Thursday, 15 March 2012

Coffee Obsession

How do you start a day? For many, it is with a cup of coffee - each morning commences with the routine ritual cup. Whether you prefer it dark, white, a latte or a mocha, coffee is far more than just a warming beverage - it is has a crucial role in today's society. Even in a country where it has been historically classified as more of a tea-drinking nation, the prevalence of coffee is still widespread and deeply felt. The whole persona of being a swanky, high-earning business man with an overpriced bitter coffee match suit their personality, in one hand, and the "Financial Times" in the other, is very much glamourised and stereotyped by the media. In many restaurants, a meal is never complete without a cup of it. Look around your hometown, and I bet there are more coffee shops than you can count on one hand. 
King Coffee
The most obvious reason of why it is one of the most beverage in the world is because of it's stimulating effect on humans due to caffeine content. Moderate caffeine consumption equates to increased attention, memory and physical performance. Many people find themselves reliant on the drink to combat the hardships of modern every day life.

Ye Olde Days of Coffee 
However, its energising effects have been documented ever since the 15th Century and even lead Johann Sebastian Bach to pen the miniature comic opera: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" meaning "Be still, stop chattering" and is commonly known as the "The Coffee Cantata". the cantata amusingly tells of an addiction to coffee, a pressing social problem in eighteenth century Leipzig, where this work was premiered - and it appears not much has changed since then! It features lines such as "If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat" - a problem I am sure many people can empathise with. Moreover, in East Africa and Yemen it was previous used for religious ceremonies, but it appears that nowadays, it is drunk religiously ever day.

Why is it so precious?
Perhaps it is because I haven't reached the age to fully appreciate the wonders of caffeine, but I personally think that coffee bought from coffee shops is beyond extortionate and do not comprehend how so many people can justify regularly buying coffee which costs £4 a pop. However, something I am beginning to understand is many people do not go to cafes simply to buy a coffee and leave, but instead see it as a place where you can socialise, work on laptops or tablets or simply relax for a few minutes or even hours for some whilst slowly sipping the calories and listening to the terrible mood music that they play. The worse offender in the market is most obviously Starbucks.

The Power of Starbucks 
Coffee is the world's second most traded commodity behind oil, with 7 million metric tons traded annually. A kilogramme bag of coffee beans sells from the farmer for $0.23, but in a Starbucks coffee shop, it would be worth a staggering $230. Of course there are various middlemen involved, but the profits that are made in that one cup is absolutely humongous, and considering the sheer quantity of coffee sold by the chain - they have a total of 19,435 stores in 58 countries. Some may say the amount of profit made is unjust to the extent of being exploitative, but there is no denying the founders are entrepreneurial geniuses. Last year during my holiday to China I experienced how social power that a mega brand such as Starbucks can have.

China and Coffee
China and tea go hand in hand, like salt and pepper. Tea drinking is deeply routed in Chinese culture, as it has been part of it since 3000BC. It is considered one of the seven necessities of Chinese life, along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar. Yet this is all being shaken up by globalisation and in particular, the growing increase of coffee houses. The young Chinese (especially in the cities) are seeing the Westerners drinking their coffee, and of course, are trying to emulate this as drinking coffee is "cool", "modern" and "fashionable", when drinking tea is only for the old generation. Starbucks (or 星巴克- pronounced xinbake) cafes are spreading like some sort of pandemic disease, but this time the government can't simply isolate it away in a quarantine.
Here is a Starbucks in Kuan-zhai Lane, Chengdu that I walked past last year on holiday. Kuan-zhai lane is a conservation of old architectural buildings, which has been converted to tourist hotspot with the housing being converted into restaurants, pubs, tea houses, coffee shops, stores selling souvenirs and crafts, etc. Of course, there is the obligatory Starbucks, which I think sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the Qing Dynasty architecture.
 What I found the most surprisingly though was that in the UK I think Starbucks is expensive, but in China - even though retail prices are soon catching up with the Western world - a standard beverage from Starbucks is in some cases, more than 10x more expensive than anything else sold in any similar calibre Chinese cafes. Yet, many young people are willing to waste away their money, spending large amounts of money at Starbucks when, then could have the same thing for far less, simply because they see being able to drink at 星巴克 as almost a status symbol. If you are seen sipping a drink from Starbucks, you must be cool, young, on trend and rich. This can be seen similar to the Chinese obsession with  Burberry and Nike- the young and incredibly wealthy generation that has grown up in newly industrialised China have no idea how to spend such vast amounts of money, so they simply do what they see portrayed in the media to the extent of becoming almost obsessive over branding and consumerism - one of the many problems of modern day China.

Of course, when something like Starbucks comes to China, there will always be a counterfeit version of it. In this case, when we passed a "Teabucks" it certainly made me chuckle. Lots of Chinese business fusing the relaxing and socialising atmosphere with the traditional tea house, to create a hybrid store which combines both aspects of coffee and tea houses with some harmless plagiarism - true Chinese style.

So yes, that was my long rambly post about coffee; it slightly segwayed into a few of my views on modern day China, but oh well. I was going to write a gripping and enthralling ending to this blog, but I'm tired now so...

Goodbye and drink good coffee,

Rebecca x
P.S. So glad to have finally have completed this post - it has taken me a long, long time. 
P.P.S. I like to listen to classical music whilst watching "University Challenge" to kid myself that I am well cultured and sophisticated. Here is some coffee related music:

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