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Shanghai percolates my growing love affair with coffee

By Stephanie Stone | China Daily | Updated: 2021-10-21 07:55
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I am not a functioning human until I've had my morning cup of coffee. It's the ritual, perhaps, more than the drink itself. Boil water. Grind beans. Smell grounds. Pour water. Wait. Add a cloud of cream. Perfect.

This is my coffee life. While far from a coffee connoisseur, I've certainly been on a coffee journey. Finding the bitterness of black coffee unpalatable when I was younger, I started drinking the most sugary, chocolaty, froufrou coffee I could find. It was liquid dessert. It was hardly coffee. Over the years, I weaned myself (and my wallet) off expensive desserts-masquerading-as-coffee. If I was going to drink coffee, I wanted to drink coffee. Today, I can drink a black cup of joe (splash of cream preferred).

Never am I so conscious of my coffee habit as when I travel. The ritual is disrupted. Usually, this is a welcome disruption, as I enjoy finding and supporting independent coffee cafes. In China, however, I found that it is necessary to travel with a few packets of instant coffee (a passable option in a pinch), as coffee can be hard to come by on the road or in smaller cities. China is, after all, a tea-drinking nation.

Imagine my delight, then, to find so many cute, quaint and quirky coffee shops on my recent (and first) trip to Shanghai. I had no idea I would be so spoiled for choice! Fun fact: Shanghai was recently named the city with the most coffee shops in the world, over half of them independent, too. Had I known this prior to my trip, I would have been more intentional in my coffee quest. Instead, I contented myself by simply exploring and enjoying whatever I came across. Fortunately, I was with a friend who took me to a street packed with coffee shops in the former French Concession. Heaven!

With the smell of coffee in the air, I returned to this street nearly every day of my trip. Some were moody French cafes, with sweet treats to offset the bitterness of the coffee. Others were modern and airy, specializing in pour-overs and letting you choose from their specially sourced beans. There were shops that were coffee-exclusive, and others offering beer or wine later in the day. I spent my time cafe hopping, enjoying each one's unique spin on coffee culture.

By far the most unique and interesting experience came from a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop. Literally a hole in the wall. A wall. A hole. A furry bear hand waving at you from the hole in the wall. I remember coming across one of their videos a while back when the cafe went viral. Employing many hearing-impaired individuals, Bear Paw Cafe offers customers a one-of-a-kind experience. From the hole in the wall, scan the code, order, and the bear paw will present you with your drink! To accommodate the needs of their employees, it's all done from this takeaway window (hole?).

We were fortunate enough to run into the owner who spoke animatedly and enthusiastically about the world of coffee. I've never met anyone so eager to give me a cup of coffee! He presented us with what has to be one of the most surprisingly delicious cups of coffee I've ever had. It was a combination of high-rated, fruity coffee, a specialty tea blend, a specific kind of fruit, and a secret ingredient or two. I took a skeptical sip, then sank into a smile. Utterly, refreshingly delicious. I'd never had a fruity coffee-tea before, but I'd have this one again. And for 20 yuan ($3), there's no reason not to indulge!

All in all, my trip to Shanghai was fun and full, but the coffee experience was an unexpected delight. Most certainly I'd go back to this, the coffee capital of China!

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