occurred. In many countries, it has taken coffee centuries to build its reputation and garner the support of the local communities. 

While Hong Kong is highly regarded in the global specialty coffee community, with plenty of capacity for innovation and experimentation, the country has achieved a rich specialty coffee culture in a fraction of the time. 

To find out more about what is fuelling Hong Kong’s specialty coffee culture, I spoke with the co-founder of One Third Coffee, Eisen Lai.

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An image of a coffee shop displaying the rise in Hong Kong's specialty coffee culture.

The rise of specialty coffee in Hong Kong

The history of Hong Kong’s coffee culture starts with tea. Specifically, the 1839 British occupation of Hong Kong during the First Opium War, which resulted in a boom in the local tea market.

Going forward, tea was widely traded between Hong Kong and Britain, and local tea houses developed to accommodate British trends. 

The combination of British and Chinese culture saw the introduction of cha chaan teng or “tea restaurants” across Hong Kong. 

These brought a Western-style dining culture into the country, which had a marked influence on its tea and coffee cultures. A prime example is how these tea restaurants adopted the British drinking style of tea with milk. 

During the 1950s, coffee began to develop an audience in Hong Kong, which is widely considered as the country’s “first wave” of coffee. 

As with the rest of the global scene, Hong Kong’s specialty coffee history can be broken up into three main waves. 

During the first wave of the 1950s, coffee was typically consumed after dinner and comprised a dark roast with a splash of milk. It was primarily considered as an after-dinner drink, rather than a daytime energy boost. 

The “second wave” is considered to have taken place between the 1980s and early 2000s. This was when global coffee chains, such as Pacific Coffee, Ueshima Coffee Co, McDonalds, and Starbucks, appeared in the market.

Beyond opening up more opportunities for customers to purchase coffee, these outlets also shaped a fresh approach to coffee drinking. 

The convenient takeout options allowed consumers to enjoy coffee throughout the day, helping it to break away from the restrictive after-dinner drink bracket. Additionally, these relaxed and trendy environments made visiting coffee shops a popular activity. 

By the 2010s, coffee had carved its niche in the marketplace and coffee professionals began to focus more on quality, experimental methods, and transparent sourcing. This is where Hong Kong’s “third wave” of coffee began. 

“Specialty coffee has been growing in the last decade,” says Lai, who has also worked as a coffee consultant and barista. “Customers understand coffee is about more than just caffeine.

“With the help of social media, a growing number of customers are willing to pay more for a good cup of coffee, which I think helped the industry grow in Hong Kong.”

As a result, more specialty coffee shops have emerged across Hong Kong. Notably, reports estimate that two new coffee shops open every week.

Image of milk being poured into a glass coffee cup showing how Hong Kong's specialty coffee culture adapted British coffee trends.

Consumer coffee trends in Hong Kong

Two primary factors have shaped consumer trends in Hong Kong: the coffee culture in other Asian countries, and the rise of social media.

Countries such as China, Japan, and Taiwan have impacted either the style of the coffee shops, as well as popular serving styles. A prime example is the recent Bubble Tea craze.

According to a 2021 survey, 94% of respondents aged between 20 and 29 years purchased a boba tea in the last few months.

Made with tapioca balls, bubble tea originates from Taiwan and has enjoyed immense popularity within Hong Kong.

Japan is another key cultural influence, with its iconic minimalist and chic style helping shape Hong Kong’s specialty coffee shops.

Hong Kong’s specialty coffee culture is also widely renowned for its fascinating fusion of Western and Eastern drink styles. 

One of Hong Kong’s most iconic signature drinks is “dirty” coffee, which involves pouring espresso coffee directly onto cold milk. Some baristas are experimenting further by using frozen milk or condensed milk. 

“While a simple black coffee of single origins is the most popular item, espresso tonic and dirty coffee are also top of the list,” Lai says. “Dirty coffee, in particular, is a very trendy order among younger generations,” Lai explains. 

Espresso tonic blends tonic water with espresso, to create a zingy and refreshing cold coffee beverage. 

Another example of how Hong Kong’s specialty coffee professionals are transcending cultural borders is the yuenyeung – a drink that combines milk tea and coffee.

Social media has played a major role in fuelling the popularity of these coffee offerings. As seen with the dalgona coffee surge, regional drinks can capture an audience’s attention and cause it to go viral online.

A growing number of customers are being driven by social media to try something new, and will often share this experience with their followers.

Image showing various brewing techniques, displaying how Hong Kong's specialty coffee culture has evolved to accept Western coffee consumption trends.

Opportunities for roasters & baristas in Hong Kong’s specialty coffee sector

The growth of social media has provided a unique opportunity for specialty coffee roasters and baristas to expand their audience.

By tapping into the trend-driven mindset of social media, roasters and baristas can help ensure younger consumers go out of their way to visit an establishment. 

For instance, Hong Kong’s milk-based coffees are perfectly suited for a social media post, as they look intriguing and sophisticated. Adding the country’s signature “dirty coffee” to the menu may also encourage consumers to visit in order to try something new.

Additionally, social media platforms can help roasters and baristas determine what the current coffee trends are. These can then be adapted and added to menus, further enticing customers.

That said, it is advisable that roasters and baristas remain flexible as some trends only tend to last a few weeks. Therefore, it is essential they do not place a strong focus on short-term opportunities.

Instead, they should focus on using social media to share their passion for specialty coffee. 

Roasters and baristas should be transparent about the ‌coffees used, roast profiles, serving styles and brewing methods, as well as coffee tasting notes. 

Furthermore, they can explain the beverages history and place in Hong Kong’s coffee culture, helping educate consumers around the world.

Image of white V60 on coffee cup next to multilayer kraft paper coffee bag and coffee grinder, showing how Hong Kong's specialty coffee culture has evolved to accommodate Western coffee consumptio trends.

As more consumers demand fresh, high-quality specialty coffee, roasters must ensure their packaging options preserve and protect their product until the point of consumption.

Furthermore, roasters and coffee shop owners must make sure this growth does not negatively impact the environment by providing recyclable takeaway cups and coffee packaging.

At MTPack Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee bags for specialty coffee roasters, baristas, and coffee shops. Our line of coffee packaging is completely recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable, as we offer bags made from sustainable materials such as kraft and rice paper, as well as LDPE and PLA-lined bags.

Furthermore, we are able to digitally print coffee packaging with a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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