Coffee culture continues to make headway into China

Just 10 years ago, any foreign java junky looking for a fix while walking the streets of Beijing would have had to walk far - and they would have had to walk wide.

How things have changed.

In just a decade, the number of coffee outlets in the sprawling Chinese capital has jumped from less than 1,000 to more than 8,000, according to the China Coffee Association, and more are opening each month.

The number of companies roasting coffee for the market has similarly jumped from around 20 to 140 today - and from working their way through an average of 400 kilograms of beans per month, they are churning through more than 400 tons each as they work to satisfy the country's new coffee cravings.

Starbucks, of course, has been quick to move and are finalizing international plans for their first "made in China'' coffee blend, called "South of the Clouds.''

After first rolling out the blend in mainland China last year, the company tested the waters with the new product in Hong Kong over the Chinese New Year period in February and says that all it was "overwhelmed'' with the response.

Similar test runs were held in both Singapore and Malaysia and the company is now gearing up to have its "South of the Clouds'' blend situated on its shelves throughout Asia, alongside blends from Africa and Latin American by 2011. The company has an estimated 370-odd coffee shops throughout mainland China - and more than 100 in Hong Kong.

The scenic Yunnan province - situated in southwestern China - annually produces about 30,000 tonnes of its green (or unroasted) coffee beans, which accounts for 98 percent of China's total coffee output.

In Hong Kong, sales of Yunnan beans account for between 1.5 to two percent of the 3,875 tonnes of green coffee beans imported each year.

Traditionally, the city has been a unique market for the product due to the fact that Hongkongers have long enjoyed sipping on a drink they call "Yin Yang," which is a 50-50 mix of milky tea (made with condensed milk) and coffee and which sets you back around HK$15 (1.5 euros).

In mainland China, though, the most prized brew continues to be the kopi luwak, or civet coffee, which is made from beans that have been ingested - and then discharged - by the Asian palm civet. A cup of this heady brew will set you back around 200 yuan (24 euros).

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