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A Cup for Joe


  I drink several cups of coffee daily, some of which I brew myself and some from coffee shops. This habit has continued for more than two decades. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the development of the coffee culture, as well as its parallels to the evolution of the free market in China.

  Early in the 1990s, a dozen years after China’s implementation of reform and opening-up policy, I paid a visit to an elderly professor in Beijing. At the time, professor wasn’t a highly-paid job, and coffee was an extravagant luxury. So, we brought coffee as gift. He was so delighted that he couldn’t wait to open it and share it with us. The coffee we brought was just instant coffee that was already available in foreign supermarkets. At the time, drinking coffee had become trendy throughout China – from Hong Kong to Beijing, but no one would ask what kind of coffee you drank or where you bought it.

  During the same period I visited New York, where a “specialty coffee” revolution was brewing. Coffee shops were popping up on every street corner, and they sold not only regular drip coffee, but also espresso.

  Some even offered whole beans for customers to grind themselves at home.

  Later, the global coffee chain Starbucks entered the Chinese market, and high-end supermarkets began to offer options other than instant freeze-dried coffee. Coffeehouses have since spread throughout the country. Two decades after coffee erupted in the United States during the 1980s, the “specialty coffee” revolution finally swept across China. Today, Chinese people drink less mass-produced standard coffee, opting for one of hundreds of special blends, brands, and flavors.

  After the economic recession of the 1970s, many products such as shoes and clothes shifted from mass production to more individuality. Coffee was included. During the decade, coffee sales dropped in the United States. In 1981, a coffee industry association invited Kenneth Roman, then CEO of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, to speak on how to revive the coffee industry.

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