Updated: Apr 10, 2018
The view of White Tower Temple from Bear Brew, West District
It’s very possible to find great coffee in Beijing. Good coffee shops tend to congregate in certain areas, like around the Yonghe Temple and other parts of Old Beijing. This is the area of the city which was once surrounded by high walls, protecting the famous Forbidden City and culturally important temples in the East, South, West and North (Chinese ordering).
In the past five years, Chinese people have awoken to good coffee. Companies like Starbucks and Nestle have laid the groundwork and now more outward looking Chinese are opening coffee shops, introducing the joys of specialty coffee to more people. In Beijing in particular, light roasted Ethiopian coffees have become popular for their floral and tea-like flavours, in a city which has a long history of enjoying tisanes and flower teas.
There are a few standout coffee shops that are making great progress in the Chinese specialty coffee industry. Some are more suitable for the rich elite, such as Soloist and Bracket in Sanlitun. These coffee shops buy high quality beans and roast them on site. They are equipped with the most expensive espresso machines, grinders and tech, like the steampunk.
La Marzocco everywhere
Other independent shops with a more modest budget have smaller shops but invest heavily in equipment. This reflects in the near ubiquitous existence of La Marzocco machines in most small, professional coffee shops. Despite this heavy investment in espresso machines, one thing I find lacking is the quality of espresso blends. Many are under-developed, sour, bland and or flat. Fresh Bean on Wudaoying and by Beixinqiao subway, has one of the better espresso blends, delicious both black and mixed with milk. Barista, also on Wudaoying, also has a wonderful espresso bar with a choice of Single Origin espresso. Although small, this shop is regarded by many to be the best cafe in Beijing.
Barista cafe on Wudaoying
Whilst some shops might not have the best espresso, some are excellent for their roasting of single origins for pour over. Fulin of Fangye Coffee is one such excellent roaster. He zones in on a bean’s most desirable aspects and manages to magnify them with great clarity. This shop can be found in the 798 Art District, north-east Beijing. This is another area with a great concentration of specialty coffee shops.
However, there is something quite unfortunate afoot in Beijing. Where these shops have spread and made great coffee more accessible, other powers have closed a high number of shops. Around Nanluoguxiang area, many shops have closed due to a new government policy introduced in 2017. The idea is to return the hutongs, Beijing’s old residential alleys, back into the grey mazes they once were. This means removing the windows, doors and shop fronts, closing off natural light and making it more difficult to enter cafes. Some were closed outright. The conclusion of this policy is yet to be seen but many feel the aim is to move people away from more culturally interesting areas into grand shopping malls. In that event, many independent coffee shops will disappear unless they are able to evolve into profitable, respected chains.
Voyage to the stars
One such rising star is Voyage Coffee. With shops in 798, Nanluoguxiang and Fangdian (in the hutongs just south of Tiananmen Square), this shop has a strong brand and an excellent coffee menu. They have a simple choice of light, medium and dark roasts with branding like Red Cherry, Black Forest and Zero. The profiles have been stable over a long time and they also offer well-roasted seasonal coffees. Their simplicity and elegance give them the potential to go far in China.
Voyage Coffee in 798
Another coffee chain straddling the line of commercial and specialty coffee is Flat White. There are a good number of these coffee shops around Beijing and the owners are the very same as Rickshaw Roasters, a coffee company founded by Kiwis. The coffee is not bad but I wouldn't recommend a visit to these if you intend on drinking single origin pour overs. Better quality coffee is found at the specialty shops listed in this guide.
For a complete city cafe guide including locations, Black White Filter Beijing is the perfect website for exploring the city’s coffee shops. There are many excellent shops on Marco’s guide that I haven't listed here, all split into distinct areas on the map.
If you are travelling to Beijing and are a barista, you may want to stay in a cosy loft apartment above a cafe. It is situated in one of the traditional alley hutongs in Old Beijing, close to Yonghe temple.Ning Zhu is the owner and a great host... and she'll let you use her La Marzocco machine.
Other Notable Coffee Shops
Big Small Coffee - Guomao and Beixinqiao
Metal Hands - Wudaoying - Two shops metres apart on this road and two very different styles.
Basic Coffee - Guomao
Such a Cafe - ZhangziZhonglu
Lounge Coffee - Qianmen/Dashila
June's Garden - One of the oldest specialty coffee shops in Beijing, pleasant garden-like interior - Wudaokou area
Berry Beans - Qianmen and Sanlitun 3.3
related - Coffee in China
Fresh Bean on Wudaoying